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Red Goes Green
Sustainable Design Becomes Part of Triage for Fire and Rescue Stations
By Lynn Murray

When it comes to green building initiatives, most fire and rescue stations have not been first responders. But as larger municipalities across the country begin to see their investments pay off in long-term cost savings, more cities are putting green on the radar.

It is no surprise that green building for fire stations (and municipal facilities in general) has been a slow process. While public structures traditionally strive to set an example for their communities, the government building process is often slow, mired in political red tape, and restricted in budget. And while few would dispute that sustainable design and green building practice are good ideas, changing established protocol to accommodate these ideas simply wasn’t an emergency.

In the past four years, however, cities large and small have taken deliberate steps to make “green” a more integral part of new construction and renovation of fire stations.

“Government entities are becoming more aware of sustainable design and are showing much more interest in it,” said Ken Newell, AIA, LEED AP, senior principal, Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects in Gastonia, N.C. “The Federal Government and many state governments now require some level of sustainable certification on all building projects. Many municipalities are following suit.”

The industry standard is LEED® (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design), a voluntary rating system established a decade ago by the U.S. Green Building Council, which identifies sustainable design elements in six categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality and innovation and design. Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum levels of LEED green building certification are awarded based on the total number of points earned within each LEED category.

Of Stewart-Cooper-Newell’s 50 or more active municipal projects at a given time, Newell said approximately 25 percent or more are now requesting some level of sustainable design up to and including LEED, with this number increasing annually. Cities ranging from Dallas and Phoenix to Carrboro, N.C., (population 18,000) are part of the movement.

In Maryland and Virginia, J. Lynn Reda, AIA, LEED AP, senior associate, LeMay Erickson Willcox Architects in Reston, Va., has seen a significant increase in municipalities now mandating green. Both Montgomery County and Howard County, Md., require LEED Silver. Fairfax County, the City of Alexandria and Arlington County, Va., also require LEED Silver. In Prince William County, Va., community volunteers have taken the lead in constructing new facilities and LEED is encouraged, but not mandated by the county.

Municipal green building initiatives are under consideration in many, if not most, communities in Northern California, said Dennis Dong, AIA, CSI, ARA, LEED AP, principal partner, Calpo Hom & Dong, in Sacramento, Cal. “Most communities are not mandating total compliance to LEED but are strongly urging the incorporation of green methods in new design and construction,” said Dong.

More prominent are specific areas of green initiatives being driven by environmental and energy regulations, such as mandates requiring the treatment and collection of storm water and construction material recycling to minimize waste sent to landfills. California also mandates that all buildings comply with the Title-24 California Energy Efficiency Standards for Residential and Nonresidential Buildings.

“Green building initiatives, along with these standards for building and a forthcoming state energy code, are becoming inherent in all building projects, much like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made an inherent consciousness of accessibility as an essential design feature in projects,” said Dong.

A dialogue with clients
A municipal project, such as a fire station, usually begins with a series of dialogues between the client and the design team. And experts say what happens in these conversations is a foundation for integrating sustainable design into the project.

“If they don't bring it up first, we discuss what is happening in the industry regarding sustainability and find out what their desired approach is to it,” said Newell.

“The question, with most clients, is the amount of green, and the benefits derived. Title-24 California Energy Standards already mandate certain levels that must be met, and this is readily accepted by all projects. The push for going beyond the standards, however, is often discussed between client and the design team, and requires an open mind and education on both sides,” said Dong.

“I explain the benefits of green building to clients as not only potentially environmental and financial, but from the point of view of employee satisfaction,” said Reda.


“Fire and rescue personnel essentially live in those buildings for 24-hour shifts (sometimes longer). The facilities historically have been dark and claustrophobic. Given the incredibly stressful nature of the work, the facility they return to after an emergency should be an inviting, healthy, and comfortable environment,” she added.

