HOW TO START BUILDING PROJECTS: THE FIRST STEPS

The building process can at times seem overwhelmingly complex.  Standing in your facility you can see that something needs to get done; too little room for your equipment, continuously climbing operations and maintenance budgets, patches being added to patches, training exercises you would like to do but can’t, falling response times, more and more difficult recruitment drives to name a few.  The problems may seem obvious to you, but solutions are usually a little less clear, especially where expenditures of public funds are involved.  Tax payers and public officials often require proof of need, validation of requirements, and will no doubt have competing alternative solutions to suggest.

The Pre-Design phase of a building project is intended to bring together all the requisite information to determine the feasibility and direction of a building program.
Predesign is the most important phase of any fire station project.  There are many questions to answer and decisions to be made.  How much to build and where to build it? Do we need to build, should we build new or add on, can we even add on, what is the cost differential to additions versus new construction?  Your community will no doubt have many questions of their own…and those will likely change as the discussion around your construction project evolves.  The following is a list of simple predesign studies that can be commissioned to get you the answers you need.

Facility Review:  A facility review should have two primary components; conditions of the existing building and an operational review.  The condition assessment will include a review of the building envelope and mechanical and electrical systems to determine their functionality and continued serviceability and ability to support additional loads if an addition is contemplated.  Energy efficiency should be considered as well.

The operational review will determine if your facility is operationally efficient and functional for your department.  A sound building could still potentially be problematic.  Older facilities in particular may have challenges with PPE gear stored in bays and behind vehicles, lack of drive through bays that restrict access to vital equipment, and smaller doors that lead to mishaps with today’s larger equipment.   These operational issues can be as important to a discussion regarding building solutions as pure space needs.

Space Needs Analysis:   This step, also referred to as programming, will determine the amount of space you should be planning for in a building project.  This is not just an exercise in replacing spaces you already have, but should be viewed as an opportunity to seek improvements in current operations.  An experienced programmer will bring the experience of other facilities and departments to your project and may even challenge you to think about how you can do what you do better.

Station Location Study:  The fire service is acutely aware of response time issues in providing service, but there is more to locating a station than just minimizing time from the station to the fire.

Finding the proper location within your service area can include a lot of factors such as:

  • Response Time
  • Specific risks in the community
  • Areas of increased demand
  • Home and work locations of responders
  • Traffic and traffic patterns
  • Availability of property

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) will provide graphical representation of the data collected that will support the decision making process to the community and elected officials.

Site Selection Studies:  Where Station Location Studies look at the larger picture of where a station should be located, Site Selection Studies examine a specific site or sites.  There are many general site selection formats that can be used that account for utilities, topography, soils and other site development issues.  Emergency services facilities, however, have a number of specific challenges that should be considered as well.

  • Appropriate size and shape
  • Multiple points of access
  • Access to primary and secondary response routes
  • Relationship to natural and manmade hazards
  • Neighborhood adjacencies
  • Impact on tax base

A well prepared site selection study will use a numerical ranking system that prioritizes important departmental issues creating data-based selections that avoid political or personal preferences.

Feasibility Study:  Once an approximate size and location of your facility is known, knowledgeable professionals in the building industry can assist with providing budgetary costs for construction based on the cost per square foot of similar facilities.   Care should be taken to plan for appropriate ‘soft costs’ such as contingencies, furniture, fixtures and equipment, required technology, professional and legal fees and other costs that are not directly related to building construction but will impact your project budget.  Again, knowledgeable professionals can assist you developing the details you need to account for the full cost of a project.

Other studies that are sometimes performed as part of a Predesign process include:  Shared services/merger, operational and personnel management, and equipment utilization and maintenance studies.

There is no set guideline for developing these studies or an order in which they should be performed.  Determine the specific issues challenging your department and define the questions you need answered.  Include that information in your request for proposals.   Likely you will fit into one of the types of studies outlined here, but if not, there are likely consultants able to assist you in finding the answers you need.  Don’t be shy about asking professionals for direction and advice.  Even if they do not provide the service you are seeking, they likely know who does.

As the name implies, this is necessary work that typically occurs before the design phase of a project.  These studies are easy first steps that can be taken without committing to a course of action or large costs.  The information you derive will go far to answering your questions as well as the questions others will have.  Most importantly, they will help you to solidify your vision of the solution to your facilities issues and become the beginning of the plan that solves it.

Written by: Michael Clark, AIA