We Need a New Station

If you are like most fire chiefs, you may often think — more likely dream — about building a new fire station. You make a mental checklist of all the things you’d want or need to have once you get the chance to build. Then, your service area grows or your current station is simply on its last leg, and you finally get the greenlight to start the planning process. Now what?


Unless you are in the rare minority, the budget you have to design and build the station is not enough to cover that ever-expanding checklist you’ve developed. In some cases, it’s barely even enough to build the building. So, you can’t afford to waste your valuable resources in the planning process. By choosing a design-build delivery method for your building, you can develop your plan while still maintaining an eye on the overall budget goal.

Even with design-build delivery, your best-laid plans are likely to change, requiring adjustments to achieve your goals. The key is to maintain flexibility in the early stages of planning, so you can take the challenges that arise and make positive changes that still benefit your department.

Feasibility Phase

In the feasibility phase, your goal is to determine if your expectations for the new station mesh with the available resources. The starting point can vary based on each department’s situation. In some cases the land is already secured and in others, identifying a location is part of the process. Regardless, you will need to develop a general program for the new station. This is where that mental checklist gets put on paper.

Working with other stakeholders on the project, you will flesh out a general idea of the features and amenities of your new station:

  • Number and size of apparatus bays
  • Support rooms/functions
  • Sleeping quarters
  • Needs specific to headquarters station or substation, etc.

Developing a general plan allows your design-builder to get a sense of your desired station size and configuration. This information can then be used to develop a feasibility budget and also evaluate land.

Remember — flexibility is key. In many cases, the budget at this stage is a reality check on what you want versus what you can afford and what is feasible. For example, you may already have land secured, but you find that your ideal building layout does not fit efficiently on the site. Your design-builder can work with you to identify the cost impact of the various fire station components, so you can prioritize and focus on the ones that are most important. 

Conceptual Phase

By the end of the feasibility phase, your mental vision for a new station should be taking shape. By now, you will have something concrete to reference, such as an initial floorplan; perhaps even elevations and a site layout. You’ll also have a good idea of what is realistic and achievable. Your priorities are defined. Armed with this knowledge, your architectural designers can now use their creative talents to maximize the value of your building’s design.

As details are added to those initial feasibility plans, the designers will consider the goals and priorities you established in the feasibility phase. Through discussion and review, the conceptual plans will take shape. Depending on the project’s challenges and your personal preferences, this could involve a few or many plan renditions. Your priorities might even change as the plan evolves.

Maintaining a view on the budget is a critical component in this phase. As you revise and add detail, it is important to update and evaluate your budget. A good design-builder will help you walk through various options for exterior materials, interior finishes, and many other decisions to help determine what fits best for your design and budget goals. It is important to take full advantage of the conceptual process to identify and answer as many unknowns as possible. Making changes at this stage is much more economical than changes in final design, or even worse, in the field during construction where changes can create unforeseen costs.

Selecting a design-builder who is knowledgeable and can work with you through these steps is key to building a successful fire station. Fire chiefs who address the feasibility and conceptual phases of their fire station project with care will find the design phase to move quickly and efficiently so you can permit and construct your new station. Contract pricing will still need to take place and minor challenges and changes will likely arise (that’s the nature of building). However, surprises will be minimal and solved quickly because of the foundation you established in the early planning phases.

Matt Culler is a project developer at Bobbitt Design Build, based in the company’s Columbia, South Carolina office. Culler works with businesses and organizations to help them achieve their goals for new and renovated facilities. Prior to joining Bobbitt, Culler worked for Mead and Hunt Engineers and Architects in environmental and commercial site development. He is a member of South Carolina Economic Developers’ Association, Urban Land Institute, and Society for Marketing Professional Services.

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