The green of green
Newell’s firm conducted a cost analysis of five typical fire stations in Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, ranging from 9,000 to 15,000 square feet with sustainable design elements ranging from minimal (rainwater harvesting) to full LEED certification. On average, green initiatives – including design, construction, third-party commissioning and LEED registration – added approximately 4.5 months and an 18-21 percent cost increase.

“While these are significant impacts to the project, most or all of the sustainable efforts will result in significant ‘pay-back’ over the life of the facility, especially when you consider that the life span of a fire station is expected to be 50 years plus,” said Newell.

If the designer already charges very high fees and designs very expensive buildings, then incorporating LEED may not cost the client any more, said Newell. But in most cases, incremental costs will be incurred. In the future, these programs may be so standard that the cost increases will diminish. But they are not likely to disappear.

Dong and Reda suggest that fairly standard green initiatives raise costs by between 2 and 5 percent, with the most tangible cost savings in utilities and energy use.

“I have one fire station project currently under construction that should see a yearly energy savings of approximately $21,500 per year,” said Reda.

“Green building costs may initially be higher, but can you afford to NOT incorporate them? There are numerous studies by institutions, showing the long-term cost savings in utilities, and the time required for the payback. What cannot be quantifiably measured is the improved mental attitude of the building’s users, in a healthier environment,” said Dong.

Elements of design
“As a rule, fire stations and municipal projects target the straightforward initiatives that have relatively low first-cost impacts. This is certainly in part due to the fiduciary responsibility of the municipality,” said Reda.

Common design elements incorporated in fire and rescue stations include reflective roofs and concrete pavement, to minimize the “heat island” effect; construction waste management practices; low emitting materials to improve air quality; and low flow plumbing fixtures and other systems to recycle and conserve water. Additionally, the use of materials generated from local sources saves money, time and gas and reduces pollution.

Durability and low maintenance are other considerations when selecting green materials.

“We tend to stay away from finish materials that have not been thoroughly tested (wheat board, cork, bamboo). Energy-efficient HVAC system, as well as automatic lighting controls and natural daylight are all standard targets,” added Reda, who is currently incorporating these elements in pursuing LEED Silver on the Germantown-Milestone fire station in Montgomery County, Va., as well as on The Station at Potomac Yard in The City of Alexandria, Va.

Another important factor to keep in mind is that current building codes, along with good design practices, already satisfy significant elements of sustainable design.

“Most building codes require that issues like insulation values, lighting controls, plumbing fixture controls, HVAC efficiencies, etc., be addressed in some level of sustainability. We have evaluated some of the stations designed in our firm without LEED and found that more than half of the necessary points for ‘Certification’ were achieved simply due to code requirements and good design practices,” said Newell.

Sometimes, the satisfaction lies wholly in the pursuit of LEED. The Town of Carrboro, N.C. completed all necessary requirements to comply with LEED Silver for its Fire and Rescue Station No. 2, but elected not to submit the project for official LEED certification. Instead, the town channeled the costs of filing for LEED back into the project – an estimated $60,000, said Newell.

A shared decision
It’s easy to talk green, but making it happen is a shared responsibility.

“One of the most important things to do when considering green initiatives is to get a real commitment from all parties involved – from planning through operations and maintenance. This will ensure decisions are made with common priorities, and ideally more consideration will be given to “new” technologies that haven’t necessarily been tested,” said Reda.

“In addition, include funding at the very initial budgeting exercises for both additional professional fees as well as construction costs. For example, many municipalities are interested in vegetated roofs, but don’t include the up-charge in the budget and the idea never makes it past schematic design. Consider holding a LEED charrette while developing the budget for any given project to identify potential high-cost strategies,” she added.

“Think in terms of the long-term investment, not only in the building efficiencies, savings in utility costs, and well-being for your users, but also your contribution to the global environment,” said Dong.

“Being green is not limited to exotic and costly energy-generating systems but is often a matter of common sense, and good, sound planning and design.”.


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