How Not to Fall Down the Stairs

As it did for Forest Lake, Minnesota, a shared city hall, fire, and police station can significantly reduce operating costs.

ARTICLE | Mar 19, 2015
By Cindy McCleary
The City Center’s grand opening and open house drew hundreds of visitors. Photo is courtesy of Forest Lake, Minnesota, and LEO A. DALY.
By Cindy McCleary
When the city of Forest Lake, Minnesota (population 19,000;, started to plan the replacement of its aging police headquarters in 2005, it was so outdated that the daily act of booking a suspect put an officer’s life at risk. Between the too-small sally port or entryway and the tight booking room, an arresting officer would guide the handcuffed suspect up a narrow flight of stairs, just hoping the suspect wouldn’t trip or try anything.

“I’ve fallen down those stairs several times,” Forest Lake Police Chief Rick Peterson said. “I’ve had a few arrestees who decided they wanted to fight, and think, ‘What a great opportunity to take an officer down with me.’”

He’d keep his gun out of reach by sending the suspect up first, “But no matter what kind of escort, there was just no safe way to do it,” Peterson said. “You were always on guard, extremely diligent in watching the individual to make sure he or she didn’t lean into you. It was easy for them to launch you backwards.”

As an architect, I see this type of situation often, where local government workers make do with facilities that haven’t been designed to meet their needs or put up with facilities that pose significant impacts and risks to their operations.

Those days are over for Forest Lake. Its new City Center—a joint city hall, police, and fire headquarters—opened in December 2014 and replaces separate facilities built and renovated multiple times during the last 60-plus years. City Center was designed in close collaboration with city staff and political representatives, using an integrated-design process.

Integrated design may sound like a fancy buzzword, but it describes an important approach to the development of a building. With this approach, the architecture and engineering team integrates the owner, user, and public into the design process from the beginning. Enlisting their input early and consistently helps to produce an integrated-system solution that optimizes function, security, space, and building performance.

In other words, its design asks the architect to think like a cop, firefighter, administrator, resident, and taxpayer to understand their individual challenges and the costs and risks of their business, and then to create solutions that fit together like a puzzle.

Forest Lake City Center offers a number of great examples, ranging from how to maximize initial and operational costs in a new project to granular issues like how to provide the safest, most efficient environment for emergency-services staff, city staff, and visitors.


Shared Space Reduces Costs

One of the success stories of City Center is its estimated savings of $1.5 million dollars in construction costs. By combining city hall, police, and fire headquarters into a single building and using an integrated design process, the building’s footprint was cut from 75,000 to 65,000 square feet.

The construction budget was reduced from $15.3 million to an anticipated $13.8 million. Integration of advanced HVAC systems and other energy-efficient features is projected to save the city more than $60,000 annually.

The design consolidates all city services into a single building, publicly accessible from a common “front door,” saving residents time and frustration finding the right department. It also leverages shared spaces with an eye toward high security, especially in public spaces.

“We made a concerted effort to use shared spaces,” said Forest Lake City Administrator Aaron Parrish. “The new facility does a good job of sharing resources, while still allowing some distinct identity and natural separation between departments.”

The multifunctional community room is a good example of City Center’s shared spaces. Located at the junction between secure fire and police wings, the large meeting room flips between uses easily, from hosting a community event, to accommodating the entire police force for group training, to being used as an emergency operations center. It also provides a logical connection between the public and administrative elements of the building.

Environmental Stewardship

One of the biggest draws of Forest Lake as a city is its natural beauty. Located about an hour north of Minneapolis, this fast-growing suburban community relies on the health of its lakes, forests, and wildlife for part of its civic identity.

For this reason, every element of City Center’s design, from the site selection to the interior finishes, is a reflection of Forest Lake’s commitment to nature.

City Center sits on the site of a former shopping center that was desperately in need of revitalization. This brownfield site, tucked between two area lakes, was also a source of stormwater runoff contamination through the years. This situation contributed to high phosphorus levels in the adjacent lake and the algae blooms, and also damaged the native marshland.

“The city looked at many different plots of land and ultimately decided that purchasing and demolishing the near-vacant shopping plaza was the best fit for the project. Redeveloping it as an energy-minded city center supports the values of this community,” Peterson said.

Through a $382,000 grant from the state of Minnesota’s Board of Soil and Water Resources, the project was able to implement a stormwater treatment program that will remove up to 100 pounds of phosphorus from Clear Lake annually and serve as an environmental education site.

Through the innovative design of an engineering firm, two tree trenches and a bio-filtration swale were designed to capture and treat runoff. A series of iron-enhanced sand filters treat runoff from not only the site, but also the entire Highway 61 corridor, which previous environmental studies had identified as a phosphorus-loading hot spot.

Energy efficiency and utility cost reduction also played an important role in the facility’s design. Through the use of a utility-provider incentive program, selective material choices, heat-recovery and cooling systems, innovative use of daylighting and LED lighting, the design beats state-required energy consumption standards by 36 percent.

Designing to Minimize Risk

Anywhere police, criminals, evidence, firearms, and the public meet is a natural risk multiplier. An architect’s job is to understand each of the system’s vulnerabilities and to then design to minimize risk.

One of the most important elements in any police-station design is respecting and honoring the chain of custody, which is the pathway of evidence from crime scene to courtroom. For evidence to be useful, it must be handled with scrupulous care. Good design reduces potential exposures, protects the evidence-transport process, and reduces the risk of local governments and staff members.

