Building and retrofitting schools in ways that hinder intruders is gaining renewed attention in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy.

But, as many local school officials and architects have found, the process isn't as straightforward as it might seem.

The task is even more of a challenge in California, where the temperate climate lends itself to classrooms that open to the outside.

By contrast, schools where winters are harsh typically have enclosed hallways with just one door at each end, a design that not only protects students from exposure to the elements as they walk between classes but can make it at least a little more difficult for someone wielding a gun to find an entry point to the rooms.

Designing a school also involves balancing acts such as limiting the number of ways someone can get onto campus while avoiding a fortresslike appearance.

As do many school districts, Oakley Union Elementary School District allows soccer clubs, baseball leagues and other community groups to use its facilities.

"We want (the campuses) to be welcoming, to have an open environment," Superintendent Rick Rogers said.

It's a sentiment shared by Byron Union School District's top administrator Ken Jacopetti, who experienced mixed emotions during a recent visit to Timber Point Elementary, where he was struck by the tranquil sight of parents walking hand in hand with their children through the school's open gates as they accompanied them to class.

"I'm thinking ... how do you tighten something like that down without losing the nurturing (feel) of it?" he asked rhetorically.

Architect Mark Quattrocchi understands the dilemma, so when his Santa Rosa firm designed Brentwood's Heritage High School, it had some of the buildings double as barriers instead encircling the entire Brentwood campus with fencing.

"We don't want our schools to be prisons," he said. "We try to avoid our schools being too formidable."

Even so, school architects can find their logic a hard sell.

Gary Gery, who oversees all K-12 designs for his Sacramento firm's Northern California clients, has worked for more than one school district that was dead set against installing any fencing along its perimeter.

Usually located in rural areas, these agencies' campuses served as the hub of their community, and they wanted residents to be able to enjoy the facilities.

"There's sort of a false sense of security," said Gery, who designed the expansion of Excelsior Middle School in Byron. "(The thinking is) 'It'll never happen here -- why do we need to go to that extreme? All it's going to do is make our community feel that we're keeping them out.' "

Another aspect of school design that architects must take into consideration is the limitations of certain safety features. The so-called "panic hardware" on gates -- elongated push bars that allow a campus' population to escape quickly -- only fit openings of a certain width, Gery said.

Securing larger entry ways requires a lock and key, but that means the only way of ensuring that students -- thousands in the case of a high school -- can get off campus in a hurry is to leave those gates open, he said.

The sheer number of young people at some schools is also why facilities are typically designed with multiple entrances and exits, Gery said.

"If you limit the way they get in and out of the school to one entry point, it'll take forever to get them through," he said.

Other designs that are possible in theory also have their drawbacks.

Installing bulletproof windows would be exorbitantly expensive, Quattrocchi said, and he's loathe to eliminate the large amount of glass he includes in his designs as a way for schools to save on their electric bill. Children actually learn more when exposed to natural light, he added, noting that research has shown there's a link between test scores and the amount of daylight classrooms receive.

Windowless classrooms would create an oppressive, unnatural environment, Quattrocchi said.

With so many safety features to weigh these days, it's perhaps not surprising that school districts are incorporating more of them into their campuses.

Teachers once had to leave their classroom to lock the door, which would make them vulnerable to a shooter on the loose. Nowadays, however, doors fitted with what's commonly known as "Columbine locks" -- those that allow them to secure their classrooms from inside -- are standard.

In addition, 8-foot fences have become commonplace, and more schools are opting for wrought iron ones despite the risk of a lawsuit if someone impales himself on the bars' pointed tips, said Gery, noting that trespassers can scale the chain link variety more easily.

The main offices at older schools are often nestled well inside the campus, making it difficult for administrators and their staff to watch who's coming onto the grounds, Quattrocchi said.

When he draws plans for a new school, those offices are on the outskirts and afford views of both the campus interior as well as the entrance.

Quattrocchi also frequently includes electrical conduits in the blueprints for new high schools, as was the case with Heritage High, so that districts can install video cameras, a feature that would come in handy if a predator is on campus, he said.

In addition, he has seen an increase in the number of requests for public address systems with an "all-call" feature that allows schools to broadcast an emergency message to every classroom simultaneously from any phone, anywhere. The technology eliminates the restrictions on older campuses where school officials can sound the alarm only from a designated phone in the main office or must have someone go room to room notifying teachers in person, Quattrocchi said.

And there are still more possibilities: He has clients that are remodeling classrooms to include two doors, some that open onto an outdoor area where students can spread out during a lesson, and some that lead to adjoining rooms so teachers can work together more easily. Although safety isn't the primary reason for the modifications, Quattrocchi thinks that a second door could provide children with another way of escape if the campus were under siege.

Even all the tangible precautions aren't much use unless people do their part, however.

"In the end, it is an operational issue," Gery said, noting that school personnel still must be vigilant and follow safety protocols. "You can set all these great things up, but it comes down to how they put all this into play."

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.