First Responder Buildings Become Leaders in Sustainable Design Across the United States

First Responder Buildings Become Leaders in Sustainable Design Across the United States

Winter 2020 | Written by Lorne Bell

Little Rock’s Station 23 was the first LEED-certified fire station in Arkansas. The station was designed by Jackson Brown Palculict Architects.

Sustainable First Responder Buildings

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They step up when no one else will, rushing into burning buildings and active crime scenes to save lives. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that our nation’s firefighters and police are pioneering ambitious sustainable designs in their facilities.

From Charlotte to Little Rock to Rogers County, Oklahoma, first responders’ buildings are earning high marks from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. In the process, they’re reducing our cities’ energy and resource use and improving the health and preparedness of emergency responders everywhere.

Sustainable Charlotte

In 2009, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, established a policy mandating that all new construction owned by the city be LEED-certified or meet a comparable third-party benchmark for sustainability. With the goal of rendering Charlotte a “global environmental leader,” the policy recognized that “sustainable facilities not only provide environmental benefits to the community, they result in economic savings to the City, support the region’s sustainable building industry, and protect occupant health, maximize productivity and encourage sustainable employee behaviors.”

After a slew of successful LEED-certified projects, the policy was revised in 2016 to require all new construction and significant renovations (buildings 5,000 square feet or more) to strive for LEED v4 certification. Today, Charlotte has more than a dozen LEED-certified and LEED-registered projects in its portfolio of sustainable city buildings, including five LEED-certified first responders’ buildings and five more police and fire stations in design and construction that will seek LEED certification.

The policy has made Charlotte a national leader in sustainable urban development and ensured consistent progress toward buildings that are eco-friendly and healthier for the people inside.

“The LEED certification process gives us a clear-cut set of instructions for ensuring that our city buildings are designed and built the way we intend,” says Heather Bolick, Charlotte’s energy and sustainability coordinator. “It also shows the community what our police departments and other departments are doing to move forward on our climate initiatives.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s Westover Division Station is one of three LEED-certified police division stations, and five more LEED-certified division stations are on the way. Westover Division Station was the first LEED v4 project to be certified in Charlotte.

Above, left and center: The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is one of three LEED-certified police stations in Charlotte. Its geothermal pumps eliminate the use of fossil fuels, which would otherwise be used to heat and cool the building; a close-up of the art exhibit, A Hornet’s Nest, by clay sculptor Michael Morgan. Above, right: Heather Bolick is Charlotte’s energy and sustainability coordinator.

The 21,800-square-foot station project cost $8.4 million and achieved LEED Building Design and Construction (BD+C): New Construction certification under LEED v4 in 2017. It now houses about 120 officers and 15 other city staff.

The new police station’s geothermal (ground source) pumps virtually eliminate fossil fuels that would otherwise be used to heat and cool the building. In fact, even with the geothermal heat pumps included in the station’s electric load, electricity use has been reduced 32% from baseline. It’s part of an exemplary energy profile that helped the Westover Division Station earn nearly every available LEED Energy and Atmosphere credit for optimizing energy performance.

The decision to dig deep geothermal wells instead of using fossil fuels came with a significant upfront cost, but the city’s commitment to building sustainably includes a 50-year building life cycle assessment. With that time frame in mind, the one-time price to dig the wells was offset by annual energy savings and relatively minor costs to replace the system’s heat pumps, rather than the cost of replacing an entire heating and cooling system every decade or two.

“We’re building 50-year buildings, and they’re running all the time with high usage,” says Major Sherie Pearsall, a 26-year veteran of the force and commander of the police department’s Administrative Services Bureau. “We want to make sure we’re good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars, and we do that with energy-efficient features.”

Yet energy savings are just part of the LEED advantage when it comes to designing sustainable buildings where emergency workers will work and sometimes live. Officers and firefighters are coming and going around the clock, often from stressful and traumatic fieldwork. Pearsall says working in a building that earns LEED credits for everything from heating to daylighting, healthy building materials and air filtration makes a difference in officers’ overall comfort and morale.

“It’s only when you’re working in those buildings that you begin to understand the value of LEED certification,” she says.

