Fire stations of the world: FDNY EMS Station 27 in the Bronx, New York, US
EMS Station 27 is situated on East 233rd Street in the Bronx neighbourhood of Woodlawn, New York, in the US. The innovative Emergency Medical Services (EMS) station designed by New York–based WXY Architecture + Urban Design was opened in August 2011. “A lot of people in EMS, they think of this as being like the flagship station,” says Lieutenant George Trager, a paramedic attached to the new EMS Station 27. Before the new station’s opening, Trager and his 60-odd colleagues were scattered in facilities across the city, many of which were cramped, aging and inadequate. The difference between their old and new digs, says the 16-year veteran, is “like night and day.” EMS stations are peculiarly hybrid creatures. Combining various elements of a firehouse, a clubhouse and a parking garage, they have to serve as all-purpose depots for roving bands of EMTs and paramedics on 24-hour patrol. Ambulances return to refuel and resupply; crews check in at the beginning and end of each eight-hour shift and senior staff stop by to monitor operations in the field. For the new Bronx location, the designers and assorted governmental stakeholders were charged with stuffing these complex functions into a very tight envelope. EMS 27 occupies a footprint of less than 3 000 square feet and is wedged between an auto shop and a dusty scrap lot.
Like the nearly century-old fire station it replaces, the new building runs through the narrow block from front to back, facing onto a high-traffic corridor on one side and a quiet residential stretch of Woodlawn on the other.
Claire Weisz, AIA, founding principal (with partner Mark Yoes, AIA) of WXY, was acutely sensitive to this contextual double bind. “We were concerned that the neighbourhood, which had fought for this building, didn’t end up with the same façades for both the houses and the [main] road,” she says. Accordingly, EMS 27 presents two faces to the world: to its neighbours, it’s a demure composition of glass and zinc panels, easily mistaken for a contemporary condominium; for drivers on the busy thoroughfare, its row of raked, irregular louvers establishes a lively play of sun and shadow that’s even more striking at 40 miles an hour.
The shimmering brise soleil, hoisted over a base of glazed brick, helps to mask a complex mechanical system that nearly bursts out of the building frame. “No inch of the building is wasted here,” notes Samir Shah, programme director for the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), the city’s representative on the project. Everything from a control booth and computer room, to decontamination units, to a narcotics storage closet with a blood-vessel-scanning lock are all stacked one atop the other on the building’s five above- and below-ground floors. A training room that doubles as a dining space in the penthouse and a connecting outdoor terrace (unique to New York’s EMS stations) add just a touch of luxury, as does a fitness room below - though all, command sweeping views of the nearby graveyard.
The building’s height, itself unusual for an EMS station, gave WXY the chance to make a virtue of the difficult site and hefty programme. “By being that compact,” Weisz says, the EMTs “get to realise more social engagement.” By that, she means that the station’s overlapping functions, foster human interaction. The same applies outside the building’s walls, which the architects strove to open up with more apertures, more glass and less bricks and mortar. “At the same time we were trying to make this a private space, we didn’t want to isolate them [the personnel] from the neighbourhood,” she says. “We had to make that leap.”
Ramsey Dabby is chief architect for New York City’s Fire Department (FDNY), the parent agency of the city’s Emergency Management Services (EMS). As point man for the FDNY on the Bronx project, he worked hard to make the building the pride of EMS—but being innovative, he notes, isn’t always easy. “‘Pushing the envelope’ is a tricky phrase in the department,” Dabby says.
Across New York, there has been a renewed effort in recent years to make design quality a priority in public buildings. But in an environment rife with institutional forces, design can be a chit in the political process.
In the 1990s, FDNY’s EMS stations were designed on a “prototype” model, as Dabby describes it—“solid, substantial buildings made out of masonry.” Starting in 2006, however, the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) codified its Excellence in Design and Construction (EDC) criteria: As with the federal Design Excellence programme, this protocol places a stronger emphasis on the unique architectural character of city projects and that opened the door for emerging firms like New York–based WXY Architecture + Urban Design. “Design excellence was set up to say, ‘Now take these written rules but try something new,’ ” says principal Claire Weisz, AIA.
That made the stakes in Woodlawn particularly high. The FDNY has built only a handful of EMS stations since the EDC programme made the ’90s prototype obsolete, so the design for EMS 27 can help make the case for a new generation of EMS facilities.
The completed building seems to satisfy the hopes of the EMTs and paramedics who work there. “This makes us finally feel respected,” says EMS 27’s Lt George Trager, who hopes that subsequent stations will follow EMS 27’s lead. Shah says he certainly expects some features, augmented social spaces upstairs and a basement (which is not currently standard in EMS stations) that separates the building systems from the already-crowded workspace, to become a frequent request from EMS end-users in future. But the FDNY’s Dabby is quick to stress the fundamentals. “What you should be doing is creating houses that can take abuse,” he says. “These aren’t for ballerinas.”
Sources: FDNY EMS Station 27 and Architect Magazine