Getting It Built: BIG’s 40th Precinct

Discover how this unusual police station is making the journey from concept to completion in the Bronx.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

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Now more than ever in the United States, the relationship between police and the wider community is in the spotlight. Questions of communication, social cohesion and transparency between municipal bodies and the citizens of the cities they serve are being raised on a daily basis, and the debate is playing out in streets, police departments and courthouses across the country. These challenges often seem firmly lodged within the realm of politics — but is it possible for architects to have a positive impact on these issues?

BIG’s 40th Precinct in the Bronx, New York has been designed to upend the societal conventions of police stations, removing physical and psychological barriers between officers and the public to encourage a new sense of trust between these groups. One of the most important considerations in bringing this vision to reality pertained to building products chosen for the project: Which materials can ensure the safety of officers while also providing an open, inviting atmosphere to bring the public and the police closer together?

Architizer sat down with BIG’s project leader, Elizabeth McDonald, and designer team member Jennifer Ng to discuss the project. The conversation focused on the process of material selection for the building, which was aided by Architizer‘s online marketplace for building-products. Read on to discover how this unusual police station is making the journey from concept to completion in the Bronx.

A scale model of BIG’s 40th Precinct project, the Bronx, New York; © BIG

Paul Keskeys: BIG’s 40th Precinct fundamentally rethinks the police station typology. Can you tell me about the ideas underpinning the re-imagination of this traditional municipal building type?

Elizabeth McDonald: Here at BIG, we’re always trying to push typology as far as we can, but this is definitely a client who had, by far, the most stringent set of requirements that we’ve ever worked with before. They had over 100 rooms and everything was very specific. Initially, I think they really just wanted a remake of the same police precinct that they’ve been working in for 120 years, and we did look at a lot of precedents to understand what that was.

For the most part, precincts throughout New York City look the same and function in similar ways, but what we learned by looking at their program is the way in which they work. You can break up the program into distinct functions: There’s back-of-house programming, and then there’s a good deal of locker-room programming. A lot of the building is locker space for the police officers who don’t spend much time there, but who need to be able to come and go and change.

Rendering of the proposal showing the stacked-box form; © BIG

Then there were different functions within the precinct for different squads — the detective squads, for example — who, while they wanted proximity to one another, really wanted to feel like their own unit. These different squads within the precinct generally keep to themselves, so we started thinking of every piece of program as a building block — that then literally became a building block for us — and used that to keep everybody in their zones, allowing for association visually and with circulation though the central atrium around which all the blocks revolved.

One of the project’s most unique qualities is its carefully considered interface between the police and the public. How much was the stacked-box form influenced by the desire to tie these groups together?

The first design direction that we started to pursue was this idea of program blocks and having them relate internally through this shared circulation space. We were also asked to include an element of community program, which would be first time in the history of the NYPD that they would actually include a space dedicated entirely to the community. This was really interesting for us.

BIG’s conceptual diagrams illustrate how the form was influenced by programmatic requirements, the admission of light into the central atrium and the introduction of communal space within the building; © BIG.

They wanted separate access that would allow people to go into this public space without having to enter the precinct but would be close to the main entrance. That logically placed it on the 149th street entrance, but at the same time, we knew that, because it was a piece of community programming, it needed to express itself in a unique way.

Without changing the language of the system that we had already established, — the idea of the very solid perimeter walls with more open interior corners — we started experimenting with literal porosity to add a greater sense of programmatic transparency. We played around with perforations, and as we were developing a new system, it became a question of: how do you keep a feeling of solidity while adding more permeability?

That’s fascinating — how did you go about selecting building materials that would help strike that balance?

It was really important that this building be incredibly rugged, very durable. Not only for security, but also because the building is intended to last a very long time. The police let us develop a proposal and have been very accommodating to our design direction, but the one thing they will not let us skimp on is the durability of this building. The question then was: How could we create this idea of porosity in robust precast panels?

What we ended up developing was a series of holes or openings that were about 8 inches in diameter, and we used a glass box system that is incredibly strong. You could drive a car over these glass boxes. They’re actually used, in some cases, for floors and in exterior conditions where there are cars driving over them!

These would be cast directly into the pre-cast panels so it feels very open allow light inside. From the interior you’ll be able to see out and it will bring natural light into the space, but it will also allow people outside to get a sense of the activities within.

You’ve used Architizer when searching for manufacturers for some of your materials. Can you tell us how that process has helped you and what you’ve discovered using the platform?

As you’d imagine, NYPD has stringent guidelines for the materiality in their building. At the same time, the city’s public bidding process does not allow for priority specifications and requires alternate options for all proposed products. Using Architizer allowed us to research multiple materials at the same time while quickly establishing they met the specific performance criteria of the NYPD. As a research tool, it uncovered many more legitimate options for materials and products than a traditional search engine like Google.

This project could be a game changer in terms of program. Do you have hopes that designers of other municipal buildings might be influenced by this precedent in the future?

It’s hard for us to speculate about the future of public building in New York City, but we hope that, especially for the NYPD, this is going to be a precedent for a new way to engage with the public. I think that it’s been a learning process for us because we’ve not worked on a program this unique before, with a client quite like the NYPD. I hope that it’s also, in a way, been a learning process for the NYPD.

They’ve done things they’ve never done before, like putting green roofs on the building and providing community amenities. We’re providing a basketball court, which we hope to engage the community with, in the parking lot. These things seem tiny, but we’re hoping that they really change the way the NYPD thinks about their buildings. They’ve pushed us, and we’ve pushed them a little bit.

Jennifer Ng: I think the building is a manifestation of materiality and durability that a lot civic buildings don’t necessarily have, but at the same time it’s also able to engage the community surrounding it. Our hope is that the project sparks a conversation.

Elizabeth McDonald: Yeah, materially, I think there’s an honest expression of the building’s functionality. The building is a tough building and it’s in a high-crime neighborhood, but it’s also got components that are very engaging and I think that there’s this honest recognition of how the building is meant to function that is unique as far as public buildings go in New York City.

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