Fire|Beach House

Sited on a sprawling lot on Cessna Road right next to Galveston’s Scholes International Airport, and surrounded by not much besides sandburs, the sea breeze, and the wide expanse of the airstrip, Fire Station 4 is a surprising piece of contemporary architecture. Designed by the Dallas office of the international firm HDR Architecture, the rectilinear, two-story building stands out on the flat landscape with a tripartite design composed of a translucent, polycarbonate base, a metal-and-wood-clad top, and an offset concrete tower linking the two. 

“When we were selected for this project, I knew that we had an opportunity to design something unique,” said Jim Henry, AIA, an associate vice principal and design principal at HDR. “Some of the first concepts were really traditional and responded to the queues of the airport. But then we took a step back and began to ask ourselves what were the key drivers that would define the project. What will elevate the typology?” The result is a refreshing take on the traditional firehouse. 

A fire station previously located on this site was destroyed by Hurricane Ike in September 2008. That building was a single-story, ranch-style structure with the command center and living quarters on the same level as the apparatus bays (firefighters don’t call their vehicles fire trucks, they call them apparatuses). It had a seven-ft-high fortified wall, and the site was elevated slightly to put it over the water line. Despite these contingencies, the storm surge from Ike — which crested the much-higher 17-ft-high Galveston Seawall — easily overwhelmed the building. For its replacement, the fire department wanted a building that could withstand another storm of similar or greater intensity. 

To hurricane-proof the new facility, the architects took the living quarters and command center and placed them above the apparatus bay, which was given a 22-ft floor-to-ceiling height, thus putting the second story well-above the Ike storm surge mark. There was nothing innovative in Texas Architect 61 9/10 2013 this decision — in dense urban environments, it is an iconic aspect of the typology, without which there would be no equally iconic firehouse pole — but given the flat nature of the setting, it resulted in a building with a nearly monumental, civic demeanor. It also offers another, more concrete benefit. “When thinking about a fire station that would serve the precinct and the airport, while also supporting beach search and rescue efforts, iconic images of fire towers, light houses, and aviation

towers all came to mind,” said Henry. Like those structures, the tall building provides the firefighters with long-reaching views of the vicinity, perfect for spotting fires. 

The building’s structure also plays into the storm-resiliency scheme. It is cast-in-place reinforced concrete, and the tower, which faces the Gulf of Mexico, features fortified concrete walls that shield the building from the wind and flying debris. Everything else on the building is lightweight. The corrugated polycarbonate cladding on the apparatus bays is designed to give way and release from its aluminum frame under 35 pounds per square foot of wind and water loads, relieving pressure on the structure. It is also translucent and allows plenty of natural light to enter the bays, reducing the need for electric lighting. Doors open on both ends of the bays as well, allowing plenty of ventilation in this high-ceilinged space and providing a comfortable place for the firefighters to service their apparatuses and conduct their drills. 

Programmatically, the command center and living quarters demanded much fewer square feet than the apparatus bays, leaving quite a bit of extraneous room to play with upstairs. The architects used this extra space to provide a covered patio and observation deck for the firefighters. The entire upper story is shrouded in a white aluminum-clad box. The deck itself, as well as much of the interior, is surfaced with Ipe wood, a Brazilian FRC-certified hardwood that doesn’t burn and is capable of withstanding the marine environment. 

“The interior is like a deck or boat, and this nautical reference inspired the Fire|Beach House name,” said Henry. “The whole idea was to provide an oasis for the firefighters on top. And below it’s all business. Firefighters work long shifts. Now that it’s occupied, they say how nice it is to have space for families, which they didn’t have before.”

Juror Ann Beha noted: “This firehouse has its own specific vocabulary — it’s not the typical firehouse. So right away it steps out of its genre. I think it really accomplishes a kind of lightness and airiness. It’s a civic building, and obviously a municipal client, and I have a lot of respect for architects who can work with municipal clients to create more daring and subtle architectural moves.”

Aaron Seward is a regular contributor to TA and managing editor of The Architect’s Newspaper. 

Published in Texas Architect September/October 2013.