Steps to Take for a Functional Building

For three years I have been sharing my experience and opinions on the design and construction of firehouses and firehouse remodels. This issue continues the theme but with a twist. It doesn’t matter what the building is, if the process is not done correctly, the building will not function. image

Every building has at least one janitor’s closet with a mop sink.

This time around I am using a newly remodeled church social hall. This building gives us plenty of insight into a flawed design and construction process. They made the same mistakes I have seen in firehouses that resulted in similar problems operationally.

Firehouses are unique in their operation and their design and construction but all buildings have to be designed for the maximum operational need.

This hall was built in 1959 and was past its sell by date. The most pressing need was a seismic retrofit since I am in earthquake country and I don’t mean Oklahoma. This, of course, triggered an updating of all building codes: mechanical, electrical, plumbing, energy efficiency and ADA. The building had been extensively remodeled over the last 57 years by the membership, mostly without permits.

On a daily basis the building worked fine with several exceptions. The plumbing drainpipes were seriously over worked. The electrical panel had grown organically over the years and we didn’t always know which breaker controlled which circuit. The biggest problem was the annual fundraising festival. This is a two-day event that brings over 20,000 people to the church and its grounds. During normal events the hall can hold about 400 people dining style. That is its purpose during the festival. Two parking lots make up the rest of the festival space.

When you put a four-inch backsplash on top of a 34-inch countertop you only have two inches to comfortably put you hand under the soap dispenser.

Just like we do when a firehouse is being remodeled, the architectural firm walked through the building. They also attended the festival both days. We toured them through the entire facility. We showed them the failing plumbing, the overloaded natural gas line, and how crowded the building was. The lines at the restrooms were obvious. That was two years ago, in preparation for the remodel. The festival was earlier this summer. We got back into the building just two weeks before the festival.

Unfortunately, there was not enough coordination between the architect, their sub-consultants and the church board. Additionally, decisions were made by the church folks without enough information to make an informed decision. This is not to fault them, it happens on every project. The people who use and know the building best should be the ones in dialog with the architects. The client representative must be an efficient, effective conduit between the users and the design team. This is a constant problem on all projects.

I have written about it before. The other designers that are working on their designated pages of the plans are always one generation behind the architect and the customer. It is the architect’s job to make sure all the parts fit together and work. Imagine if a different person wrote every page of the assembly instructions for an IKEA piece of furniture. That is kind of how the construction documents are assembled. The architect has to make sure they all work together. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) drive a number of design decisions.

Like most sinks there was a backsplash. The soap dispensers can only be mounted at a certain height; 40 inches from the floor to the bottom of the dispenser. The maximum height of the counter top is 34 inches. The bottom of the sink must be at least 29 inches above finished floor. That is expressed on the plan set as AFF. But when you put a four-inch backsplash on top of a 34-inch countertop you only have two inches to comfortably put you hand under the soap dispenser. Somebody missed something here.

According to the plans there are two pair of doors at the front entrance. Naturally, all four doors swing out. The stairs from the second floor land right next to one of the doors. The problem here is that the ADA code requires stairway railings to extend past the last step. This railing blocks the use of one of the four doors. The architect’s solution was to permanently set the door as fixed panel and not mount any door handles. It looks like a door until you try to use it. You can’t.

There is an alcove with a pair of doors on the side of the gym that opens to the parking lot. Previously there were no parking spaces in front of the doors. There were bollards to prevent cars from driving into the doorway. At some point in the design/construction process the bollards were removed and a parking space was painted in to allow one car to park in front of the doors. This is an accident waiting to happen. When I pointed this out the response I got was laughable. All it will take to fix is some black paint and some white paint. But the church’s project manager does not seem inclined to fix this, but I know where the paint is.

This is not a rhetorical question: how do you wash your hands when the faucet is only two inches from the back of the sink but 15 inches from the front of the counter?

Do you remember when you were rookie and were helping with the dishes? The divider between the sinks may have had a flat top and when the faucet was swung across it the water would flow right up to your pants front. Cue the laugh track. That is exactly what we got on all the new sinks. I only specified sink dividers that are either knife-edge or rounded.

