‘Take my building, please!’

CarolinaFireJournal - Philip M. Fieler
Philip M. Fieler
04/21/2013 -

Everyone loves hand-me-downs, right? Is that true for buildings? If your public safety facility needs are well-known in your community, you can expect several people to suggest the old abandoned grocery store on Highway 9, an old city hall, or even a vacant spec building in an industrial park for your next project.


Has anyone ever converted an old oil-change station or truck garage into a fire station? Sure, but be advised to look the gift horse in the mouth. Better yet, take the gift horse to a vet, and have him perform a full physical.

Fire, rescue, and EMS facilities have specialized requirements, some at the request of the users, and some at the demand of the building code due to the essential services they provide to the communities they serve. An architect specializing in these facilities can quickly help you evaluate the feasibility and cost implications associated with adapting a standard building into a successful essential facility.

Building Code, Structural Performance, and Clearances

One issue to consider, with significant cost impact to your project is the structural integrity of the existing building. While many buildings can at first glance appear acceptable, the building code requires much more analysis for a change of use to a fire, rescue, or EMS facility or as the code designates “essential facility.”

When compared to other buildings, essential facilities are required to resist wind loads that are increased by at least 15 percent, snow loads that are increased by at least 20 percent, and seismic loads that are increased by at least 50 percent. As a result of the seismic loading requirements, load-bearing masonry walls must be designed with special reinforcement, and retro-fitting existing masonry walls can be difficult and costly. Steel and concrete framed buildings must also be reviewed for compliance with these same additional loads and concrete slabs should be evaluated for thickness and reinforcing to meet the loading demands of housed equipment.

Denton, Texas Fire Department. Photographs courtesy of Kirkpatrick Architecture Studio,
Architect of Record. Stewart Cooper Newell Architects served as programming/design consultant.

The vehicles used in fire, rescue, and EMS services have continued to increase in size, requiring larger door openings as well as overhead clearances to the bottom of structure in apparatus bay spaces. An analysis of an existing building structure should consider the ability to cut large door openings into existing walls and whether the current structural clearances will allow for all the components that are desired and typically occur overhead in bays such as door staging in the open position, bay heaters, lighting, exhaust systems, on-site training opportunities, etc.

Energy Efficiency

Historically, most city or county governments approach public safety facility projects with a 50 to 75 year life span goal. Of the total life cycle costs required from the initial planning and design of a building, through construction, into occupancy, through its life, and ultimately demolition, the operations and utility costs can average 16 percent or more of the total cost. The last several iterations of the building and energy codes, place great emphasis on energy usage and building performance which can have a drastic effect on the recurring operation costs for building owners.

It is not unusual for older buildings, and especially masonry buildings, to have been constructed with little or no insulation. While the building and energy codes provide exceptions for existing buildings which will not necessarily require up-fitting non-exposed wall cavities and roof structures to current standards, it may mean higher operating costs than a similarly sized newly constructed building.

Further, older buildings generally, unless recently renovated, contain older systems with regard to HVAC equipment, lighting fixtures, plumbing fixtures, etc. Just as the building code now requires greater insulation in the building exterior, the code is driving the HVAC, lighting and plumbing industries to produce equipment and fixtures that operate more efficiently. Any re-use of older existing fixtures and equipment to save up-front project costs should be evaluated carefully with regard to life cycle cost and recurring maintenance and utility costs for the facility.

Site Evaluation

Essential facilities housing first responders have no greater responsibility than making sure the on-site personnel can be dispatched quickly and efficiently with the equipment they need to provide aid. Accredited agencies and agencies seeking accreditation are required to meet national standards for turn-out time and efficient building and site flow is critical to meeting those standards. An analysis of the site flow for an existing building can determine the most suitable portion of the building and site to house apparatus, determine how to separate public traffic from first response traffic, and ensure the general public or pedestrians are not crossing the response paths and compromising site safety. Returning apparatus paths should also be determined, potential for drive-thru bay loading examined, turns reviewed for radius, and slopes and grades calculated for approach and departure.

In addition to site flow, it is important to review overall accommodations. Can the existing site and building provide for every currently known or projected facility need? The parking demands for public safety facilities can be rather high in times of shift change and emergency conditions. If there is significant in-progress or projected growth within the service area of the facility, it may be important to consider whether or not there is sufficient area on the site to expand the facility and associated parking. It will be beneficial to identify whether or not the site has a current storm-water management plan. Future modifications to the building or site may require the creation or expansion of on-site storm-water retention or treatment systems.

Lastly, it will be important to determine the currently provided utilities to the existing building as well as available capacity. Depending upon a building’s previous use, an essential facility with bunks or dorms and corresponding toilets and showers, laundry facilities, gear cleaning equipment, and kitchen facilities can have considerable more water use than an office building. Bunk and dorm rooms will require that portions if not all of an existing building area may need fire suppression (sprinkler) systems. A full site and facility analysis should determine the availability of not only standard utilities such as water, sewer, natural gas, and electrical supply, but also consider connectivity to other departmental facilities or other agencies by means of phones, fiber, radio communications, etc.


Our firm, having completed two major “conversion” projects, a modular home factory and a 1930s generator plant each into operating fire stations, has found there is often more homework and study required of an existing facility than required to identify and acquire a suitable vacant site. The potential for lower initial costs and immediate availability of existing buildings can be tempting and should be considered for effective use in meeting fire, rescue or EMS facility needs. However, the many specific and functional needs associated with essential facilities should be carefully evaluated within the context of an existing building to ensure the finished project will be successful.

Philip M. Fieler is a senior project manager with Stewart–Cooper-Newell Architects. He has personally been involved with the design of numerous fire, law enforcement, and emergency communications facilities projects involving renovations, additions, and new construction throughout the Carolinas. Reah Fieler at www.fire-station.com or e-mail [email protected].
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