By Alan M. Petrillo
Fire departments around the country are engaging architects to build new stations or refurbish older structures to 21st-century standards.
While many new contemporary style stations are being built, often a department chooses a traditional design over a contemporary one to reflect an area’s heritage or the department’s tradition. Other reasons behind the style of station design include blending the structure into the character of a neighborhood and, at times, fitting the station onto a small-sized or irregularly shaped piece of property.
Ken Newell, principal at Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects (SCN), says that in the 400 fire stations SCN has designed and built, the firm has done a wide variety of every type of design style. “The majority of our clients want a more traditional style of architecture for their fire stations,” Newell says. “For example, we designed a new modern fire station for the Pleasant Valley (SC) Fire Department with a very traditional look. The station uses cultured stone, masonry, cast concrete, red overhead doors, and a hipped roof. There’s something about that look that draws clients to it.”
In Lincolnton, North Carolina, the city hall and fire station were designed and built in the 1970s and were separated by about 100 feet, Newell says. “They needed more space in both buildings, so we designed and built additions to each structure, connected them, and then put a more traditional looking skin around the whole thing,” he notes. “The initial architecture was old tan brick facing with long vertical slot windows and a flat roof. We put on more traditional red brick and stucco, with concrete entryways and accent pieces.”
For the Bruton (VA) Volunteer Fire Department, Newell says SCN was the design consultant architect “to replace a very old station on the same site. They wanted the aesthetic of a historic old school in their community, so we built a five-bay station of masonry and precast concrete, arched openings, and circle head windows built to look traditional but very modern inside. We built it 20 feet behind the old station, and when it was completed, tore down the old station and turned the area into the front drive apron.”
Bob Mitchell, principal at Mitchell Associates Architects, says his firm has designed and is constructing a new central fire station for the Peekskill (NY) Fire Department that will have a traditional look and feel to it. “The design reflects the aesthetic of the city of Peekskill at its peak in the early 1900s,” Mitchell points out. “It’s a two-story station on a corner lot being built of stone and brick. “The lobby has the feel of a museum with a hand pumper and old hose carriage in it along with a granite staircase. The building is a statement of what the city is proud of.”
Two other projects that Mitchell has designed and is in the process of building include an expansion to an early 1950s fire station in Chappaqua, New York, where Mitchell Associates is adding three bays and two stories in the traditional style, and an addition to an 1890s fire station in Milton, Massachusetts, that also reflects a traditional style of design.
Lynn Reda, principal in Hughes Group Architects, says Hughes Group is building a fire station located in a historic village where the department doesn’t have a strong preference as to the design style. “But, stakeholders can influence design,” Reda says, “and the community wants it to blend in as much as possible with the historic nature of the village.”
Reda says that her firm will usually put together designs for a client “of a contemporary, traditional, and somewhere-in-the-middle style of design. More often than not, the fire department goes for the traditional, likely because it is comfortable and familiar. They like elements such as arches over bay doors, a hose tower, and big glass doors, so people are able to look into the station and see the fire apparatus. The history and tradition of the fire service is such that they want their building to personify that tradition.”
Jim Zwerg, architect and facility manager for the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, says his department has a design guide manual for its stations but that the manual doesn’t dictate the style of the structure. “What we have always emphasized is that function has to be established first, and once we know that, the design will revolve around what the collection of boxes will look like,” Zwerg says. “We follow deployment needs for each station, whether it’s multicompany, single company, or another format.”
Zwerg points out, “The site also is important in selecting a design. You have to look at where the station will be situated—if it’s in a rural, suburban, heavy residential, downtown, commercial, or industrial area.” He notes, “Phoenix tries for context architecture, determining what the neighborhood is doing with structures. We wouldn’t put a station with a lot of glass in an industrial neighborhood.”
Matthew A. Gorman, principal architect at Arrington Watkins Architects, says that trends in station design styles depend on the location of the station. “Generally, people want a fire station to fit comfortably into its surroundings, so we take cues for local area buildings that are already there when considering a design,” Gorman says. “The bulk of fire stations are typically located near residential neighborhoods or inserted in existing housing areas, so we want to be very sensitive to how the fire station looks in relation to the houses in the area.”
Gorman says Arrington Watkins designed and built Phoenix Fire Station 56 in a Tuscan villa style to enable it to fit into a 10,000-home master planned community. “We were handed a color and material palette to choose from,” Gorman notes. “Everything in the development was tightly controlled for all buildings. We’re pleased the fire station turned out to be a striking, classical looking station in stone with a stone rotunda and with an attractive color palette.”
Arrington Watkins also designed a fire station for the Salt River, Pima, and Maricopa Indian Community. “It’s a traditional design that takes its cues from the land,” Gorman says. “It’s a rectangular building with colors and patterns built into the block work that show layers that echo the patterns of the surrounding fields and also the very striated and layered stone formation in the Red Mountain in East Mesa. The exterior canopies of the station are held up by custom columns that evoke the desert ocotillo.”
Reda thinks that traditional styles of fire stations are more readily found on the East Coast of the United States. “It’s more an East Coast thing,” she says. “Fire stations and other structures on the West Coast are more contemporary. They don’t have the tradition of pitched roofs to shed rain, so they are more comfortable with flat roofs.”
Newell says that SCN was the design consultant to a local architect in Manhattan, Kansas, where it designed two stations at the same time. “They were complete opposites of each other,” Newell points out. “The floor plans were extremely similar, but one was in the industrial part of town and the other in a residential/light commercial area. They wanted the residential station to be in a traditional style, while the industrial area station had to have a contemporary design.”
Other contemporary style stations designed by SCN, Newell says, include a very modern-looking replacement headquarters fire station in a prominent downtown setting in Waukesha, Wisconsin, that features a lot of glass with a red interior wall that shows through the glass a large red numeral “one” on it and a large station designed as a modern interpretation of a Coast Guard Station for First Landing (VA) Fire and EMS in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Functionality of Designs
Zwerg notes that a fire department has to consider the functionality of the fire station before thinking about the style of its design. “Once you know how many bays and the number of dorm rooms that you need, then the rest of the spaces, kitchen, day room, exercise room, training room, offices, and work spaces all fall into place,” he says. “You have to look at the space in relation to the areas that will be public, semipublic, semiprivate, and private. Once you have a rough idea of the floor plan, then you can entertain what it will look like on the outside. Also, you have to consider the four-minute response time in coming up with a decent functioning floor plan.”
Reda agrees that functionality is a critical consideration. “We lay out a plan for a station that has the most efficient circulation and keeps spaces as proximate to the apparatus bays as possible,” Reda says, “and lay out an adjacency diagram for the client. But how that box is masked, the shape of the roof, shape and sizes of windows, and whether the exterior is contemporary metal panel or traditional red brick, none of that is predicated by the interior plan.”
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist, the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, and a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.
F.I.E.R.O. Fire Station Design Award Winner