By Beth Herman
For Reston, Va.-based LeMay Erickson Willcox Architects, purveyors of safety design and creators of more than 50 fire and rescue facilities over three decades, the structures they build in response to the demand for fire and rescue services in expanding metropolitan areas are the real answers, and maybe in more ways than one.
Back in 2006, when the City of Alexandria sought a redevelopment plan to revitalize Potomac Yard, a former rail yard sited in the city’s north end which for more than 100 years served as the area’s primary freight yard and extended all the way into Arlington County, the idea of mixing rescue with residents was completely unprecedented according to firm principal Paul Erickson.
“We’re not aware of any other building in the U.S. that combines an apartment structure with a fire station,” Erickson said of the prototype mixed-use design for The Station at Potomac Yard No. 9. “We believe there are one or two overseas: one in London and there might be one in South Africa, but we’re not aware of any here.”
Very much a collaborative effort where the collegiality on the project was “infectious,” Erickson was quick to emphasize, the 170,000 s.f. structure, which includes two below grade parking floors and was earmarked as both low-income and affordable housing, is the painstaking result of the efforts of legions of civil engineers, traffic consultants, historic and design review entities, fire and housing office officials, sound consultants, sustainability inspectors, a “forward thinking” general contractor–Whiting-Turner Contracting Company–and two architecture firms. “It was the best team spirit of any project I’ve been involved in since the beginning,” Erickson affirmed. “One of the distinguishing characteristics of this one was everybody sort of catching a vision of something that was unique and had never been done.” What’s more, because the City was exploring how best to manage a master redevelopment plan for the area, it wanted to make sure that if things were built, they could be protected, Erickson said, referencing the 22,500 s.f. fire station component.
Vibrations Under Fire
Polysonics Corporation was retained, resulting in the design of a special sound-abating slab between the fire station’s ceiling and the residences above. “We were certainly concerned about vibration,” Reda said, noting that the parking garage and fire station consist largely of poured concrete while the units above are wood frame structures: the change in materials mitigating sound. Because of the station’s four pendulous 14x14-ft. bay apparatus doors (plus one more for HAZMAT trailers) that open and close several times in a 24-hour period, instead of traditional overhead doors with ceiling-mount motors that would impact the units above, the architects used “side-parting” doors. Additionally, the 1,2 and 3-bedroom residences above are arranged in a U-shape around the apparatus bays, which further attenuates sound from beneath.
Fire Walls (and roofs and floors)
EarthCraft certification. According to Reda and Erickson, EarthCraft, which is residential in nature, dispatches inspectors during construction to examine the thermal envelope and is more focused on energy conservation including appliances, for example, that have Energy Star ratings. For the building’s LEED credentials, Reda said 100 percent of the parking is below grade, considered exemplary performance from the heat island effect. The sloped red metal roof has a high SRI (solar reflective index), as does a concealed mechanical well behind it. Arriscraft block– visible at the base of the building and which provides the appearance of a heavily-rusticated stone base but is essentially veneer–is regional. Cement block, which comprises the station’s interior walls, has an inherent recycled content and wood used in doors and cabinetry is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)-certified. Occupancy sensors for lighting and occupant-controlled thermal elements are present, as is radiant heat in the floors of 15 bunk rooms. “One of the reasons we did that is because they are located above the cold, two-level parking garage and sleeping rooms need to be warm in winter,” Reda affirmed. A small municipal park sited in front along with perimeter plantings, irrigated by rainwater from garage-based cisterns that collect roof water, qualifies for green space.
Where There’s Smoke
For Erickson, whose grandfather was a firefighter (though he never knew him) in St. Paul, Minnesota, and for Reda, whose reputation for “living the job” comes from her constant immersion in firefighter training exercises and overnights at stations on out of town projects, fire and rescue station work is proverbially in their blood.
“I’ve cut open roofs, extinguished car fires, done search and rescue through smoke-filled houses,” Reda said (much in the way an actor may research a role). Because firefighters have their own culture, and characteristics of their culture may vary significantly from city to city, state to state, region to region, Erickson and Reda said it is important to understand how one city for which they are designing a facility might do things as opposed to people and factors that influenced the last project. “It’s important to be able to ask the questions that will help you design that building and not change them (the firefighters) culturally into something they don’t want to be,” Reda said.
“And from a firefighting perspective, equipment such as ambulances, engine and ladder trucks – they’ve gotten bigger and bigger and bigger,” Reda said, noting sometimes the older facilities cannot be retrofitted to accommodate them and stations must be built larger. What’s more, she cited a greater understanding of the impact of firefighting on gear itself (it costs $1,000 to suit-up a professional), and the trend in building climate-and light-controlled storage rooms to manage gear’s off-gas toxins following a fire.
On Fire Now!
Alluding to the firm’s website, Erickson said despite so many requirements there is no uniform design response for fire stations. “You’ll see some very contemporary designs, as well as those that try to take on historic characteristics and blend into an historic neighborhood,” he explained, noting that because of Rust Orling Architecture’s (the second firm involved) high standing for work within an historical context in Alexandria, fulfilling the requisites of the design review board, planning commission, town council and neighbors to develop the character of the building’s exterior was supremely achieved. The result, Erickson said, is a “Richardsonian-Romanesque kind of architecture, but done in a Virginia brick that blends the image of a civic building with the particulars of Old Town Alexandria.” In fact, among the multitude of awards the building has received is a 2007 U.S. Council of Mayors’ Award and a 2010 Craftsmanship Award.
With a project in Durham, New Hampshire and two projects in development in the District that will apply similar mixed-use principals, one where an 1895 horse-drawn pumper on Georgia Avenue will yield to affordable housing and improved emergency response with one proverbial stroke, Erickson indicated word is getting around. And with creativity extending to financing, in Alexandria some of the cost of the $23 million project was defrayed by funding sources and options that included the developer, Potomac Yard Development, contributing just over $14 million for both the fire station and residential components, plus donating the land, and by using Virginia Development Housing Authority (VDHA) tax credits.
“I think what this all really demonstrates is that you can think outside of the box,” Erickson said.