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Students imagine new life for New Bedford firehouse – with affordable housing and minimal carbon footprint

Sophomore Jai Edward Blyden takes photos and videos of the Hillman Street Firehouse in New Bedford.
Eve Zuckoff
"It's in a bit of disrepair," Sophomore Jai Edward Blyden said of the Hillman Street Firehouse. "But it's a lovely piece of historic architecture for New Bedford."

On a sunny day in the heart of New Bedford, three college students tried filming a video for class.

“Hi, I'm Jai, ” said sophomore Jai Edward Blyden.

“I'm Raeesah,” said senior Raeesah Amegankpoe.

“I'm Trey,” said senior Trey Turner.

Then in unison: “And we are team –,“ they began, but broke into laughter before they could finish.

“I just totally blanked,” Turner said, smiling.

"You can see the beautiful flower floral motifs there," Professor Nea Maloo said. "Can you imagine a firehouse like this? Nowadays firehouses are not that dressed up. [But] because it was a part of the community, they dressed it as their own."
Eve Zuckoff
"You can see the beautiful flower floral motifs there," Professor Nea Maloo said. "Can you imagine a firehouse like this? Nowadays firehouses are not that dressed up. [But] because it was a part of the community, they dressed it as their own."

These three are among the dozen architecture students who traveled 450 miles from Howard University in Washington D.C. to New Bedford to explore how they could breathe new life into the Hillman Street Firehouse.

They’re trying to learn what it would take to restore the building’s exterior, reusing everything they can, and redesign its interior, with a focus on modern, affordable apartments.

They’re participating in a program called the Envision Resilience Challenge, which brings together community members, city planners, and college students in climate vulnerable areas.

“Let me try this one more time,” Bylden said. After the group successfully introduced themselves, he prepared for a solo.

“Built in 1892, the Hillman [Street] Firehouse is a representation of New Bedford's best and bravest men who saved countless lives and fought ferocious fires to keep the town safe and secure,” Bylden said to the camera.

The red brick building – a Romanesque Revival – has boarded up windows, a crumbling facade, and perimeter fence. It’s been vacant for almost 30 years. But the Howard University students see hints of the firehouse’s former glory.

They point up at floral motifs in the brick, and a small tower on the back corner that makes the building look like a castle.

Trey Turner, Julian Newnham, Jai Edward Blyden, Raeesah Amegankpoe, Nea Maloo, Shania Burrus, Alyse Dees, and Journey O'Neal pose in front of the firehouse.
Eve Zuckoff
The Howard team poses in front of the firehouse.

“It has a lot of charm,” Blyden said.

As cars passing cars play music, neighbors call out to each other, and church bells chime, Amegankpoe explained the cornerstone of the project is learning how to design the building so that it actually creates more energy than it uses.

“Our design goals are to generate, advocate and provide a new opportunity for the Hillman Street firehouse,” she said.

A new generation of architecture students is facing a reality that climate change will radically alter how buildings are conceived, and they’re the ones who will have to find solutions. But first, they have to learn how. And this unique building in New Bedford offers a perfect test case.

Resuscitating old buildings with a minimal carbon footprint

The building and construction sector is responsible for about 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. So it’s essential for students to learn what it takes to knock that number down.

The building originally served as the Engine No. 5 House, and later as the City’s Civil Defense headquarters. But it's since been vacant, and has suffered from serious neglect and water infiltration.
Eve Zuckoff
The building originally served as the Engine No. 5 House, and later as the City’s Civil Defense headquarters. But it's since been vacant, and has suffered from serious neglect and water infiltration.

“We're working with three big goals,” said Nea Maloo, assistant professor at Howard University’s College of Engineering and Architecture. “What will create the equity we want? What will create energy efficiency? What will create regeneration?”

Every material that went into this building 130 years ago costs carbon.

Consider, Maloo said, what it took to manufacture, transport, and assemble just one brick.

“Literally it's ridiculous if you start adding the carbon,” she said. “[But] if I can reuse that brick for another hundred years, then it is so worth it.”

New Bedford itself stands as an emblem of vulnerability to climate change. A recent report from the Trustees of Reservations found sea levels around the South Coast city are projected to rise more than 2 feet in 25 years.

Maloo said she wants hope for the firehouse to represent hope for our planet.

“When you revive something, when you layer future on history,” she said, “it becomes present. And it's the most beautiful thing.”

Students Jai Edward Blyden and Raeesah Amegankpoe chat about the building.
Eve Zuckoff
Students Jai Edward Blyden and Raeesah Amegankpoe chat about the building. "New Bedford is commonly known as the whaling town which lit up the world," Amegankpoe said, "and we plan to continue this legacy in its historic structure."

A real and imagined future for the firehouse 

The Howard students are learning how to divide the building into as many as 9 apartments with one-or-two bedrooms each.

They talk about how, in the next phase of the building’s life, they could replace a gas heating system with solar panels and electric heat pumps. Then they could make sure the building has a tighter envelope, so less of that heat leaks out.  

Senior Journey O'Neal said they can even use that little tower as a focal point, visible for miles around.

“Hopefully, we can use the top of it as a sort of monitor,” he said, “where you could get a great view of the rest of the community.”

Senior Trey Turner finishes filming his lines for the student video.
Eve Zuckoff
"The Hillman street firehouse may have been relatively unused in New Bedford for decades, but it now has a bright future within," said Senior Trey Turner. "We look forward to providing a sustainable model for attached housing in such a renowned location."

Ultimately, though, O’Neal and the others see the project as a model for strengthening the community.

“I really want our structure to be of a high standard, in terms of bringing people together in housing where people can feel very comfortable, and their kids can grow up and they can be established and be successful,” O’Neal said.

The Howard students, who’ve met repeatedly with local leaders to guide their process, have until April to finalize their design concept.

At that point, they’ll travel to Denver to present it and compete against other collegiate teams at the Solar Decathlon Design Challenge, through the U.S. Department of Energy.

They’ll also share the results with a local architect who’s working on a real-life project to save the firehouse. She could even use some of their ideas in her own plan.

Finally, they hope to return to New Bedford to share their vision of transforming a 19th century firehouse into a 21st century model of sustainability.

A longer version of this story will be featured in Higher Ground, a podcast from WSHU Public Radio.

Note: Since this story was reported, the group managing the building has begun to work with a new developer and architect. The project continues to develop with sustainability goals. 

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.