Pros and Cons of Shared Facilities

May 1, 2020
The Fridley, MN, Civic Campus showcases the opportunities and challenges presented in the design and construction of a mixed-use facility.

Throughout North America, there has been a noticeable trend toward co-locating fire stations, police stations and other government buildings. The typical arguments that are made in favor of this strategy include short- and long-term cost savings and opportunities for operational synergy.

Additionally, an increasing number of facilities require replacement, and some communities don’t have the land available to build separately.

The fear of co-location is driven by examples where the fire department or police department relinquished overall control of the project and was handed a building that didn’t meet its needs—or even was unsafe. All of these arguments are valid.

The recently built Fridley, MN, Civic Campus is a good example of a shared facility that maximizes shared area while respecting the operational requirements of each department. The project was completed in late 2018. It combines a 24,800-square-foot, six-bay volunteer (transitioning toward full-time) fire station; a 46,200-square-foot police station (including squad garage) that serves 48 sworn officers; city administration space that houses the council chambers; the city manager’s office; the departments of finance, parks and recreation, information technology, engineering and community development; and a community room. Across the shared parking area is a stand-alone, 84,300-square-foot public works facility. Co-locating the facilities allowed for the creation of an outdoor water feature, which achieves the required stormwater treatment. Community recreational space includes an amphitheater, a plaza for outdoor events and walking paths. The total project encompasses 14.6 acres and 185,700 building square feet and cost $44.5 million to construct.

Economies of scale

Large projects attract more competitive bids, because contractors and suppliers refine pricing based on larger quantities. This can result in an overall cost savings per square foot. However, price isn’t the only important factor in selecting a contractor. Projects of similar scale to the Fridley Civic Campus frequently have multiple phases, a blend of structural systems, extremely complex building systems and more construction workers on site than a single site superintendent can oversee. Therefore, it’s important to team with a contractor or construction manager who has experience managing larger projects and has procedures developed for projects of this scale.

Economies of scale affect design fees, too, but a more important factor is the design team’s experience and capacity. When selecting an
architect, it's essential to verify that the design team has successful experience with projects of scale and complexity. A project that has multiple stakeholders requires a large team of dedicated architects, engineers and consultants. The architect should have specific experience with every component of your project. Fire, police, city hall and public works facilities each have specific operational requirements that the design team needs to understand and plan for.

When designing the Fridley Civic Campus, the lead architectural firm, BKV Group, teamed with Oertel Architects for its extensive experience with public works facilities.

Although mixed-use facilities might have access to funding from multiple budgets and more sources of grant funding, they also come with large-scale price tags, and this rightly attracts increased attention from the general public. Be prepared to discuss the rationale for the project along with the financing strategy, complete with detailed information on the tax impact to the citizens. Fridley was proactive and involved the public in brainstorming meetings for more than a year before hiring the design team.

Site design challenges

Although some communities co-locate facilities because of a lack of empty parcels for standalone buildings, others are prevented from co-locating facilities, because the sites that are available aren’t large enough or don’t meet the geographic needs of each department. Site feasibility is the first obstacle to tackle with your design team before committing to a shared facility.

Fridley was able to take advantage of a large parcel to plan not only their new Civic Campus but also a new neighborhood, including single-family and multifamily developments. That said, there was only one spot within the larger neighborhood that worked for the facility and that allowed appropriate emergency response.

A larger building footprint results in more challenges. At Fridley, a portion of the site has a high water table, which forced the first floor elevation to be raised 36 inches, so the lower-level squad garage would be above the water table. The apparatus bays couldn’t be raised because of the existing curb elevation. So, a challenge was presented: How to navigate the different floor elevations? The solution: A small stair between the fire administration offices and the bay floor. However, this level change creates a certain amount of risk during response, and it wouldn’t have been necessary with a standalone fire station on this site.

One of the more complicated challenges of a mixed-use facility is organizing vehicular circulation for efficient operation and safety. Public works trucks, fire apparatus and police squads require covered storage, and their movements need to be kept separate from staff and public vehicles for safety and freedom of response. For Fridley, circulation for city vehicles was separated from public and staff parking areas by providing strategic, direct access points into the site to meet each department’s operational needs. Public parking to accommodate large events was designed as a pedestrian-friendly plaza and functions as outdoor amenity space most of the year.

Shared spaces

Co-located facilities tend to be smaller and, thus, more efficient than separate facilities, because departments can share a variety of spaces and systems. When each square foot of building costs multiple hundreds of dollars, savings can add up quickly. Support spaces, such as mechanical rooms and sprinkler rooms, can serve the entire building. Amenity spaces, including physical conditioning rooms and break rooms, also can be shared across departments if they’re appropriately sized for the number of users that's expected. The design team estimated a savings of more than $700,000 due to shared spaces.

Sometimes, core function spaces also can be shared. Fridley’s fire and police share a reception/waiting area, administrative restrooms and two small meeting rooms, which the police department uses for soft interviews and the firefighters use as a place to confidentially take blood-pressure readings or to assess the symptoms of walk-in patients. When considering the appropriateness of a space for sharing, consider the ways that the departments will make use of the space and the anticipated schedule.

The large training room that’s in the Civic Campus most often is used by the fire academy, but the flexibility of the space and the adjacency to other departments allow the room to be used by the police department and other city departments regularly.

Sharing spaces blends department boundaries, and that can cause concerns for security. Even if everyone in the building is on the same team, it isn’t recommended to give everyone access to the police armory, for instance. These concerns can be remedied with electronic access control and by designing a shared facility that clearly defines shared circulation space versus operational space for each department.

