Considering station renovation over new construction


CarolinaFireJournal - Ben Wilson
Ben Wilson LEED AP BD&C
07/15/2014 -

Fire protection is critical to home and business security, and with our ever-increasing population, the demand for additional stations or an increase in current capacity is paramount. To improve the safety of the greater community, many districts are choosing to build new or renovate existing fire stations. Each method of increasing reach and services has its place, but there are many elements that need to be evaluated prior to choosing the direction your department should pursue. Every existing structure comes with its own specific circumstances, so there is no global answer to the question. It must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

When contemplating a new project, go into the evaluation with a defined set of goals or parameters that need to be met by renovating or building new. If your station currently meets the functional needs of the firefighters, flows well, and no additional space is required, it may be that a simple cosmetic renovation will meet your goals. However, if you need to grow the station’s capacity and functionality via new personnel, equipment or fleet, further assessment will be required to determine if the station can be renovated to accommodate those needs. You may also want to upgrade the appearance of your station to a more modern design, adding another layer to your evaluation.

Analyze Existing Conditions and Limitations
Analyzing the existing conditions of your station is an important first step in the decision to build new or renovate. If the construction documents or as-built drawings are available, the process becomes slightly less challenging. As is the case with most projects, often these documents have ceased to exist or cannot be found. If the original documents are unavailable, you will need your design build team to complete a walk through to assess the current condition of the structure, systems and infrastructure, and take as-built measurements for translation into a plan. Only with an accurate depiction of what is actually in place can you begin your evaluation.

Your team should also analyze the limitations of the existing structure. Will the infrastructure accommodate the renovation? Are the openings large enough to accommodate modern fire trucks? Is the electrical service large enough to meet the new goals? Can you make the station ADA compliant without great expense? Is construction type and structure easily upgradable to meet current building codes and seismic requirements? Has the facility been well maintained? Can new technologies be incorporated easily? All these factors will impact the budget of your project and will require much discussion.

Environmental Assessment
It would be wise to complete a phase one environmental assessment, asbestos survey, and lead-based paint survey prior to considering renovations. Finding out what parts of the project are hidden from view but pose a threat is paramount in the early stages of evaluation. During these tests, you may uncover the presence of hazardous materials that require remediation and understand the extent to which you must remediate those materials. Remediation of hazardous materials can be very costly to a project. While much due diligence can be accomplished in the early stages of planning, renovations carry with them the inherent risk of hidden costs. There is no way to fully evaluate a facility without tearing down walls, which will not take place until construction begins. It is very important to have a decent sized contingency budget planned for any renovation project.

Energy Efficiency
Energy efficiency is a high priority for anyone looking to renovate or build a new facility. If your station has old windows, old mechanical and electrical systems, or sub-par insulation, it can be costly and challenging to retrofit them with newer, more energy efficient systems. It doesn’t make sense to upgrade the mechanical and electrical systems in your structure if you aren’t upgrading the efficiency of your building envelope. If you have to substantially upgrade any of these systems, you need to include in your evaluation the costs to upgrade them all.

Loss of Current Space During Renovations
Another major consideration when thinking of renovations is the loss of the use of your facility. Whether yours is a large station that can phase the renovations or a smaller station that will have to completely move out, there are costs associated with renovation. If you believe you can phase construction, you need to discuss this with your construction team early so they can communicate to you the nuances and intricacies with phasing, and plan accordingly. If you lose the use of your facility, you will have to search for a facility that can accommodate your staff and vehicles for the duration of construction — stations in close proximity may be an option.

New construction projects take more time than the typical renovation. Where a new construction project is measured in years from planning to completion, a renovation can usually be measured in months. Reference your original goals when determining whether time is of the essence for the additional planned services. If timing is one of the leading factors, renovation might be the way to go.

While it may seem insignificant at times, structures can hold sentimental value within a community. It could be a recognizable landmark, the first fire station in that area, have architectural relevance, or any number of items that make it valuable to your community. If the community has an emotional attachment to the structure, renovation or a hybrid construction approach may be the best way to ensure community support for your project.

In the end, if all the goals and functionality of the facility can be accomplished by either renovation or new construction, it boils down to value. Does the renovation require so much modification that the costs begin to approach those of a new construction scheme? If so, the ability to design a new structure that is capable of handling your current growth and functional needs, future growth, and have the latest in technology, is often a better option. However, if there is an appreciable cost benefit to renovation and no loss of the functional use of the facility, renovation should remain as a discussion point.

Hiring a qualified design build team who have experience in both station renovation and new construction and understand the questions that must be asked, is important to the success of your project.

Benjamin Wilson, LEED AP BD&C, is president of the South Carolina division of Bobbitt Design Build, a leading design-build contractor for fire and rescue facilities throughout the Carolinas.
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