The Fire Station, The Station Articles

Pitfalls to Avoid In Planning, Designing, and Constructing a Fire Station

By Ken Newell, AIA, LEED-AP BD+C

“Learn from other people’s mistakes.” That is a quote we have all heard and desire to apply to our own life experiences. Unfortunately, another quote is more often applicable to everyone’s situation: “What we learn most from history, is that we don’t learn from history.”

With more than four decades of designing more than 350 public safety facilities, our firm has witnessed numerous, common pitfalls encountered by organizations planning, designing, and constructing fire stations. The most common, in no particular order, follow.

Not Having Facility End Users on the Design Committee
People who are actually going to be housed in the facility should be on the committee that selects the designer and works with the designer throughout the process. This makes for a better building and happier end-users.

Underestimating the Time Required for the Project
An understanding of how long it takes to plan, design, prepare construction documents, obtain agency approvals, bid, and construct the facility is crucial in determining your overall project schedule and starting soon enough to meet your time expectations.

Underestimating the Budget Required for the Project
Most departments that have not recently built a commercial building—especially a modern fire station—are greatly surprised at how expensive they can be. Make sure to use cost projections based on recent station projects that are detailed similar to the facility you expect.

Shown is the recently completed Jacksonville (NC) Station No. 2. (Photo courtesy of Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects.)

Selecting Designers Inexperienced in Public Safety Facilities
Any good architect should be capable of learning how to design the best station to fit your needs. But do you really want them to learn how on your project? Selecting the experienced designer will result in saving significant money on bid day, during construction, and throughout the life of the facility.

Selecting a Bad Site
There are many site characteristics and conditions that will guarantee a more expensive design fee and a higher construction cost. Identifying these issues before the site is selected will ensure a lower project cost. The “free” or “cheap” site does not always prove to be so. 

Not Acquiring Available, Adjacent Property
If property adjacent to the site you are considering is available for purchase, seriously consider the acquisition. Most stations will need to be expanded during their life spans.

Not Informing the Public or Neighborhood of Plans
Good communications with the taxpayers and/or neighbors is the best way to avoid public protests. Have some well-timed and well-announced public meetings to at least provide an opportunity for public education and input.

Include a Construction Contingency Allowance
A construction contingency allowance is a specified sum of money identified in the contractor’s bid that is designed to be a pool from which potential unforeseen expenditures during construction, such as unknown rock or unsuitable soils, can be paid. The contingency allowance can also cover changes to the project that you identify during construction that will require additional construction costs. Whatever is not spent from the contingency allowance at the end of construction will simply be returned to the department.

Planning Without Growth Expectations
Site size and layout, along with building size and layout, will be significantly different if you remember that stations are expected to last for 50 years or more. You will almost certainly expand your facilities in the future. So, plan where and how today.

Selecting High-Maintenance Materials and Equipment
Building materials and systems are not items that should be selected based on their low cost. While significant savings can be had on bid day for lesser quality flooring, wall finishes, HVAC equipment, etc., the short life spans will result in higher yearly maintenance, utility, and replacement costs.

Qualify the Apparent Low Bidder
Use significant effort to prequalify or post qualify the apparent low-bid contractor. Questionable financial statements, licensing complaints, bad references, lack of related experience, etc. can potentially predict problems that you may have with them during the construction of your project.

Not Planning Adequately for “Extra” Expenses
There are many more costs associated with the project than just the “construction costs.” Determining these “extra” expenses and the schedule for encountering them can make or break your budgeting efforts.

To learn more about these and many other station planning, design and construction issues, please contact us at [email protected].

KEN NEWELL, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, IAFC, has earned a national reputation for the programming and design of public safety facilities that are functional, practical and budget-conscious. Newell has been directly involved in the planning and design of more than 250 fire stations, EMS stations, and public safety training facility projects designed by Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects. He has also consulted other architects on the design of more than 70 public safety projects spanning 27 States. Many of these stations have received national design award recognition.