Form and Function

October 6, 2010
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The Station at Potomac Yard, Alexandria, Va. is the first known building in the United States that combines a fire station, affordable housing and retail. 

The 169,000-square-foot structure occupies an entire city block and cost approximately $29 million to build. Photo courtesy of Rust Orling Architecture


“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”

So said renowned architect Louis Sullivan. From his mind, a new age of architecture was born - one that still exists today, in which a building’s function must dictate its form.

The Station at Potomac Yard, Alexandria, Va., tested Sullivan’s theory because of its unique functions. The project is the first known building in the United States that combines a fire station, affordable housing and retail.

“Accommodating such different functions engendered many challenges, starting with schematic design and continuing up to the point of occupancy,” said John Rust, AIA, of Rust Orling Architecture, Alexandria.

Rust Orling Architecture, which served as associate architect of the project, focused on the exterior design and was joined by a team of experts to create this innovative mixed-use structure. Others involved included: developer, Alexandria-based Potomac Yard Development LLC (PYD), a joint venture of national home builders Pulte and Centex; the city of Alexandria; architect of record, LeMay Erickson Wilcox Architects, Reston, Va.; general contractor, Whiting Turner Contracting Co., Baltimore; roofing contractor, Prospect Waterproofing Co., Sterling, Va.; and roofing distributor, Bradco Supply Corp., Lorton, Va.

The south elevation, shown in this rendering, is the residential entry. It features a masonry gable, a two-story gallery and a series of corbelled arches. Graphic courtesy of Rust Orling Architecture

In 2004, PYD and its architectural team began the design phase of a mixed-use space on a former rail yard. Initial plans posed a major problem for the city, however - the key question was how to get emergency equipment to the residential and retail spaces within the optimal response time. This problem was resolved by adding a bit more land to the initial design and incorporating the fire station into the building.

“Ultimately PYD provided just over 1 acre of land, as well as $6.6 million, toward the cost of developing and building Station 209,” explained Jeremy McPike, PMP, LEED AP, the deputy director of the department of general services for the city of Alexandria. “The city chose to maximize the donation of land by leveraging air rights above the station for affordable housing. Through the community process, a component of workforce rental housing was also added.”

With the addition of the fire station and varied residential units, the team had many different issues to address. This was the first fire station to be built in Alexandria in 30 years, and the designers wanted the station to make a statement. Rust added that the building scale and materials identify it as an important civic building. Also, they wanted each unit - retail, residential and fire station - to have its own identity within a larger design scheme. In addition, doing all of this in a sustainable fashion was important.

An energy-efficient element that ties everything together is the roof - a metal roof from ATAS International Inc., Allentown, Pa. “The design team selected ScanRoof, a scalloped metal tile system,” explained Jim Bush, vice president of sales for ATAS. “The roof obviously adds to the aesthetics of the building - joining the many elements with a unifying architectural style - but it also contributes to the sustainability of the structure.”

The scalloped metal tile roof from ATAS International ties the various elements of the building together. Photo courtesy of Rust Orling Architecture

The Elements

Overall, the project occupies an entire street block. It is about 169,000 square feet with two levels of underground parking occupying 62,000 square feet; a five-bay firehouse that is 24,800 square feet; 1,400 square feet of retail space; and four floors of residential living space at 80,607 square feet. From the bottom up, the building has: two levels of underground parking; a first floor that includes the fire station, community room and retail space; and four stories of apartments above. The second floor includes a residential terrace over the fire bays. Construction took place from December 2007 to August 2009 with a cost of approximately $29 million.

The design team didn’t want passersby - or occupants - to scratch their heads wondering how to access the different elements, so they came up with a way to designate them. “The primary design challenge was to give each function an identity that would provide clarity for disparate groups of occupants,” Rust said. “The solution was to place the entrance to each major activity on a different façade. This allowed building elements and architectural details to be appropriate to the scale of the various functions.”

The five bays of the fire station are seen on the east elevation. A residential terrace is located above the fire bays. Photo courtesy of Rust Orling Architecture

The east elevation is designated as the fire station entrance, obviously identifiable by the five-bay entrance. The south elevation is the residential entry, which is identified by a masonry gable, a two-story gallery and a series of corbelled arches. The four-story residential component includes 44 long-term affordable rental units, as well as 20 apartments with rents affordable for city workers. The retail spaces can be accessed from the southwest corner. The retail sections design is different than other aspects of the building, in order to further distinguish the different spaces. Also, the design team wanted the retail space to have a historic look, suggesting that the building had expanded and evolved from its original retail space.

With different entrances, distinctive looks and unique designs, how is the Station held together as a unified force? The roof, of course. A ScanRoof (SCP163) in Mission Red was selected from ATAS. The roof is a 24-gauge steel scalloped tile system that has a Spanish flair.

“A tile roof is appropriate to the historic and architectural style being referenced,” Rust noted.

ScanRoof is installed horizontally, from eave to ridge, on an open frame system or solid deck. The panels are structural, practical and economically efficient for any project. With their weather-resistance characteristics and wind-uplift ratings, the panels are ideal to stand up against Mother Nature’s storms. In addition, the ScanRoof system design creates an air space between the metal panel and roof deck, making an air cavity that aids in both heating and cooling reduction.

The Station at Potomac Yard in Alexandria, Va., is a mixed-use project that combines a fire station, residential housing and retail space above two levels of underground parking.

Full Capacity

It was important to the city of Alexandria to make this new building sustainable. This was accomplished by setting two goals: for the fire station to obtain LEED Silver certification and the residential portion to receive EarthCraft Certification. The EarthCraft standard has been met, and LEED recognition is still pending.

McPike noted that the energy efficiency of the residential units has been studied, and one-bedroom units are reported to save more than $100 per month on utilities because of the sustainable items incorporated into the units.

“The ATAS roof contributes to the sustainability of the Station in many ways,” Bush said. “First, the roof is made with recycled content and is recyclable at the end of its useful life. Next, the roof has a cool coating that raises the solar reflective index. This ultimately keeps the inside of the building cooler in the summer, translating into less energy usage and lower utility bills. The air cavity also contributes to energy conservation.”

When developing the Station, it seems that all involved got it right. According to McPike, residential units are 100 percent occupied, and retail space leases began Sept. 1 with retail occupancy expected Nov. 1. “There has been tremendous interest,” he added. “Many visitors from other states and even internationally would like to replicate the project. The residents and the fire service are very pleased.”

And it is no surprise that they would be pleased in a building where form so logically follows function.

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