Station Design Supplement: Part 1 - Built to Last

Fire stations are among the most complex, heavily used municipal buildings found anywhere. Simultaneously, they are garages housing millions of dollars’ worth of apparatus; they are dormitories; and they have expansive kitchens, training rooms and...


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“A lot of these stations are not designed for expansions,” Harris said, encouraging communities to consider new stations when they are in the market for new emergency services space. And when they are, they really need to consider hiring professionals who know fire station designs to get the most for their money.


“Fire stations were fairly simple years ago and could be built for about $30 per square foot,” Harris said. “Now, they’re $300 per square foot.”

 

From concept to budget to design

Robert Mitchell is a designer, builder and architect with more than 30 years of experience in the field, much of it building fire stations and municipal emergency services buildings. He is the owner and founder of Mitchell Associates Architects.


Mitchell said he takes a holistic approach to building fire stations, preferring to walk clients through the entire station design process – from picking the site to developing a budget to selecting the kinds of tiles to be installed in the day room. He has an extensive PowerPoint presentation that serves as a road map from concept to occupancy when it comes to building fire stations. He said building a fire station generally is a two-year process from conception to completion.


“You need to go from an idea to a budget to a programming schematic design,” Mitchell said. “It is the most important part of the process and you need to get it straight.”


Committees need to be formed and meet routinely – as frequently as weekly or semi-weekly – to keep the focus on the tasks at hand, according to Mitchell. “It’s important to keep a strong push on the process,” he said. In committee work, community members must determine the budget and consider the cost of delaying a project. Waiting even only a few years to build a station can increase costs significantly, Mitchell said. “Construction estimates can increase by as much as two times the inflation rate,” Mitchell said, explaining the real costs of delaying projects.


Subcommittees can work on programming needs, Mitchell said, noting that fire stations are sophisticated buildings, especially if the agency does a lot of EMS runs. Those kinds of stations will need decontamination rooms with specialized laundry areas to handle blood-borne pathogens, much like a hospital emergency room. Even structural fire turnout gear needs special consideration, Mitchell said, noting that bunker gear is loaded with toxins after fires.


“Cancer rates for firefighters are two times the national average,” Mitchell said, in support of his argument that fire departments need specialized areas and equipment to decontaminate turnout gear.


Departments that maintain their own SCBA need to have a clean area for that task and experience has shown light-orange countertops in the breathing apparatus work area help with maintenance issues, Mitchell said. Small parts and O-rings are more easily spotted on orange counters than ivory countertops.


Communities should give careful thought about space requirements and lot sizes, according to Mitchell. When considering square footage requirements, an architect can help fire department officials figure out the requirements for all the unnoticed elements of building design, like stairwells, elevators and mechanical rooms. Though often overlooked, these requirements increase the overall square footage needed.


Often, fire departments find they suddenly cannot afford the kind of building they think they need because they did not factor in all the ancillary components that add to the overall size of the building. A professional architect can help fire departments avoid those pitfalls, Mitchell said. There are a number of “soft costs,” including professional fees for site evaluations, insurance costs, bonding and financing as well as furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) that all have to be considered. “Those expenses are often overlooked,” Mitchell said, noting that architects will help communities understand all the aspects of a new station.


Other expenses include air handling and diesel exhaust systems, generators and kitchen equipment, all of which are important to the final station design and are vital for the people who will live and work in the facility for years to come, Mitchell said. Bunk beds, dormitories, exercise equipment and the like can add up to 20% of the total physical construction, he said.