Above, left: Travis Stratakes is the project designer at C Design and project administrator for the Westover Division Station. Above, right: Major Sherie Pearsall is a 26-year veteran of Charlotte’s police force and is the commander of the police department’s Administrative Services Bureau.

“When you look at the type of carpeting, the colors on the walls, the energy efficiencies, so that you’re not freezing one minute and hot the next. For our officers, this is their home away from home. They can come in and rest and breathe clean air and know that great effort has gone into building a facility that operates at its best and highest performance, so they can, too.”

To do their jobs effectively, Charlotte’s finest also understand that their workplaces are an integral part of the neighborhoods around them. C Design, which designed the Westover Division Station, used that notion to design a station that is a central hub for both the police and the community.

“This project wasn’t featureless on the energy side,” says Travis Stratakes, project designer at C Design and LEED administrator for the Westover Division Station. “It leaned heavily on the geothermal wells. But the legacy of this building is that it’s both sustainable and community-focused. It’s about the city’s commitment to integrating the community and community services.”

In the age of community policing, designing a police station that prioritizes public access while ensuring tight security was a challenge. To achieve that balance, C Design identified those areas where security was less of a concern, locating ample windows and daylighting features.
“We were trying to create a sense of transparency wherever possible,” says Stratakes.

The station’s daylit entrance includes a public art exhibit, sending a strong and inviting message to the residents whom Charlotte’s police are sworn to protect and serve. Within the building’s interior, architects used clerestory lighting, an ancient technique to bring in light by setting windows above eye level. The result is an environment that is secure but feels bright, lively and accessible to the community.

“It draws the community in,” says Bolick, the city’s sustainability coordinator. “And it helps them feel connected and builds that bridge.”

Linda K. Smith is Little Rock’s sustainability commissioner and USGBC’s director of community in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Memphis.

Big LEED in Little Rock

Some 750 miles west of Charlotte, the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, has adopted a similar sustainable development policy. In 2010, the city mandated that all new municipal buildings strive for LEED certification, a move that put the state capital at the forefront of sustainable policymaking in the U.S.

Since then, Little Rock has achieved LEED certification for seven municipal buildings, including libraries, the Little Rock Port Authority and the newly renovated LEED Gold Robinson Center, home to Little Rock’s performance hall and conference center.

“It was certainly progressive for a city in the South,” says Linda K. Smith, one of Little Rock’s sustainability commissioners and USGBC’s director of community in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Memphis.

While there were concerns about the costs of building more eco-friendly buildings, Smith notes that the city quickly realized the near- and long-term savings of buildings with significantly reduced energy, water and maintenance costs. Some of Little Rock’s LEED-certified buildings have already reduced energy and water usage 30% to 40% below state requirements, and long-lasting, recycled construction materials mean less maintenance as the buildings age.

But when it comes to first responders’ buildings, Little Rock’s LEED ambitions have translated into benefits beyond energy efficiency. Firefighters and police are finding that working and living in LEED-certified buildings means happier, better prepared emergency response teams.

“It definitely improves morale, and we don’t have any problem filling Station 23,” says Douglas Coney, Little Rock’s assistant fire chief. Completed in 2012, Little Rock’s Fire Station 23 was the first LEED-certified fire station in Arkansas. The new 8,291-square-foot building achieved LEED certification under LEED BD+C in 2013.

Coney, a 35-year veteran of the department, says the new fire station is thoughtfully designed for firefighters’ unconventional work and schedules, with individual sleep and bathroom quarters, study rooms, an industrial kitchen, workout rooms and a community meeting space.

Little Rock’s Jackson Brown Palculict (JBP) Architects designed the $3.6 million Station 23 and a nearly identical Fire Station 24, which is scheduled for completion in 2020 and will seek LEED v4 certification.

Station 23 earned a number of LEED credits for resource efficiencies, including Materials and Resources credits for using recycled and regional construction materials and reducing construction waste, as well as Water Efficiency credits for fixtures that reduce water use. The station also earned Energy and Atmosphere credits for sourcing at least 35% of its energy from renewable sources. An automatic call alert system linked to low-energy LED lighting reduces the need for around-the-clock illumination in the engine rooms and sleeping quarters.

