Monday, November 15, 2010

The Evolution of Cavemen and Castaways

By Beth Herman

In prehistoric times,it was a means to keep warm and char that woolly mammoth (please pass the salt), and in the 2000 film “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks unabashedly called himself a god on the night he created it. But in the dense, exploding, urban atmosphere of today, a roaring fire isn’t the answer.

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.

The Spark

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

According to LeMay Erickson Willcox senior associate Lynn Reda, director of the firm’s public safety studio, most of the projected noise concerns had more to do with the operation of the fire station and the vibration between it and the 64 residential units above than the fear of whining sirens. “They’re not supposed to turn their sirens on until they are off the property,” Reda said, adding they are naturally traveling away from the building. To that end, acoustic technology experts 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)

Where sustainability is concerned, two different green ratings systems were applied, one to the fire station to achieve LEED Silver, with the residences submitting to 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.

Additionally, safety facility design has metamorphosed from the smaller, sparse, utilitarian structures of 20 and 30 years ago into the framework that needs to support escalating urban areas, as well as a changing firefighter demographic. “Back in 1979, there really weren’t any women in fire and rescue emergency services and that’s changed a lot,” Erickson reflected. “At Potomac Yard, you’ll see gender-neutral spaces that include private bunk rooms with individual restrooms consisting of a lavatory, shower and water closet.” According to Erickson, this allows for flexibility of shift and demographics. “It’s a pretty elegant solution to staffing and gender issues,” he said. With fitness paramount to employee health and morale, the architects said relatively sophisticated gym spaces with high enough ceilings to accommodate state-of-the-art equipment are encouraged in their designs, and not simply the dumb bells-in-the-basement stock of older stations.

“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.


Anonymous said...

no more posts mentioning rust orling and their lame brand of architecture.

would it kill ya to interview a good architecture firm for once?

Anonymous said...

Convincing Romanesque would have cost a fortune. This isn't an ugly building, but the list of why what's wrong with this is so long it's pointless to even begin. This isn't a convincing historic revivalist structure. It's Disney 'old-timey.' Well done Disney 'old-timey' but still a cartoon. But hey, it's what they neighbors wanted right?

Anonymous said...

That's right, it IS what the neighbors want. You finally get it. Now think how much better it would be if one studied it seriously instead of taking every opportunity to laugh at it.

Until architects GET people don't care about all their modernist dreams and psycobable about "our time" they will continue to wonder why the public dosen't get it. Architecture is a decorative art, always has been, always will. The Hagia Sophia is a loved building not for it's technological feats, but because people find it beautiful.

Please keep posting about ALL architecture so the casual reader won't think all architects are a bunch of self absorbed shmucks.

LongTimeRez said...

Umm, does anybody actually live upstairs? I've been to visit a few times and it's literally out in the middle of nowhere in a field fronting on Rte. 1, south of the PY suburban shopping center.

It is way out of scale--looking like the mansion in Edward Scissorhands (only made of brick)--with Old Town, so perhaps that is the rationale for its location.

One thing on Potomac Yards: for decades, the RR companies used arsenic as a weed-killer to clear the tracks. Wonder how that's affecting the massive amounts of development there.

Critically Urban on Nov 16, 2010, 4:41:00 PM said...

It looks like a cheapish hotel--a newer Howard Johnson's, for example. That, or one of those Lego kits. If they had applied the green metallic bay window molding to more of the building it would have given it some three dimensional character. As is, it almost looks institutional. There's almost no window detail, and what's there basically looks drawn on and colored in.

Critically Urban on Nov 16, 2010, 4:44:00 PM said...

Basically, the architects (or client) forgot to include any architectural detail that would make the building look less naked and cheap. You can recreate Richardsonian and Romanesque "shapes" all you want, but the detail is what made it attractive. You don't have to be a snooty architect to recognize that the building just isn't as attractive as it easily could have been.

Anonymous said...

I wish it had been another cutting edge and thoroughly original glass box with a complex two dimensional grid detailed in an arts and crafts way. Swing and a misssss

Anonymous said...

I live nearby and I really hate this building.

Anonymous said...

The windows seem too small, wrong proportion for structure and because of a lack of framing details, have that 'punched out' look that just looks low budget. The poster that said the lack of details is what kills it is partially right - the money to construct an absolutely authentic historic revival building was NEVER there, THEREFORE should never have been undertaken! You didn't see the Europeans after the WWII building 'kinda-sorta' replicas - NO! They rebuilt to exact specifications or they did not attempt it at all - instead building modernist structures which defined the era.

That is why this building is Disney. It doesn't go all the way. It's a cheap re-creation. Looks like a New Urbanist subdivision imitation. Theme Park. Epcot. Nice try. The end.

Anonymous said...

There's a reason the disney critique is only leveled at traditional looking buildings, because if they built modernist buildings on Disney's mainstreet, no one would come. A lesson lost on most architects, but not developers.

As to why the Europeans build exact replicas after WWII, it's because they where building REPLICAS! They build the modernist stuff because no architect in their right mind would advocate an architecture that the establishment had branded fascist. But if you've been anywhere in Europe since Post WWII, you might notice developers their figured out what American developers know. The majority of people would rather live around traditional styled buildings given a chance.

Call it whatever you like, you ain't never going to change that fact.

Anonymous said...

^Old town 19th century structures "fascist?" What do you think the recreated exactly - Albert Speer's shrines to the Reich? Case in point, many many German old centers, much of Munich's old city, Krakow, Warsaw old city, the list goes on and on and on.

As far as European developers 'copying' the Americans by building throwback traditionalist architecture? What? Are you serious. For every (exponentially better executed) traditional residential building there are 2 that are cutting edge modernist or maybe 'soft modern' could be a term. Been to Holland? Or anywhere in W. Europe the past 30 years?

Anonymous said...

Good conversation with valid points of debate. But please stop insulting Disney's Main Street, it is so much better than this cartoon version of traditional architecture. As for the point that Disney is popular because it recreates traditional architectural styles, what about Tomorrowland, Contemporary Hotel, Bay Tower..... Disney creates environments and they do it very well.

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