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OSEA 2021

Architectural Design Award

First Place Entry

Community Fire Station for Orlando West Informal Settlements



Very often, a capstone academic project is treated as a final chance to push the boundaries of reality that so often manifest in the form of budgets, material acquisition, and so much more. However, when a very real team of firefighters from South Africa come to you with a very real issue that impacts the daily lives of very real people, the weight of responsibility and purpose is not so easily overlooked. Instead, a new understanding of the client-architect relationship blossoms with a resounding appreciation for proper design's innate ability to squeeze every ounce of meaning and purpose out of real-world constraints.

Although my "main role" for this semester-long project was the structural design consultant for a team of my architectural peers, there still remained an individual obligation to solve the given problem through the methods of an architect as well. Unlike a big-ticket office high rise for a billion-dollar corporation or a flashy, generic community center for a trendy American metropolis, designing a badly needed fire station for a foreign municipality that counts every single Rand demands all of one's emotional attention as well as their design ability. It cannot be stressed enough just how crucial the societal impact of a project such as this could have, especially on so many fronts.

First and foremost, a fire station is an unfortunate need for any community. While structure fires are far less common (and almost entirely out of mind on a daily basis) for people in the United States, they are still a far-too-often sight in South Africa's informal settlements. These "pop-up" neighborhoods are an unfortunate reality for many, many people all across South Africa and not just in the outlying areas of Johannesburg. What can only be described as an unorganized mish-mash of handmade shelters that seemingly materialize overnight, these settlements are quite literally acres of tinder just waiting for a spark.

Photo by Nigel Sibanda, The Citizen (SA)

Residents will use any material they can find to provide shelter for themselves and their families. They will build where they can when they can, which frequently results in disorganized, meandering thoroughfares barely wide enough for pedestrian traffic, much less an emergency response vehicle. It is common to see shelters, which are colloquially referred to as "shacks," made of highly flammable materials such as cardboard, untreated plywood, or even plant material and they are clustered in very close proximity. 

Because the residents in these settlements are often not tapped into an established gas or electricity line, paraffin (kerosene) stoves are commonly the primary source of heat for cooking and warmth. Cheap paraffin burners combined with whole blocks of flammable structures and a single tired, inebriated, or careless resident can spell disaster for hundreds of livelihoods... or lives.

This, however, is only one of several pressing needs for a nearby fire station.


Beyond the life safety services that typical fire stations provide for municipalities around the world, these facilities are often looked to as pillars of the local community inhabited by home-grown heroes. Unfortunately, in places such as Soweto, South Africa, fire stations and fire fighters invoke memories of colonialism and racial inequality. Historically, the minimal amount of fire stations that existed in the outlying areas of Johannesburg were seen as the fingers of a colonial government's overreaching arm. Fire fighters were government agents that were not to be trusted or liked.

Even though South Africa's Apartheid is no longer an established legislative decree, the stain of its overall societal wounds are still very present. South Africa displays with extreme clarity an undeniable level of inequality, even to this day. The growing informal settlements can often be found directly adjacent to new housing developments or golf courses for the wealthy. As is the case in nearly every country in the modern world, the less fortunate are left to their own devices and even labeled as problematic or "eye-sores" that stand in the way of new money and new development. This sentiment is difficult to ignore when such conditions endure with no major aid from those in positions to make change. Even though the country is no longer controlled by a foreign crown, the mistrust between the poor and the government persists all the same.


Photo from Unequal Scenes

Thankfully, today's fire fighters in South Africa are very commonly locals and residents that serve in the very communities that they call home. Although they remain a government entity, gradual changes in hiring and training have increased familiarity between the fire fighters and the communities they serve. Even still, the mistrust between informal settlers and the fire fighters that work to help them remains and can even result in violence or deliberate hinderance at the expense of a settlement and its residents.

Because of this, a new fire station must not emanate a sense of governmental superiority.


Instead of designing a government facility that appears to have been plopped into a community with no regard for how the locals might feel, my team endeavored to create a safe, accessible location for meaningful communal gathering that just so happened to be a functional fire station at the same time.


In order to effectively and practically avoid the aforementioned design issue regarding the governmental nature of this building, my design team and I took advantage of the drastically sloping building site to create a fire station that was literally nestled into the ground. Not only does this minimize the overall earthwork for construction, it also creates a much less visually imposing experience for the local community. As can be seen in the following site plan, an informal settlement is located directly adjacent to the northern boundary of the site. As such, the northeast access point of the site that is deliberately designed to be a geographical hub also leads directly onto the roof of the fire station! Instead of locals approaching a sheer face of a building mass, their hilltop view is minimally obstructed and the only apparent function is one that is readily tailored for their involvement.


