By Tony Bouquot
Showcasing the durability, cost effectiveness and beauty of metal buildings, Birmingham’s Firehouse Shelter effectively doubled Firehouse Ministries’ capacity to service homeless men in Alabama.
Acknowledged for its incorporation of green building elements, aesthetics, user comfort, and project execution on a challenging building site, the community service project earned an Honorable Mention in Building Design+Construction’s 2020 Building Team Awards, a Metal Building Contractors and Erectors Association (MBCEA) 2021 Building of the Year award and a Varco Pruden (VP) 2021 Hall of Fame award.
The Firehouse Story
While the state of Alabama provides some programs for its homeless, it isn’t anywhere close to meeting the needs of this underserved population. Helping to fill this gap, the non-profit Firehouse Ministries has been supporting approximately 5,000 men per year with meals, showers, beds, and social services since 1983.
However, one of the organization’s main facilities – an old fire station in Birmingham – was too small, running up against code issues and in desperate need of replacement.
Funds were gathered to build a new $5.8 million facility, but as a non-for-profit, Firehouse Ministries was working with an extremely limited budget. In addition, the need to withstand anticipated heavy use made durability a major priority for the new facility. At the same time, the organization wanted to create a warm, welcoming environment, so the building had to offer aesthetics and amenities as well.
Checking all three of these boxes, Poole & Company Architects selected a metal structure for the design-build project.
“The owner needed durability, but didn’t want the building to look like a prison,” explains Craig Fowler, Dunn Building Company, Tennessee Valley Area Manager, Athens, Alabama. “We were able to achieve both goals by cladding this building with insulated metal panels (IMPs). The ribbed panels were turned to run horizontally, creating lines that are aesthetically pleasing, without sacrificing any of that durability.”
The energy efficient IMPs seamlessly blend into a standing seam metal roof, gabled over the chapel, and slightly pitched in the other program areas. In addition to the horizontal ribbed panels, windows, storefronts and fire engine red trim deliver a comfortable, daylit space for the 28,000 sq. ft. structure.
Before opening its doors at 626 Second Ave., not far from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the project team had a few challenges to contend with. For starters, the community wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a homeless facility joining the neighborhood, particularly since the previous location required the men to line up outside at meal times and night check-ins.
To help address this, Poole & Company Architects created a central courtyard where the men can comfortably wait within the confines and privacy of the facility. The landscaped courtyard turned out to be one of the centerpieces of the architectural design.
As for the construction, the crew had little lay-down area as the building butts up against the property line on three sides.
“We had to schedule items to arrive on site as they were needed for installation and avoid having too much stored material,” relates Fowler. “We also stacked materials as we didn’t have the room to spread them out.”
The contractor also had to deal with wet, fatty clay soil, exacerbated by 17 days of rain during the project’s first 35 days. Though it was an added expense, the team had no choice but to bring in sandy clay for the foundation.
In erecting the metal wall panels, because they were horizontal, this required additional framing. “We also had to be diligent with our layout, to ensure that all of the lines and architectural features hit in the correct locations,” notes Fowler.
The metal roof installation was straightforward, though a number of roof penetrations had to be accommodated. This included rooftop HVAC units, exhaust fans, and kitchen freezer condensers and fans, which required roof curbs.
“The greatest challenge was coordinating between all of these items—including the roof curb supplier and the building manufacturer—to make sure all of the opening sizes were correct and the framing was in the proper location.”
To create a long-standing, durable facility, the floors are finished with polished concrete and epoxy-coated concrete. Easy-to-clean and maintain, the selected materials also lend a nice look. And, to support wash downs, hose bibs were built into the walls and all the sleeping areas incorporate floor drains.
At Their Service
Completed in just over a year, the city’s underprivileged men are benefitting from a new, contemporary and comfortable facility where they can re-group and work to get their lives on track.
As Melvin Harris, formerly homeless and now working at the shelter, told Alabama’s WVTM 13 News, “I was on the street, pretty much, and really scared to be out there with no place to go. I just needed a hand up. A lot of the time, that’s all our homeless need – a hand up and a chance.”
With room for 112 people, more than doubling the previous 50-bed space, the new facility also provides respite care, local food programs and GED classes in a new computer lab. There is designated space for disease control, family housing, medical screening rooms, overflow for winter and a chapel for Bible studies or meditation.
Earning kudos from the industry, an MBCEA awards judge remarked, “the overall attitude and relaxed formality addresses the ‘human scale’. The building feels very approachable, and while it may appear a bit ‘Spartan’, it does not feel at all cold. It has a pleasant street-scape and understated interior courtyard. The nuanced imagery of the vaulted gathering space is not without notice and very much in keeping with the ministerial outreach message.”