But many of Station 23’s LEED credits came from designs that prioritized Sustainable Site Development, protecting an adjacent creek, as well as Indoor Environmental Quality. Just as improving the air quality in a retail or commercial space can improve worker productivity—indeed, a 2015 Harvard study confirms this—keeping the air clean in a fire station can boost emergency workers’ health and preparedness.

“Health and wellness are even more critical in fire station design,” says H.F. “Bunny” Brown, JBP’s president and one of Station 23’s project architects. “The contaminants that firefighters are exposed to are biohazards, from blood and saliva to the carcinogens in an actual fire. Mitigating that contamination from entering the living spaces is very important.”

To do that, Station 23 features decontamination spaces for firefighters’ gear. Advanced exhaust EVAC systems pressurize the building to prevent engine fumes and dangerous particulates from entering the living quarters, and electrostatic air filtration ensures clean air throughout.

For most of Fire Station 23’s firefighters, even the building’s more visible sustainable features are an afterthought—and that’s the point. When a five-alarm fire breaks out at 2 a.m., the last thing you want to worry about is seeing your way to the engine room.

“Firefighters are not the most mindful when it comes to electricity and energy use,” says Captain Timothy “Tod” Dudley, a 20-year department veteran who works at Station 23. “At other stations, you can’t sleep in total darkness, and you have to leave some sort of night light on in case you have to run. Here, the station can be pitch black and when a call comes in, [the alert system] will turn the lights on for us. It saves us time and it’s really nice.”

Top to Bottom: A rendering of the 12th Street Police Station in Little Rock that achieved LEED Silver certification in 2015. The station’s interiors use HVAC with under-floor air distribution and movable walls, allowing the station to reallocate heating and cooling needs.

Across town in Little Rock’s Ward 2, the 12th Street Police Station achieved LEED Silver certification in 2015 under LEED BD+C. Like Fire Station 23, the police station takes a holistic approach to sustainability, keeping environmental impact and the health of a 24-hour police force in mind.

To create an eco-friendly police station, bicycle storage and preferred parking and drop-off spaces for fuel-efficient vehicles incentivize alternative transportation. Water-efficient bathroom fixtures and irrigation systems reduce water use by 35% and 76%, respectively, earning all five available LEED Water Efficiency credits. A tight building envelope reduces energy use by 13%.

The interior design uses HVAC with under-floor air distribution and movable walls, allowing the station to redirect heating and cooling needs and reallocate space as department needs change. The station’s layout was planned to connect the community to its police force: The department’s two-story, $12.5 million building is owned by the city, and it is massive: 46,000 square feet, of which 28,000 square feet are occupied by the police station itself.

A central atrium connects the station to several commercial, retail and restaurant spaces that the city hopes to lease out, earning LEED Sustainable Sites credits for development density and community connectivity. It’s an important step toward reducing urban sprawl and breathing life into Ward 2, an economically depressed area of Little Rock.

“The aim is to pull in the whole 12th Street corridor,” says Timothy Yelvington, one of the 12th Street Station’s project architects with Roark Perkins Perry Yelvington (RPPY) Architects. “We were trying to revitalize and stimulate that area, and it’s working.”

Yelvington says nearby Philander Smith College has expressed interest in locating its criminal justice program in the building.

For the police, sustainable features such as increased daylighting and automated LED lights are helpful, says Captain Crystal Haskins. But designing the building to bring the community in builds connections between the police and the residents they protect, a centerpiece in the department’s efforts to reduce crime in Ward 2.

“[The 12th Street Police Station] provides an opportunity for public safety to have a visible footprint in an area that has historically had challenges with violent crime,” says Haskins. “It’s a beacon for the community.”

LEED is OK in Rogers County

First responders are public servants, and they know it. For them, policing and firefighting is a calling to protect and care for their neighbors and fellow citizens. That’s certainly the case for Sheriff Scott Walton, a lifelong resident of Rogers County, Oklahoma.

“I’m 63, I grew up here in Claremore, and Rogers County is a little slice of heaven as far as I’m concerned,” says Walton.

When Walton became his hometown’s sheriff 10 years ago, after more than two decades with the Tulsa Police Department, he quickly realized the sheriff’s office had outgrown its building. In addition to the sheriff’s office itself, the building housed the jail and its 247 inmates, 25% over the facility’s capacity. So, when the federal government put the abandoned 1935 Claremore post office up for sale, Walton pounced.