Aerial Overview of Project Site, Looking Northwest


Approach View From Informal Settlement.

Note the minimal visual impact of the building, especially given its size.

Initially, there were many options regarding what publicly accessible, community-oriented space should be incorporated to encourage positive interaction between the surrounding settlements and the fire fighters. In hindsight, the all-too-common idea of providing a "blank canvas" community center was enticing for all the wrong reasons. Sure, the notion of freedom of choice sounds generous. However, David Powell, (Principal Architect at Hastings Architecture, Nashville) put it bluntly and eloquently when he told us that "giving them a community center is the most arrogant thing [an architect] can do. Instead of being lazy and telling them to create a purpose, give the space a purpose from the start. Create jobs. Actually help people." And so it was decided: for a community that is rife with hunger amongst many other issues, the fire station would provide a safe place for subsistence agriculture in a near-urban environment. In other words, the building is a rooftop garden for edible plants that has a fire station too.


The Rooftop Garden is actually designed to be a full-span green roof system so that the entire roof are can be utilized for planting.

Architectural Drawings:


Along with experiential integration for the local community and the fire fighters that will inhabit the fire station, the building's exterior façade took inspiration from its immediate surroundings as well. Unlike other recently constructed fire stations in neighboring communities that are constructed of pre-engineered metal components and simple concrete masonry, this fire station instead employs the use of clay brick, much like a significant portion of nearby structures including a school. This deliberate choice was made in an effort to provide yet another degree of familiarity for the settlers that will be interacting with the fire station, thus advancing the relationship between the fire fighters and the community they serve.

The trouble with clay brick, however, is that it is so often underutilized regarding its potential for visual expression. For the sakes labor, cost, and timeliness, brick is stacked in typical running bond in sheer vertical wythes that generate very little excitement or enthusiasm. For this project, though, I decided to push the limits of clay masonry in an effort to celebrate its local influence and to create something that the community can be truly proud of when all is said and done.

good brick.png

While the actual load bearing structure of the fire station is also made of clay masonry, the exterior façade is comprised of a wavy, modular brick veneer that utilizes corbeling to maintain a full-height, self-supporting composition. Each module is nearly 9ft wide x 5ft tall. The form itself was generated by taking a sine curve in both the vertical and horizontal axes using arbitrary 6" extrema and then linearly interpolating between each extreme course by course for the full height and width of the module. A visual explanation can be seen below:

In a similar vein to the subsistence farming green roof, this brick façade is not solely for visual prowess. In accordance with a South African labor law, at least 30% of the jobsite labor force must be "local." However, with this modular brick system that is actually very simple to construct, more than 30% can be encouraged to participate in the building's construction. As can be seen above, a simple mold can be created using a prototype brick module so that every module thereafter can be recreated by simply applying mortar and then placing the unit in the mold. It would generate far more jobs for unskilled laborers and, more importantly, it would ingrain the community with a sense of pride after the building is completed because their contribution will be its most prominent architectural feature.

As demonstrated by the following video, the brick façade interacts with the varied sunlight throughout the day to form dynamic shadows, granting even more visual interest to the fire station using a fairly simple expression.


Of course all of the conceptual and visual design aspects of an architectural project are exciting and thought-provoking. However, what truly made this a semester-long project was all of the "actual" design that took the concept and fleshed it out into a feasible, code-compliant, occupiable (theoretical) building. This included designing the floor plan with fire fighter response time in mind, ensuring that a designated HVAC system could supply the correct CFM with standard available components, and even running analyses for daylighting and energy consumption! While these parts of the project may not be as glamourous as Riemann-Sum-esque brick facades or encouraging trust between a community and its local government representatives, they are vital to the building that allows those aspects to flourish.

In order to accomplish all of these tasks within the relatively short time period of nine weeks, a single "focus space" within the building was chosen for key analyses such as daylighting and overall systems coordination. I chose to analyze and design for the fire fighters' lounge space adjacent to their kitchen. Even though this project was set in South Africa, all of our designs were based on codes and standards that are typically adopted by municipalities in the United States.

Wall Section: Thermal Calculations

Daylighting: Illumination Calculations

Artificial Lighting: Luminaire Selection

COVE Tool: Energy Usage and Efficiency

Daylighting: Thermal Gain Calculations

Focus Space Systems Coordination

HVAC Design: Whole Building Duct Plan

Click HERE for an in-depth look at the structural system design for this fire station.

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