Five of the most iconic secure buildings in the world

Once you start getting interested in secure buildings, you really can’t stop looking at what separates great buildings from the less great.

At one level, of course, physical security is all about creating an acceptable balance between the protective properties of a building’s perimeter, shell and cells. We’re sure you’ll notice these three key parameters in the descriptions below.

But when we started looking at which secure buildings are most iconic, other dimensions soon also proved themselves to be relevant. One example of this is the value and importance of what the building protects. Another is the cultural or symbolic significance of the building itself. A third is what the building protects against.

Our list is by no means exhaustive, but we think it’s a great start at describing some buildings that are iconic as they are secure. Feel free to make comments – and add to our list. 

1) Fort Knox


Located in Kentucky, Fort Knox is one of the most well known buildings in the world, and certainly one of the most secure—for good reasons. As the U.S. Bullion Depository it’s estimated to house roughly 4 percent of all gold ever refined, as well as numerous historical treasures.

The building is ringed with multiple fences (some of which are electrified), and the United States Mint Police patrol the perimeter, forming the first layer of security. The site of Fort Knox itself contains a United States Army post, adding even more security: in addition to around 30,000 soldiers, tanks, personnel carries and attack helicopters can also be found on the premises.

Inside, there are more armed guards, intricate alarm systems and video cameras. Granite walls (4-feet-thick, reinforced with 750 tons of steel) render the shell bomb-proof. The fire-proof, bullet-proof blackened windows are sealed from the inside and out.

Finally the doors and vaults: the main door weighs almost 22 tons and is made of blast-proof material. Combinations are changed every day, and several staff members must dial separate combinations to open the vault. Less is known about the other vaults, but the last known specifications listed some of them as 27-inch thick, and resistant to atomic blasts.

2) Cheyenne Mountain Complex


As the center for the U.S. Space Command and NORAD, the complex was designed with physical security in mind from the very start.

While NORAD and USNORTHCOMOC headquarters were eventually relocated to the Peterson Air Force base, the site remains secure simply due to its location: inside of a mountain. Located under 600 meters of granite, the complex holds at least fifteen three-story buildings designed to withstand explosions and earthquakes. Intricate systems of giant springs prevent the buildings from collapsing during seismic events.

The whole complex is blast-proof, classified as a “nuclear bunker”, and can also withstand EMP attacks. Blast valves ensure the air inside remains free of contaminants in case of a biological or nuclear attack.

The inside consists of vast number of tunnels, side tunnels, and chambers, all of which are protected by alarms and surveillance systems as well as armed personnel.

Finally, one of the major security features is the complex’s ability to remain highly functional in all situations: a massive support area contains a power plant for the entire site, heating and cooling systems, battery banks and redundant power generators, diesel reservoirs and a dedicated water supply. This 1.5 million gallon reservoir provides water for personnel and machinery, but can also be used in the event of a fire.

3) Svalbard Global Seed Vault


The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, opened in 2008, was designed to preserve plant seeds in case of large-scale crises leading to the destruction (or contamination) of other seed banks and gene banks across the world.

The seed vault does not have full-time staff. However, security systems are state-of-the-art, fully automated and self-sustainable. From the ground-up, the place was designed to last hundreds—if not thousands—of years and withstand global catastrophes: fires, nuclear attacks, global warming, and more. The entrance can be found 130 meters above sea level, protecting it from potential floods.

The vault tunnels five hundred feet into a mountain. Built out of concrete, its security systems include airlocks, blast-proof doors, fences, motion detectors and a guard system. Internal breaches are unlikely: entry and door codes are spread across multiple employees so that no single person has all the codes needed to enter the vault.

Much like the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, the vault’s location provides one of its most vital layers of physical security: the vault can be found deep inside of a mountain in the Norwegian Arctic, roughly 600 miles from the North Pole. Low temperatures, remoteness and a hostile environment make it extremely difficult for intruders to reach it—much less break into it. 

4) Sabiha Gökçen International Airport


When thinking of physical security and protection of buildings, it’s crucial to take into account the environmental hazards that could harm a structure.

Sabiha Gökçen International Airport is a perfect example of that: it’s the world’s largest earthquake-proof building. Istanbul itself is located at the confluence of three tectonic plates, making the city and its infrastructure highly vulnerable to seismic disasters.

Not only is the airport capable of withstanding a 8.0 magnitude earthquake, it was also designed to remain functional afterwards. The two million square-foot building wasn’t built directly on the soil, but on over 300 isolators whose bearings move during earthquakes. This means the entire building also moves from side-to-side, which prevents damage from external forces. Thanks to its isolators, the airport only has to withstand one-fifth of the acceleration it would normally go through. Additionally, the weight of the entire structure is reduced by 40% thanks to its lightweight steel frame.

The airport was the first building in the world to use this particular protection system, and it has paved the way for other critical infrastructure. Similar safety measures are now being used in offshore platforms, at San Francisco’s International Airport Terminal, the Bola Viaducts, Mills-Peninsula’s Sutter Health medical facility, and more.

5) Federal Reserve Bank of New York


As the largest and most active of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks of the U.S., the Federal Reserve Bank of New York needs to be incredibly secure. As of 2012, its vault contained over half a million gold bars. How to support the intense weight of all that gold? It helps that the vault rests directly on Manhattan Island’s bedrock.

On the outside, the building might not appear as secured as Fort Knox, due to it being in a dense urban area. Few obvious guards patrol the site, and there is a limited amount of barriers and bollards. The inside is another story.

The bank and the vaults are secured by a dedicated protection force—armed, of course. Alarm systems, security cams, motion and biometric sensors monitor the complex 24/7. Alarm systems, once triggered, give the guards the ability to seal all areas and exits in less than 25 seconds.

The main vault can be found at the bottom of a three-story bunker of other vaults, “stacked” on top of one another like strongboxes. The walls surrounding it are made of reinforced concrete.  The main vault itself has no door. The only access is through a tight passageway—part of a 90-ton steel cylinder, single entry system that revolves as needed inside of a steel-and-concrete frame. Once sealed, the vault is both watertight and airtight.

Help us grow this list

So what do you think? What are your candidates for more iconic secure buildings?


Image credits:
All pictures shared under the 
CC BY-SA 3.0 license, except for the Cheyenne Mountain Complex picture, which is part of the public domain. Authors: Cliff (Fort Knox), Bjoertvedt (Seed Vault),  Aeriport (Sabiha Airport), Gryffindor (NY Federal Reserve)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *