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A Fossil-Fuel-Free Fire Station is Coming to Somerville

Assembly firehouse somerville - CambridgeSeven

Firefighters devote their lives to saving others. Isn’t it about time we help to improve theirs?

In the building industry, our decisions have direct impact on the environment and as architects, we have a responsibility to act in the interest of public health and safety. Our design of the City of Somerville’s first new fire station in decades presents an opportunity to tackle issues of health and safety for people who are most often exposed to contaminated air.

Materials Matter

Research indicates that firefighters have an elevated cancer risk due to chemicals and other toxins released from burning buildings. For Somerville’s Assembly Row Fire Station, we utilized new technology to design a high-performance building and a comfortable reprieve for firefighters to collaborate, prepare and convene. We specified only Red List-free materials – those that do not pose serious risks to human health and our ecosystem. The Red List contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), linked to multiple cancers and systemic illnesses, and halogenated fire retardants (HFRS), which build up in the body resulting in a range of neurological, reproductive and liver problems.  Reducing exposure to these substances is especially important for firefighters whose day-to-day work exposes them at higher rates than the average adult.

Advanced Building Performance

In addition to specifying Red-List free materials and adhering to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) regulations for the Fire Station, we took special care in designing the decontamination room, the first space that firefighters enter upon returning from a call. The decontamination room and adjacent “hot zones,” including the apparatus bay, are under negative pressure to prevent contaminants from entering the separated living areas of the fire house and has limited access points to further help contain contaminants. We designed its dedicated bathroom and shower with a ventilation system that draws 100% outdoor air, employing a highly effective air filtration system typical of clean rooms.

flow diagram of assembly firehouse
Assembly Firehouse – Functional Flow Diagram

The three apparatus bays are designed with a vehicle exhaust rail system that diverts harmful vehicle fumes outside, protecting the station’s indoor air quality. To minimize the thermal losses associated with this level of ventilation, the building is equipped with a high-efficiency energy recovery ventilator (ERV) which helps keep the heat indoors while exhausting the air particles. The station will also be fossil-fuel-free with the exception of the necessary emergency generator; the HVAC and hot water systems will be 100% electric.

Increased User Comfort

Our design emphasizes building performance, energy use, and air quality without sacrificing user comfort. This station is unique in that CambridgeSeven draws on our multi-disciplinary practice to design interior spaces. For the private bunk rooms, we looked at our hotel guest room as a model of transient lodging and equipped each room with a small workspace and private closet. Individual shower and bathrooms also increase privacy. For the dayroom, CambridgeSeven draws on our experience with residential design experience to include a lounge and kitchen with plenty of natural light and environmental graphics to create a true living room feel. A Fitness Room and Locker Room with laundry are of a quality you’d expect in a residential building. We hope the extra care put into these spaces creates a warm and comfortable environment for the firefighters that also supports mental wellbeing.

Rendering of the dayroom in the new firehouse that will include a kitchen and lounge seating

Through our work, we are mindful that creating equity within the station for all firefighters means understanding the culture. Teams may collaborate and need a range of social space, and at other times, firefighters may need privacy for phone or video calls, studying or simply downtime. Each need should be met in the station.

The positive impacts of the Montreal Protocol buoy our hopes of dampening the climate crisis. We anticipate that specifying Red List-free materials and moving toward fossil-fuel-free buildings is another step toward a future of lower carbon emissions and global warming. Beyond working with government agencies, such as the City of Somerville, to develop healthful environments for those who protect our communities, we can extend these principles to all public and private projects, creating a better relationship between our built and natural environments.

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