The BIGGER Picture

CarolinaFireJournal - By Jim McClure
By Jim McClure
01/23/2014 -

(Note: This is part five of a multi-issue topic.)

In the past four issues we have covered a range of topics regarding the design of a firehouse and understanding the plans needed to communicate that design. I have written about the sequence and rhythm of the drawings. This issue I am going to step back and look at the bigger picture. We will now start to cover the time line, rhythm and sequence of the entire process.

Let me get one thing clear right away; this is not a fast process.

Even if the communication between the fire department, government agencies, architect and the public is correct, clear and concise, expect to spend at least a year on the design phase. If you have a problem site, a problem architect, problems with other city staff, or no one in your department with any experience with this work, don’t hold your breath.

Here is the time line for the last project I worked on for my department.

The first design meeting occurred in January. The project went out to bid in October — almost three years later! Since this was my 10th firehouse, you can figure out where the problems were. A challenging site was one of them.

The design process goes through three distinct phases:


  • Schematic Design (SD)
  • Design Development (DD)
  • Construction Documents (CD)

We will cover the Schematic Design phase this issue.

The following paragraph is from the American Institute of Architects:


During the first phase — schematic design — an architect consults with the owner to determine project goals and requirements. Often this determines the program for the project. The program, or architectural program, is the term used to define the required functions of the project. It should include estimated square footage of each usage type and any other elements that achieve the project goals. During schematic design, an architect commonly develops study drawings, documents, or other media that illustrate the concepts of the design and include spatial relationships, scale, and form for the owner to review. Schematic design also is the research phase of the project, when zoning requirements or jurisdictional restrictions are discovered and addressed.


A year ago I mentioned the Design Program. For training purposes I will assume you have one at this point. Hopefully you remember that I stressed how important it was to figure out what was going in the building and how you expected the firehouse to function. The rooms cannot be configured correctly if you don’t know what furniture, fixtures and equipment is being installed.

I learned the hard way about where to locate the decon room. I was very proud that we put one in on my first project. This was the first firehouse built in 10 years. We did not have a comprehensive program. It was only after the crew moved in that we realized our mistake. Firefighters are creatures of habit. When the bell rings, out we go. When the call is over, it’s back to the barn and into the living quarters. When you put the decon sink on the other side of the app bay, they don’t use it. They just get off the rig and head for the kitchen, day room, desk or bed. That knowledge prompted us to put a statement in our Program that the Decon Room would always be on the path of travel to the living space. It is easier to change the building than to change the culture.

So you have just hired your architect and they have seen the site. If you haven’t given your architect a copy of your Program Statement already, you will at the first meeting. There will be discussion about it. Feel free to stress the important items in it. There will be a Q&A about the site. The architect may already have some preliminary drawings to show you. Don’t be surprised if they are free hand drawings and not from a computer. What happens next is called a Charrette. It’s French, look it up.

Informed and inspired by you, the architect may start drawing right then and there as a way of verifying their understanding of your needs and wants. Sometimes the drawings are no more than adjacent bubbles on the page with the bubbles labeled app bay, dorm, office, etc. (Figure 1)

This is just to confirm how the building might lay out. I apologize to architects everywhere.

If they already have an idea of how the building can layout on the site you get a more refined drawing that looks like this. (Figure 2)

If you compare the first floor plan in Figure 2 with the final plan (Figure 3), even though some major elements moved, you can see that this architect had a good handle on our needs from the beginning.

The SD phase can last several months; shorter if everything is clicking and much longer if you and the architect are not communicating well. You will be given drawings to comment on. These first drawings can be very enlightening for you and your team. Once you see your ideas on paper your concept may be vindicated or you may realize that that this building will work much better if you move the stairwell or flip two rooms or flip the entire building on the site. You and your team will “mark up” the drawings and record your comments on a chart and send them back to the architect.

You will do this more than once.

This back and forth process is where you had better bring your A game. You must study the drawings carefully. Do they represent your Program Statement? Are all the rooms there? Are they in the right location? Are there any wrong adjacencies? Has the architect thought beyond the ribbon cutting and sketched a firehouse that will work far into the future? Is there a fatal flaw because the architect does not understand your operational needs? This is going to be very difficult if you don’t understand the drawings and your own needs.

It took me awhile to get the hang of this process. I could read the plans but I didn’t realize how little time there was to make a change. My ignorance cost us; not so much in money but in functionality of the firehouse. Remember your program calls out the size of each room. When the architect stacks all the blocks together they are trying to keep the total square footage as tight as possible to keep costs down. What I didn’t know was that six to eight months later when the more refined versions of the plan sets were done, I had lost functional square footage of multiple rooms for multiple reasons. A bunk room was made narrower because the wall was made thicker to accommodate pipes. A turnout room lost space to the extra steel framing needed for that corner of the building. Because of the jog in the wall to save square footage I lost locker space. The list goes on.

One of our designers decided to move the front door around the corner from the app bay doors. I didn’t like this because typically, the app bay doors mark the “front” of the firehouse. I asked about this for months through the entire SD phase. When the DD phase started I was told it was too late to change it now, we had gone too far. I cannot write what my next comments were.

As a result of these fumbles, I developed a long list of things I asked the architect to think about during the SD phase. Their typical answer was that it would not be addressed until the DD or CD phase. I would still press the conversation to make sure they understood my concerns. I wasn’t going to allow them to use the “too late’ excuse again.

Figure 4 is a snap shot of what ours looked like. It does not show all the comments made in that review cycle.

The left column lists the page number. The second column refers to a room, a space, a detail or note. The comments are mine. The last column shows the architect’s response. A third of his answers delay the answer to the next phase. This is not uncommon. It is your job to remember and follow up. The third entry down, Room 108, refers to the decon room and the sink. We specified a sink that is eight feet and three inches wide. On the SD floor plan I could not verify that the room was wide enough to take it. You can see by the architect’s response, I was right to be concerned. They had only drawn the room eight feet wide. If I had not called this out I would have had to buy a smaller sink. The sink in question was picked for operational reasons. You could clean and contain a backboard or a fully extended Hare traction splint.

When you and the architect agree on a final schematic design, the first pricing exercise occurs. At this point the only way to cost it out is multiplying the square footage times the known square foot price for your area. Sometimes it is best to have oxygen and a defib unit handy when the calculator stops. If the cost is too high you may go through a process called Value Engineering (VE).

Sounds fancy. Sounds technical. Sounds like a good thing. Not necessarily.

This process is usually just referred to by its initials, VE. What it really is an exercise trying to lower the estimated cost of construction by shrinking the square footage, eliminating items, substituting a cheaper product for a more expensive one, e.g. asphalt for concrete. This is a very frustrating time and you will be wheeling and dealing trying to maintain the program. This process will be run again before you go to bid. Room 106 comments are an example of VE shrinkage.

When the SD phase is finished you should have a site plan, floor plans for each floor, elevations and sections. These plans will be to scale. Some architects pride themselves on delivering a scale model also. This can really help folks understand the drawings. Sometimes the 2 D world just isn’t enough.

See you next issue. If you have comments or questions about my articles, feel free to contact me.

Jim McClure is the owner of Firehouse Design and Construction (FD&C). The mission of FD&C is “to help firefighters, architects and government agencies design and build maintainable, durable, and most importantly, functional firehouses.” McClure’s career in public safety spans almost 29 years. For more information visit, or call 408.603.4417.
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