Is Green the New Red for Fire Stations?

(By Paul Durand, AIA; with contributions from Dana Weeder, AIA LEED AP and Mike Fields)

Barnstable, NH's Green Fire Truck!

Green fire trucks instead of red ones? No, not that kind of green; the sustainable kind. The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) has brought sustainability to the mainstream of building design through their Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) program. The program established a point system for sustainable design and awards Basic Certification, Silver, Gold and Platinum ratings depending on the degree of sustainability that a building, or interior renovation has in its design. Most pundits argue that it’s not enough and that we need to do better for our environment, but all agree that it has moved environmental concerns to the mainstream by commoditizing sustainable design so that clients have knowledge and a measure of just how well we’re doing in creating sustainable construction.

We are often asked whether LEED is an avenue that should be taken for municipal buildings or should it just be “energy efficient” without having one of the USGBC’s LEED monikers. It’s a good question and the answer always depends on what’s more important. But, should you be sustainable or not is a no brainer, of course you should. It’s easy and can cost nothing (or not much) and when factoring in the return on investment we find payback is often within 5 to 7 years for a fairly high level of sustainability.

When applied correctly, sustainability affords fire and police departments to have more money going back into training and serving the people…

When it comes to Public Safety Buildings, where users are in it for the long haul and cost of operation comes out of their mission budgets, the answer is to be as green as you can afford to, because many of the decisions made will have long term benefits for the community. Many Public Safety buildings have lasted over a hundred years with little improvements.  When applied correctly, sustainability affords fire and police departments to have more money going back into training and serving the people, rather than leaking through old walls and windows and wasted by inefficient, aged building systems.

Portsmouth, NH LEED Silver Fire Station Sustainability Strategies

One of our latest public safety projects is the City of Portsmouth’s Fire Station #2 (New Hampshire’s first LEED Fire Station). The Portsmouth Fire Station is scheduled to be completed in May and will proudly sport a LEED Silver rating. For LEED Public Safety Buildings, we recommend super insulated, high mass, concrete walls that have insulation integrated into their forms; this provides a performance value of up to R50 when you factor in the insulation, thermal mass and reduced air infiltration. The solidity of this system is perfect for buildings that will need to last a hundred years, or more, and for their need to save energy, and stand/operate even in catastrophic occurrences. Also, the inclusion of highly efficient equipment and sophisticated energy management/monitoring controls help ensure these systems continue to work to ultimate efficiency.

The solidity of [super insulated, high mass concrete walls] are perfect for buildings that will need to last a hundred years, or more, and for their need to save energy, and stand/operate even in catastrophic occurrences.

Natural light is used extensively and monitored by photo sensors that adjust the artificial lights to brighten or dim depending on the availability of natural light; and all lights have motion sensors to turn off in rooms when not occupied. We use products of recycled content and those that don’t release harmful vapors into the atmosphere, and we bring in more fresh air for a healthier environment. For the site and landscaping, we like storm water retention systems, so we’re not overburdening city sewers, and selected vegetation that don’t need irrigation. Today, even asphalt pavement can be limited and more grass or permeable pavers are being utilized to promote rain water percolation and limit the “heat island affect” that cities create with too much concrete and asphalt. One of our favorite creative green ideas for fire stations: capturing rain water from the roof to fill and wash the fire trucks.

Beyond other typical no cost/low cost green building strategies, here are five Public Safety specific issues and green opportunities to consider:

  • Dealing with full time occupancy in a commercial building: Appropriately zoning HVAC and occupancy sensitivity in the building balances optimum thermal comfort of users who are there 24 hours a day with energy efficiency goals.
  • Balancing safety needs during alarm situations with ‘downtime’: Using multilevel exterior lighting allows for adequate lighting at the vehicular path during emergency response, but conserves energy when not in use.
  • Reducing water consumption: Filling Emergency Vehicles with water can account for tens of thousands of gallons a year. By using captured rainwater we can significantly reduce the burden on the potable water supply.
  • Effectively heating large spaces: Utilizing radiant floors in apparatus bays keeps heating focused in tall spaces and should provide a quicker recovery time when doors open and close (especially in those cold New England winters).
  • On-site energy harvesting: Harvesting your own energy gives more flexibility for funds to be applied towards training and services rather than operating costs, and these days the ROI for these systems is rapidly increasing. The ROI time frame for solar domestic hot water is about 3 years; Ground Source Heat Pump systems are generally 5-10 years; and the cost of photovoltaic systems is expected to substantially decrease over the next few years.  (Our Needham Public Admin Building and some other ongoing public facilities have been designed for future photovoltaic arrays).

The effect of green design on the environment is great, but the effect on people living and working in public safety environments is greater. They are healthier, happier and more pleasant places to be in, so worker productivity is increased. It also makes for good architecture that isn’t so much about imitating style but about integrating buildings into the environment and into society. It’s a win-win-win scenario and very exciting. If you’re building or renovating a public safety facility you should jump right in, go green. Its fun….and very rewarding!


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