“When I was a kid, my mom and I would drive downtown to mail bills, and I would jump out and run into the post office, and I remember seeing the wanted posters of all the bad guys,” he recalls. “It was meant to be.”

The building sits on South Missouri Avenue in Claremore, across the street from the county courthouse. The site and its history as a beloved landmark were strong selling points, but the building was anything but ideal. It had sat vacant for years. The basement was flooded and filled with mold. Any rehabilitation, LEED-certified or not, would require extensive asbestos remediation.

“What I love about this project is it shows that sustainable design is not just for new buildings,” says Kim Limbaugh, director of sustainability for SGA Design Group, the project’s architect. “You can use LEED to improve the efficiencies, occupant health and overall beauty of renovated historical buildings as well.”

As LEED project administrator, Limbaugh led the design of the 8,000-square-foot building overhaul, achieving LEED BD+C certification in May 2019 and earning the Associated Builders and Contractors of Oklahoma’s Excellence in Construction award. The turnaround brought a decrepit relic of 1930s Americana into the 21st century with energy-sipping sustainable technology and a work atmosphere that would make most urban desk jockeys jealous.

The new $1.6 million sheriff’s office reduces overall energy costs by 42% from baseline with high-efficiency HVAC that uses a variable refrigerant volume (VRV) system, allowing individual spaces to be heated and cooled independently. The system can also remove heat from one space and apply it to another, reducing heat loss to the outside of the building. LED motion-activated lighting and individual controls further reduce the energy load and add to workers’ comfort. In all, the sheriff’s office achieves 18 of 19 LEED Energy and Atmosphere credits for optimizing energy performance.

Above, left and center: The Rogers County Sheriff’s Office heating, cooling and lighting are primarily occupant-driven; room temperatures and lighting fluctuate. Above, right: Kim Limbaugh is the director of sustainability for SGA Design Group.

Beyond saving energy and Rogers County taxpayer dollars, the building’s systems and design bring comfort to a busy law enforcement environment. Ventilation is provided with a dedicated outside air system to control humidity levels and maintain positive pressurization, enhancing the thermal comfort of the occupants. Rooftop skylights—restored from the building’s original louvered design—bring daylight into interior office spaces, a welcome solution to the typical inner-office doldrums. An advanced MERV 8 filtration system keeps the office air clean and healthy, and building materials with low or no VOCs helped earn LEED Indoor Environmental quality credits.

To earn LEED Sustainable Sites credits for community connectivity, the sheriff’s office is located within walking distance of a residential zone and at least 10 basic services, including a bank, school, community center, supermarket, park and restaurants. Alternative transportation credits were achieved with bicycle racks and showers to encourage occupants to reduce vehicle use, and with preferred parking spaces for fuel-efficient vehicles.

The SGA Design Group recognized the historical value of the building and worked hard to preserve, and sometimes re-create, a number of early 20th century features. In addition to the updated skylights, an entryway arch and 1935 period tilework mimic the original style of one of Rogers County’s original landmarks.

Sheriff Walton says he and his police force knew very little about sustainable buildings and energy-efficient designs before they moved into their new digs. Because the new facility’s heating, cooling and lighting are largely occupant-driven—room temperatures and lighting are allowed to fluctuate according to use—“there is a little learning curve,” says Ryan Baze, Rogers County’s director of facilities.

“That was probably the most challenging part of the new LEED design—getting used to life on motion detectors,” says Baze. “But the VRV system makes for more heating and cooling zones and allows the officers to be more comfortable according to their individual needs. And with extra tall windows and ceilings and the skylights letting lots of natural daylight into the center of the building, it feels open and comfortable.”

So, what do Walton and his fellow officers think about their new home now?

“This building is so well lit and comfortable to work in,” says Walton, “it adds a lot to a hardworking guy’s or gal’s day. I’ve worked in buildings that were no fun to be in. This one’s like a pair of shoes that fits good. You may not appreciate them, but put on a pair that doesn’t fit well and walk around for a day and you’ll share the same experience we have here.”

Baze agrees. “We have people on staff in the sheriff’s office 24 hours a day, and being in a comfortable building helps them go out and do their job well,” he says. “We sure are proud of it.”

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