This building has lockers just like the firehouse. They are smaller because they are only for the ladies purses when they are working in the building. Imagine if your old firehouse had 40 lockers for the crew. How would you react if the newly remodeled firehouse only has 16 and you have to get down on your knees to use them? Someone would be hanging by their heels in the hose tower. Since we all know that the ladies are the foundation of any church I am sure the person responsible for that decision will hear about it, incessantly.

Every building has at least one janitor’s closet with a mop sink. Hopefully there is a mop hanging rack on the wall above it. This is so the mops can drain and dry and keep the water off the floor. You would think aligning two rectangular objects one above the other would be easy. You would be wrong. The mop rack should be mounted above the side of the mop sink matching its length. In other words, if you hang the mop rack above the short side of the mop sink you have wasted your money. You should have bought a shorter rack and saved some money. This takes coordination with the engineer laying out the plumbing. Make sure the plumbing is not on the wall you want for the rack or rotate the sink itself. We all know that every square foot of the building is important. That is how we price out the construction — by the square foot. Why would you mount a small hot water heater on the floor and not high up in the corner of the janitors closet? You would gain functional space beneath it.

These tables can never be moved. They are tied to the conduit.

The good news is the building now has a fire sprinkler and alarm system. The bad news is the fire sprinkler designer had no idea there was a massive stove right under a sprinkler head. I’ll explain. The building has an outside kitchen. The big stove does not sit there year round. It rolls in and out as needed. Since it was not on the plans, its high heat output was not taken in to account. When the plumber connected the stove and fired it up, he quickly turned it off. This was a normal range head six feet above the stove. At the first opportunity — drained system — we will change the head to a higher temperature one. Meanwhile, the stove cannot be used to its capacity.

I have mentioned in previous articles, tile, carpet, or linoleum has no business in a firehouse. Carpet was installed on the stairway and second floor of this building. By the end of the festival, there was dark gray trail from the first floor up the stairs and to the men’s room door. Admittedly, these are carpet squares that can be replaced but I don’t think we will replace a couple of dozen tiles every year. There is only one long-term solution for high traffic floors; police concrete. It stands up to almost all abuse and the only maintenance required is a dry mop and a wet mop.

This kitchen has four stainless steel tables in the middle of the room. They are two feet by eight feet each creating a central work station four feet by 16 feet. The good news is there is no electrical power to the work service. The bad news is the feed comes from the floor and outlets are hardwired to it. This means these tables can never be moved. They are tied to the conduit. Knowing where all of you work, can you think of another solution for this problem? Go ahead and give it some thought. OK, times up. Of course we all have overhead power on reels. That would have been the better solution. Ironically, the plan set I have has a hand written note, from above. Yes it is in red. I guess everyone was colorblind.

Those of you in larger firehouses know that a large pot of water is heavy. Pop quiz, how many pounds per gallon? The solution to carrying a 40-pound pot of water to the stove is to have a pot filler mounted on the wall next to the stove to fill the pots. It is a double-jointed faucet that can unfold to reach a pot already on the stove. I put them in every one of my projects. There is only one brand worth using. I won’t mention it here but look for the brand with the beefiest construction. It has thicker walls and a bigger diameter pipe. The kitchen in question has a skinny, wimpy thing that will be broken within a year. And mostly grandmother types use this kitchen.

As ridiculous as it sounds one of the biggest problems was the toilet paper and paper towel dispensers. The capacity was meant for a day-to-day operation, not a full throttle event. You don’t make many friends when the bathrooms don’t work.

I mentioned several items that were affected by the ADA rules; height of sinks, counters, soap dispensers and stair rails. This project also had to install an elevator. The old guard of the church fought that requirement until the last minute. Somehow they thought they were immune from federal law. I know some us have had to install elevators in the newer firehouses. It didn’t make sense to me either since only able-bodied people will be using the building. I finally heard an operational reason for elevators in a fire station. If your community is declared a disaster zone for some reason, FEMA will be showing up. Some of the staff may be physically challenged, but all of them will need a place to sleep and work. It may be your firehouse. I got this tidbit from a FEMA rep at a conference this past April.

Full disclosure — I am the guy in charge of the festival and have been for the last 17 years.

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,, call 408-603-4417 or email

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