Tilt Up Firehouse


CarolinaFireJournal - Jim McClure
Jim McClure
05/12/2017 -

Not too long ago I was able to check something off my bucket list. Not far from me is a fire station that was created in an existing industrial building. It was designed and built as a warehouse. Like most warehouses, these type of structures are rather plain, generic and relatively inexpensive to put up. 

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If it weren’t for the American flag, and the small sign on the wall you would drive by this place all day and just mistake it for another warehouse in a neighborhood full of buildings that look just like this.

This particular building style is called a “Tilt Up.” They get their name from the fact that the concrete walls are either poured in a flat form on site or then tilted up once they cure. Or they are poured off-site, trucked in and tilted up. This method is a fast and less expensive method to get walls up and get a roof on. Most strip malls, big box stores and many other buildings are using this technique today. There are a lot of them where I live.

Roof system framing can be glulam beams or pre-built lightweight trusses. I know, I know. As firefighters we are not necessarily happy with lightweight truss roofs, but that’s a different story for someone else to tell.

I have driven by this building several times. It always intrigued me as to how it laid out and functioned inside. I was also curious as to whether the crews liked it, did not like it or had no opinion. Doing some consulting work for a developer gave me the excuse to take a look at it. His firm was going to house a crew temporarily while they built a new fire station and was looking at an existing tilt up building to remodel for the temporary firehouse.

Yes, the building is as big as it looks in the photo. It is 192 feet deep and 80 feet wide. That’s 15,360 square feet! Imagine having to clean that entire building for an inspection! Luckily the crew is not responsible for the entire building. The majority is storage for the fire department in general. It is not obvious that the firehouse is a drive-through. If you look down the left sidewall you’ll see an apparatus door. The two doors in the front each have a rig behind it although there is only one company staffing the station; different rig for different tasks.

That means the rigs drive about 100 feet inside the building to get from the back to the front. That does give me concern about diesel exhaust.

The front door opens to a central hallway. The captain’s office and the crew’s office are located off this hallway. There are several small functional spaces also. Straight ahead down the hallway is what looks like the dayroom.

Now before we go any further, a reminder. Any of you that have been in this process of designing and building a firehouse know it is a constant battle between square footage and budget. There are always compromises. I don’t like them either, but until the fire department wins the lottery we’re stuck with this process. The dayroom is a compromise. Aside from the comfy chairs and the big-screen TV, they have their exercise equipment in the same space. Co-locating those two functions is not something that is part of the 21st century firehouse design. The obvious reason is the conflict if somebody wants to pound on the treadmill while someone else is trying to watch something on TV. It is going to get loud. The second oldest firehouse in our department — circa 1947 — has the same problem.

The station’s kitchen and dining area are more than adequate for the crew. The window you see to the right of the dining room table is the one that’s in the front of the building between the front door and apparatus bay. They have film on the window for two reasons: privacy and that window has a southwestern exposure. It gets a lot of sun.

Upstairs are the bedrooms and bathrooms. There are both male and female bathrooms upstairs which is a minimum requirement today.

The crew that I spoke with did not know if the second floor had been framed in before the fire department acquired the building. Office cubicle partitions separate each sleeping area. This solves the privacy problem but it doesn’t solve the snoring problem. You might be thinking, “Why didn’t they just frame the walls to the ceiling?” The primary reason for this is the HVAC system in the ceiling. It may not have been installed already. If there were individual bedrooms they would need to run ductwork for both a supply and return to each bedroom. More ductwork equals more money. Having only partitions the upper space is free so the system can work on a more general area. It is also possible when the station first opened they had an open dorm concept and put the dividers in later. That was far enough back that none of this crew knew. Depending on the location of the ductwork and the beds, some people may feel the hot or cold air more than others.

There was enough square footage on the second floor to create a second dayroom. It seems to be used more as a quiet space rather than the normal activity of the dayroom.

If you were a real estate agent and had to sell a property that was more garage than living space how would you market it? Statements such as room to grow, bonus room, man cave, mom cave, children’s cave, in-law quarters, boat storage and RV storage come to mind. Obviously, all those would fit in this building. I’m guessing that the fire department brass saw this building and realized that for less than the price of a new firehouse they got a firehouse and a warehouse. Not only for less money but less design time, minimal construction time and a shorter timeline to be operational.

Because of all that extra space, the crew at the station have extra responsibilities. They are in charge of turnouts or bunker gear, if you prefer. The department’s entire complement of spare and replacement PPE is located, inventoried and tracked at this station. No surprise that really doesn’t take up much space in the warehouse. They are also in charge of the SCBA bottles.

At the beginning of the article I mentioned the second fire truck in the barn. This is their second responsibility. That rig is the Hazmat rig. As a consequence some of the material sitting on the storage shelves is part of the hazardous materials response inventory.

I have to digress here for a moment for a word about secondary duties. I don’t know about where you work, but sometimes back in the day assignments were handed out, not for practical reasons but as punishment. For longer than my entire 29 year career one station was in charge of hose repair, coupling repair, inventory and hose ordering. The story is that particular station and that particular shift was assigned that because one particular officer was being punished. I don’t remember the mistake that was made but the result was for over 40 years that station took care of the hose. Just saying.

Luckily, the majority of the shelving and the objects on them are not the responsibility of this crew. Neither are all the other vehicles that you see in the photos.

This firehouse was opened when we were still concerned about washing and drying hose. Obviously a hose tower was not part of the original construction. Building one at the time would require a freestanding structure not attached to the tilt up fire station building. Because of the engineering issues it would’ve cost too much money. So what you see here is a hose drying rack, which is fairly common in our neck of the woods and really cheap to build in comparison.

I know the architects here may not like it but I see this as being a potential path to a functional firehouse. Obviously, the building may lack what is called “civic presence.” In other words, the building that stands out, a building that makes a statement, a building that clearly identified itself as a firehouse. With all those big flat walls you could keep a muralist employed for months to create that civic presence.

There may be empty tilt up buildings in your community already. You could get lucky and find a building of the square footage that pretty much matches your firehouse needs. Is it in the neighborhood that you want it? Is it oriented the correct way to the road? Is it structurally sound for your local geologic and meteorological challenges? Is there plenty of parking?

Like my example above, you may find a building larger then your actual square footage needs. Assuming all the other criteria above are met, let’s think about what you could do with that extra space. First off the assumption is it will have a lot of parking. That means the annual pancake breakfast fundraiser will have plenty of space. That means the rest of the apparatus bay could be the dining room. That means an event that would be outside could be inside in case of rain.

Bingo anyone?

Operationally, training elements could be incorporated on the inside of the building. Instead of the shelving you see in the photographs, a mezzanine could be attached to the building. Connecting points for ropes, pulleys and carabiners could be mounted. You could throw ladders inside — up to a point, anyway.

Last thought. You are not constrained by the existing concrete walls that you see. An engineer can do the calculations and you can cut doorways including garage door openings as long as you brace the corners of that opening with steel plates. I’ve seen it done. Questions???

I’d love to hear from any departments that have used this type of building.

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, www.firehousedesignandconstruction.com, call 408-603-4417 or email [email protected].
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