For the shared facility in Fridley, the police and fire administration areas are separated by a secure hallway that connects to the shared public safety lobby. Staff safety has become an increasing concern in all civic buildings. Police stations typically have a bullet-resistant window to protect staff; however, city hall buildings try to project a welcoming and transparent environment. The shared public safety lobby that’s located off of the main city hall lobby provides acoustic and physical separation, for instances in which an unhappy citizen speaks to a police officer. Although the lobby is staffed by the police department, the fire department has direct access to the space to meet visitors, and it contains memorabilia from both departments.

Operational benefits

The private sector has been touting the benefits of spontaneous collaboration for years as a reason for locating everybody under one roof. The need for distribution of fire stations and the need for security within police stations has delayed that trend for the public sector, but Fridley was intrigued by the concept and toured several local corporations to explore the latest trends in office design. This manifested itself in smaller personal workstations and informal group meeting spaces throughout the facility. The fire service held informal meetings around the kitchen table for years, but sharing space with the police department builds relationships that can be critical to performance in a major event. For instance, the large classroom and the hands-on training mezzanine that includes a reconfigurable system of rooms provide excellent space for the police and fire departments to train on joint maneuvers.

An under appreciated opportunity for operational savings is access to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that are available for large buildings. A small fire station has limited ways to provide heating and cooling. Co-locating with other departments opens up a larger playbook.

At Fridley Civic Center, a lifecycle assessment showed that the scale of the project made a boiler system cost effective. This allowed radiant floors in the apparatus bays without a large upfront price tag.

Even cleaning and maintenance saves money in a combined facility. Minimizing travel time between buildings, reducing the number of floor buffers, requiring fewer dumpster pulls and stocking fewer consumables that can be used for the many bathrooms are just some of the long-term savings that a joint facility enables.

Competing priorities

One of the most important challenges in a shared facility is making sure that the result works for everyone, and nobody’s core operational needs are compromised. This takes strong leadership from the design team as well as from the owner. Working to a project budget is largely about compromise, and when difficult decisions need to be made, it’s easy to advise cutting someone else’s space. To avoid this, the design team conducted detailed meetings with each department individually, then brought larger issues back to the full owner team. Each department had to be flexible in its expectations.

Part of the success for Fridley was that the owner team appointed a moderator to attend all of the meetings and guide the overall process, which ensured decision-making was fair across the board.

Each department had critical needs and strong opinions about the layout of their spaces, but not all could be met. Understanding the difference between a need and an opinion requires experience with the project type and a true understanding of the department policies and procedures. For the fire department, response access to the main roads gave the apparatus bays first priority of placement on the site. Back-in bays were a compromise that ultimately wasn’t needed with the final design. The fire department’s need for classroom and hands-on training space for the fire academy was another critical feature. A compromise due to site and building constraints was placing the living and sleeping spaces on the second floor. Of course, a multilevel facility can have an effect on response times, but that was mitigated through a fire pole and multiple stairwells.

The police department’s need for indoor squad parking influenced the building layout, too. The site couldn’t support additional building area above-ground, which forced the squad garage to be on the lower level. This resulted in a single point of egress for squad cars, so the design team specified a four-fold garage door for increased reliability.

Both departments required access to the public safety lobby. To achieve this, both the police and fire departments compromised. The police accepted a small separation between the administration staff and other divisions, and the fire department accepted a portion of the office spaces having windows into the apparatus bays instead of to the exterior. Although the compromises represent a break from the ideal scenario, neither had significant impact on operations, and each department was involved fully in the planning and decision-making throughout the design process. 

For Fridley, the combined facility has been very successful. The project was strongly supported by the community and was accomplished within budget. The overwhelmingly positive reaction from staff is the true mark of success.

When clients are willing to think outside of the box, and when a thorough design process that identifies opportunities and finds solutions to the challenges is used, co-located facilities can be just as successful.  

About the Authors

Craig Carter, AIA, is an associate partner with BKV Group, which is a full-service design firm that has offices across the country. He is a nationally recognized fire station design expert who has helped drive the industry forward with his advocacy and educational outreach. His projects have been recognized by the Firehouse Station Design Awards and the FIERO Fire Station Awards for their beauty and functionality. He speaks nationally and authors articles frequently. Carter is passionate about fire station design and providing excellent buildings that support firefighters in their service to the public.

Michael Healy, AIA, is a senior project architect for BKV Group and has more than 10 years of experience on a variety of projects, including police and fire facilities. Healy has a thorough understanding of the operational needs, workflows and spatial requirements for law enforcement facilities, which he shares with clients nationwide as part of BKV Group’s team of experts. Under his leadership, the act of building a public safety facility can be one of symbolic, cultural and environmental significance for the community.

About the Author

Craig Carter

Craig Carter, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is lead facility planner and firematic expert with BKV Group, which is a full-service design firm that has offices around the country. Carter has 21 years of experience in architectural design, documentation and construction administration with a focus on public-safety projects. He has worked on more than 80 fire station projects and won several design awards that celebrate the functionality and beauty of the projects. Carter combines a deep knowledge of the history of public-sector design with an up-to-date knowledge of the latest national trends.

About the Author

Michael Healy

Michael Healy, AIA, is a senior project architect for BKV Group and has more than 10 years of experience on a variety of projects, including police and fire facilities. Healy has a thorough understanding of the operational needs, workflows and spatial requirements for law enforcement facilities, which he shares with clients nationwide as part of BKV Group’s team of experts. Under his leadership, the act of building a public safety facility can be one of symbolic, cultural and environmental significance for the community.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!