Exploring the less obvious factors in RENOVATING versus BUILDING NEW


CarolinaFireJournal - John Kelley
John Kelley
10/10/2014 -

Often fire departments are faced with a difficult decision when changing demographics, equipment needs or new regulations dictate that their current facility no longer meets their or their community’s needs. The question is should they renovate their current facility or build new?


There are many factors that go into the decision making process, including budget, age of the current facility and land availability in the right location. For the purposes of this article, we will identify some of the less obvious factors that could influence the decision.

Sweat Equity

In many departments, especially volunteer departments, current members and even their families contributed time, money, material and/or labor to the construction of the current facility. Their investment cannot be taken lightly. If the final decision is to build new, consideration should be taken to preserve some of the history of the station and its supporters with plaques, photos, memorabilia, etc. A possible solution could be to prominently display these items in the new facility. Also parts of the current station could be incorporated into the new station.

Building Green

The concept of “reduce, reuse and recycle” is commonly associated with environmental sustainability, and this relates to building “green” as well. If the focus were on “reuse,” it would seem logical to renovate the current facility. However, it may be cost prohibitive to make the building energy efficient, the “reduce” factor. Existing systems such as the HVAC and electrical may require a complete tear out and new install. If the building has some age to it, the insulation envelope probably does not meet the current energy code.

A relatively new “R” factor has come into the dialogue: “repurpose.” This idea can be loosely described as taking something that is no longer useful as intended, but can be adapted for another industry or use. This could range from selling the building to repurposing some of the existing spaces such as apparatus bays into office-type space.

The Building Code

Building code requirements are regularly updated as new technologies, programs and experiences in such things as natural disasters affect the way building use and safety are evaluated. The N.C. Building Code, for example, has undergone fairly significant updates in the past few years. Some of the changes address life safety issues, accessibility and energy.

A lot of the changes seemed to make it more difficult to successfully renovate an existing building. However, one of the editions created the “Rehab Code.” This gives a designer a step-by-step process with trade offs that can make renovation more feasible. We anticipate a new version of the Rehab Code to be effective in 2015. The final details aren’t available, but hopefully the process will be simplified.

Your local code official will also have a say in what he will accept.

Existing Infrastructure – Water

The 2012 N.C. code revision brought the requirement for sprinkler systems into any residential use, which includes dorm rooms in fire stations. If dorms are under consideration inside the existing facility, it has to be evaluated structurally to support the weight of the pipes and water. A location will also have to be found inside the building or on site for the required valves and piping.

In the case of apparatus bays, which are considered Storage Use by the code, the allowable area without a sprinkler system is limited to 5,000 square feet. Any space greater than 5,000 square feet will require the bays to be fully sprinklered.

The existing water supply and pressure have to be taken into consideration. Inadequate supply or pressure may require pumps and storage tanks, which can be expensive.

Existing Infrastructure — Waste

Sewer isn’t available in all areas, and an older station is likely on a septic system. An existing septic system may not be able to be retrofitted to accommodate the demand of the new renovation or there may not be enough land available for added lines.

The location of the existing septic system may also limit where vehicle traffic or additions can go.

Location, Location, Location

Changes in your fire district due to new subdivisions, industry or retail may dictate that your current station is not in the best location to service your district. In this case, renovating it will likely not be a long-term solution. If a substation is required in the near future, it may make more sense to find the land to build a headquarters station that will meet your districts needs for 40 or 50 years and turn the existing station into the substation.


If a consensus cannot be reached among the decision makers and land is available at the current site, a possible compromise could be an addition of needed space and the renovation of the existing facility. Often we see older stations that don’t have the bay or door sizes to accommodate the latest fire fighting apparatus. The department is forced to locate the trucks either remotely or outside. Neither of these is a good long-term solution. In this case, apparatus bays and any additional needed space can be added, and the existing bays can be renovated to meet other space needs. The addition can be separated by a firewall, simplifying the code applications.

The decision to renovate or build new may seem daunting. Your design build professionals can walk you through the process and help you evaluate and prioritize all factors to determine the right solution for you.

John Kelley is Vice President, Business Development of Bobbitt Design Build, Inc.

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