This new net-zero fire station is carrying the flame for considered civic architecture. It is proof that good urbanism can make even the most functional buildings feel fresh.
Among the civic buildings that anchor an urban setting, from public libraries to neighbourhood police outposts, there’s one urban structure that holds a particular potency for the Canadian architect Pat Hanson, who co-founded her studio, gh3*, in Toronto in 2005: the fire station.
“The fire hall is one of those city buildings that is embedded in a neighbourhood,” she says. “It embodies a community’s sense of security. Even the way in which these buildings are depicted in children’s storybooks captures the excitement at watching the fire engines coming out of the station. And they’re usually built with masonry and stone, which gives them a sense of permanence and creates a feeling of trust.”
It is in that spirit that Hanson approached her design for a new fire hall in a suburban neighbourhood in the Canadian city of Edmonton, in the province of Alberta. “We would never worked on a fire station before, so that was our starting point for what we really wanted to imbue in this building – a little bit of that cultural and social context, as well as how it functions.”
Windermere Fire Station, which opened last July, is Edmonton’s first net-zero building, which means that all of the energy that the complex uses is generated by the building itself. There are 382 solar panels embedded in the long, south-facing sweep of the station’s asymmetrical pitch-roof and an underground geothermal facility, buried 70 metres beneath the complex, heats and cools the building. Any surplus power is sold on to Edmonton’s electricity grid.
The way that a fire station operates, however, made ensuring that the building wastes as little energy as possible a challenge, Hanson says. “A fire hall’s doors open thousands of times during the year. That has a huge effect on the ability to control the amount of energy that escapes, especially in winter.”
Hanson overcame that by replacing the type of doors that are common in fire stations in North America: doors that roll upwards to allow the fire engines to exit. Instead, European-style bi-fold doors were installed. “The speed at which doors open is absolutely crucial and we found that these doors could do that faster.” Minimising the number of windows in the fire engine hall and installing thicker insulation panels in the walls also help to keep the energy in.
The station’s asymmetrical, pitch-roofed silhouette and exterior walls, which are in dark-grey interlocking brick, are playful nods to the residential architecture that will populate the surrounding neighbourhood once its construction is complete. It is also a reference, says Hanson, to the dual function that a fire station has to perform.
“Fire stations are very interesting building types,” says Hanson. “They are basically domestic quarters for the firefighters; while they’re on duty, they live in the fire station. So a portion of it is really like a big house. And then the rest is the kind of technical, industrial and mechanical area where the fire engines are kept. We wanted to get those two spaces to feel architecturally as though they were one. Firefighters are often the first at the scene of an emergency, so they see the worst of everything. It was important to create a feeling of peacefulness and serenity in the domestic quarters. That was key.”
Windermere Fire Station is the latest addition to the city of Edmonton’s burgeoning roster of well-designed civic architecture – an approach to urban design that has caught the attention of procurement departments at city halls elsewhere across Canada. “Culturally, it has made a huge difference across the whole city,” says Hanson. “Architecture has become something that people in Edmonton pay closer attention to. The city is really setting an example.”
Monocle comment: It takes some courage to commission civic buildings that go beyond the banal and dare to be beautiful. When it happens, it is to be applauded – and held up as a benchmark for others to aspire to.