Station Furnishings: Creating Your Home Away from Home

Oct. 25, 2016
Louise Kowalczyk and Raegan Porter discuss how furniture design can create a more relaxed atmosphere while bringing crews together.

Elburn and Countryside Fire Protection District (ECFPD) in Elburn, IL, is a district built on tradition and history, like much of the fire service. When Assistant Chief Tate Haley was tasked with the assignment of building a new headquarters fire station, he took the project seriously and did his research. He wanted to build a state-of-the-art building that would address the needs of the future, not just the issues of the moment. This was accomplished through innovative design of the entire building. The first hurdle was already overcome because Haley understood the holistic approach to design, which includes the architecture, the interiors, and the furnishings all working together to form a cohesive solution.

Some of the challenges most departments face these days are solved through new furniture solutions making the fire station more functional and flexible, creating an environment that welcomes anyone visiting and increases the well-being of the staff.

Haley’s goal was to address many of the common challenges faced by today’s fire departments:

  • Ensuring life cycle and durability
  • Making visitors feel welcome
  • Finding the proper desking solution
  • Fostering communication and camaraderie
  • Integration of technology
  • Reducing the stress level of staff and increasing well being
  • Creating multi-functional spaces

Through close collaboration with FGM Architects and a tour of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, Haley quickly realized how furniture is truly an integral part of design and how it can help solve many issues. Furniture manufacturers are a large driver of overall design. They invest a lot of time and energy into research to figure out how humans work, behave, and what can be done to make us more efficient, and happier and healthier in the workplace.

All that being said, it can be an exciting, yet daunting task to furnish a new building, or upgrade an existing facility. So where should one start? It is important to incorporate furniture design from the very beginning stages of design. It is not so much that you have to know the specific piece of furniture that will be used, but knowing the layout, intended uses for the space, and the tasks that will be performed in the space are very important. For example, if you are planning a space to accommodate four employees, they may not all require the same amount of space. Some may require a private office, while others may be able to perform their duties in an open workstation, which uses less space and offers more flexibility. In Haley’s case, he had already done this step in the planning stages of the building design.

Life cycle and durability

Once ready to begin the actual furniture selections, one of the first things to consider is life cycle. Due to the 24/7 nature of a fire station, wear and tear is much different than that of a corporate office or home. So it is critical to understand the difference between residential-grade furniture and commercial-grade furniture. It is extremely important to make sure the furniture purchased will last and hold up to the rigor of a 24/7 facility. Firefighters work a 24-hour shift, in the furniture world that equates to three eight-hour shifts. One mistake often made, is taking a manufacturer’s 24/7 product at face value. It is important to read and understand the warranties. A chair might be designated 24/7, but not meet the needed requirements. Often times chairs designated as 24/7 don’t support three shifts or the warranty is pro-rated to make it much shorter than originally stated. Warranties for some chairs are void for three shifts all together. You should also be aware all chairs have weight limits, so making sure it is sufficient is important. Finding furniture with a warranty that supports three shifts and a weight rating that is sufficient for the end user is extremely important for a long life cycle.

Making visitors feel welcome

In any public building, it is important to make visitors feel welcome the minute they walk in the door. It is especially important in a community building like ECFPD. Space is always at a premium, so being creative with solutions to address more than one problem in any given area is critical. Haley started with creative furniture solutions right as you walk in the door. Lounge chairs welcome you as you enter. Red upholstery adds a pop of color with a fun pattern inviting anyone that visits the station to be comfortable as they wait. Power is conveniently located nearby so visitors can plug in and work while waiting. Through the glass door at the end of the lobby is a conference room for impromptu meetings between staff or with visitors. The conference room doubles as a walk-in EMS room, equipped with a sofa with highly stain-resistant fabric, for taking blood pressure, or for anyone walking in with an emergency needing to lay down while a gurney is prepared. A wardrobe cabinet with a break-away lock for easy access during emergencies is also located in the space to house supplies, but is in keeping with the overall décor.

While working on the office furniture selections, Haley evaluated his team and how they worked. Two challenges were discovered. The first was some people are more “pilers” than “filers”. To translate some pile papers up on their desk in stacks, while others file them away neatly. The second was the ever-increasing challenge of having focused meetings in the office. Finding a desk solution to provide a myriad of different ways to neatly organize piles right at their fingertips was important. The solution for the first challenge was to drop the return along the wall to a lower height to allow there to be more area to hide piles. Storage and display was also important, allowing staff to show off memorabilia in an artful way while still being able to store binders and books. All while keeping the office neat and not feeling confined.

The solution for the second challenge was found while visiting the Chicago Merchandise Mart. In today’s world, we are so overloaded with distracting emails, phone calls, text messages and questions. Your work environment is and should be a high priority. Statistically, 87 percent of employees can’t work in a small group without being easily distracted, and or, interrupted. On average, we are interrupted every 11 minutes and it takes us 23 minutes to return to complete focus. So it was very important to create areas that would encourage communication in a comfortable way and help the team stay engaged. One of the first things integrated was the unique chairs around the conference table. They are a hybrid between a lounge chair and a conference chair. This chair allows you to comfortably sit while meeting with a team, almost as if you are in a lounge chair while maintaining a good posture. This encourages you to truly step away from your desk, and some of those distractions, and be more fully engaged for a small meeting.