Chain of custody was problematic at Forest Lake’s former police station. Space had grown so tight that the tiny, 160-square-foot evidence-processing room was pulling double duty as the armory. Evidence and guns are a particularly bad pairing. Guns are messy. Evidence is sensitive.

“Contamination was a big concern,” Chief Peterson acknowledged. “Lead dust, chemicals—who knows what could be in there?”

A protocol was developed such that, before unpacking evidence, an officer would clean the area with ammonia. Aside from being time-consuming, it introduced potential judicial risk into the chain of custody.

At City Center, police have dedicated rooms for ammunition, firearms cleaning, and evidence storage, as well as evidence processing and intake. Implementing these priorities into the design gives officers more time to serve the public and also greatly reduces the risk of judicial challenge.

Extending the Life of Equipment

Another problem facing the police force was the harmful effect the local climate had on the life of their squad cars, technology, and gear.

“Last winter was brutal on patrol vehicles, especially on the in-car cameras, radars, radios, and laptops we carry,” Peterson said. “When it’s 20 below, all the moisture freezes, then you warm up your car and the condensation melts and damages the equipment.

“We had radars that went down and in-car cameras that had issues because of the dramatic changes in temperature. Plus, it’s hard on the battery. Vehicle battery life was about 18 months, max.”

City Center features a 20-car squad garage, providing police vehicles a climate-controlled environment. “Looking at the cost of repairs and maintenance, I’d be willing to bet this [garage] will save us between $18,000 and $20,000 in the next two or three years,” Peterson said.

Planning for Growth

Major civic projects can take decades to get off the ground. It’s important that when they finally happen, they are designed to grow with the community.

As of today, Forest Lake’s fire department is an all-volunteer force. Gary Sigfrinius, the fire chief, is the only full-time firefighter. This won’t always be the case, however, because as the city grows, it will need to make the transition to a full-time paid crew.

The City Center is designed to accommodate this growth. The apparatus bay is large, featuring six tandem slots and accommodating up to 18 vehicles, including water rescue, boats, and ATVs. Four dorm rooms on the second floor are connected by fire pole to the apparatus bay.

“I believe it’s a ‘Build it and they will come’ thing. A few young guys will live there for $25 a month, and they’ll be able to drop down the pole and go out immediately,” Sigfrinius said.

“Of course, I won’t be here.” Chief Sigfrinius is retiring this year after 20 years of service to Forest Lake. In the meantime, he stands by the decision to fit out dorm rooms.

“I think we did it the right way. In the event there’s a big emergency, we have that area for people to get some sleep. It’ll be used. It may be for fire or for police during challenging incidents, but it’s good to have that space available.”

Keeping the “Clean Side” Clean

One of Chief Sigfrinius’s biggest goals in City Center’s design was to design in cleanliness.

“When you come back from a call, you’re covered in soot, muck, bodily fluids. To stomp right into the apparatus bay, you’re contaminating everything you cross,” Sigfrinius said. “We want a clean side, and a dirty side, and don’t you dare mix them.’”

The layout, materials, and technology present in the design facilitate this directive. The dirty side has turn-out gear (fire protective equipment), a decontamination shower, laundry facility, air tank refilling station, and tool maintenance bench.

All the items that are dirty or grimy from maintenance are on one side. “All the clean stuff, office, sleeping dorms, dispatch, training; all that is on the clean side,” Sigfrinius said.

The epoxy floor in the apparatus bay also helps with cleanliness. It’s abrasive enough not to slip on, but smooth enough to allow a squeegee to run across it without being damaged.

An in-floor radiant heating system in the apparatus bay helps, too. It heats the air directly above it by thermal mass, melting snow off the trucks quickly, while also being highly energy efficient.


Train How You Fight

Another big concern for Chief Sigfrinius was firefighter and emergency management services training. He is a big believer in the mantra, “Train how you fight,” because he comes from a military background.

“The more real you can make a training activity, the more innate it becomes in someone’s response. Any time you train someone to do something in a certain manner, you’ve created a new standard,” he stressed.

“When they do it automatically in the heat of battle, they’ll do it that way. If you train it the wrong way or rely on a poor simulation of a training activity, that will become their standard and they’ll do it the way they are trained.”

Case in point: chain-sawing through a roof: “You can practice from the ground, but balancing from a ladder in full gear makes all the difference,” Sigfrinius said.

The new facility has a hose tower that supports ladder training, breaching from a rooftop, rappelling, and stair training, as well as confined-space and limited-visibility training.

“We could always rappel off our aerial ladder, but it’s not easy to do, and it’s not what we want to do. Now we can rappel down a wall. We can do it in a way that more closely mimics real conditions.”

It also makes better financial sense to have on-site training. In smaller communities like Forest Lake, training often involves sending the squad to another city. This not only costs money, but also leaves the community temporarily without firefighters.

The new facility gives firefighters a full range of training opportunities, while keeping them close to the area they serve.

Getting It Right

The design process for Forest Lake City Center involved every level of stakeholder: administration, police, fire, elected officials, community members, along with state transportation, county highway, and local environmental officials. It took 10 years to make it a reality, but the end result is undeniably a great asset to the city.

By viewing the building as a whole, and considering the individual user as well as the big financial picture, good design can facilitate operational excellence that works for everyone.


Photo of the City Center above is courtesy of Forest Lake, Minnesota, and LEO A. DALY.



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