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Red Goes Green
Sustainable Design Becomes Part of Triage for Fire and Rescue Stations
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
“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
“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
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
“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,”
“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
“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
“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
“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.”.