Fostering communication and camaraderie

Haley also knew engagement and communication was important to foster. His goal was for everyone to live as one and be a part of the team, whether you are volunteer, or career. One furniture solution successful in encouraging this is the high-top table in the administrative break room, acting much like your kitchen island at home. It provides a place to gather and offers the opportunity for spontaneous conversation, really integrating everyone. The lounge seating in the space helps to make it a comfortable environment where everyone wants to hang out, making it a hub of activity. It encourages everyone to take a break at lunch or throughout the day and can make serendipitous conversation and communication happen that normally wouldn’t have. This relaxed environment increases productivity, the well-being of the staff, and helps everyone feel like one team.

Integration of technology

With technology always evolving, it was important to provide furniture solutions to easily adapt and evolve with new technology. The conference tables were an obvious place for this to happen. Power and data is located in the middle of the table, allowing anyone to plug in to the wall monitors or to charge a device. However, even more important to Haley, was the Shift Office. His goal here was, again, to increase communication and camaraderie. He loved the solution of the long high-top, media table. At 42" high, it puts the team seated at it just below eye level and creates a slightly less formal meeting space. It encourages and invites anyone walking by to join in on the conversation. It was the right opportunity to provide a space where the team could have shift meetings together each morning with coffee and review for the day ahead. It is also a place, in the event of an emergency, or during the morning review, where schedules, maps or any myriad of information can easily be put on the screen from a laptop or tablet with just a USB that plugs in. Power was integrated into the wall just above the table, making it easy to charge any device. To the right of the table is a large white board where notes or information is posted. With all the furniture solutions integrated into this space it creates a multi-faceted space that increases communication.

Reducing the stress level and increasing well being

Research shows 85 percent of people in the workforce don’t feel relaxed or calm while at work. This is concerning for all industries. However, firefighters are first responders and are generally at work for a 24-hour shift. It was important to create places and environments they could relax in, helping with their physical, emotional and cognitive well-being. Creating different zones in the dayroom really helped with this. The four high-back lounge chairs at one end of the dayroom provide an alternative to the typical recliners. The chair allows for different postures and sitting styles including the favorite, “one leg over the arm of the chair.” The chairs also have a return swivel, so while you are seated you can turn in the chair, but when you get up the chair will automatically return to its front position keeping the room looking neat. These different groupings allow and encourage someone to watch TV and others to hang out with family or read while being in the same room, as opposed to being in their individual bunk rooms. Haley really wanted to provide space where staff could bring in family during down time. Making the station inviting and a place where everyone wants to be.

Adjacent to the kitchen is the dining area with two large dining tables made with locally reclaimed wood. It was important to provide enough room, not only for the entire shift of firefighters, but to allow family to join in for a meal. These tables can be joined together as one large table and are also symbolic of how the firefighters and EMS staff used to be separate and now are together as one unit.

Creating multi-functional spaces

Community is important to ECFPD within their own team and in the whole town. Having a flexible training room that can be reconfigured for community meetings, classes and board meetings was essential. Haley encourages the community to use the meeting room, as well. The tables and chairs easily flip and nest to be moved to the side. The tables can also be re-configured to create a U-shape table arrangement for board meetings. Because ergonomics are important for long meetings and training sessions, the chair selected has a flexible back with mesh allowing it to breathe.

Adjacent to the Community Room is the Public Education Room where kids can come to learn about being firefighters. The room is equipped with fun stools that wobble to increase their cognitive skills and kid-size gear lockers, so kids can dress up and play firefighter. This is a great amenity for ECFPD and the community as it provides a permanent set up, with the ability to spill out into the lower level lobby for additional displays and educational tools.

Incorporating furniture selections at the very beginning stages of planning is key to a holistic approach to design. Furniture and finishes that fit the look of a facility and the culture of an organization create a unified environment that supports the operation and allows them to fulfill their mission. Even in an existing facility, upgrading furnishings can improve a department’s operations. It is clear Haley incorporated many innovative furniture solutions into the design of the new facility to address the needs of ECFPD both today and into the future. In so doing, he has improved the communication within his team, increased their well-being and created a place for the community to gather and connect. The solutions have reinforced operation through furnishings and fostered the brotherhood that runs strongly through the fire service. The engagement and sense of pride that this new facility instills in ECFPD truly shows.

LOUISE KOWALCZYK is a licensed architect with extensive experience in the design of municipal architecture including fire service, public safety, recreational and library facilities. She is the Municipal and Recreation Design Director for FGM Architects and believes in a holistic approach to architecture that blends the exterior aesthetic with the interior design to create a comprehensive and cohesive design solution. Kowalczyk strives to create unique exteriors that complement their surroundings and the communities they serve and functionality, aesthetics and longevity are always top priorities in her designs. Kowalczyk works very closely with clients to elicit their ideas and ensure the design of their facility aligns perfectly with their vision. 

RAEGAN PORTER is a registered interior designer with a diverse background in recreation, municipal, educational and contract design. She is the Municipal Interior Design Leader for FGM Architects. Porter has a unique ability to understand her client’s needs and incorporate them into creative, functional space plans. Through materials, furniture, lighting and art work, she brings her clients vision to life. Porter’s goal for clients is to create an overall experience for the communities using her spaces.

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