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Birmingham's haven for the homeless

A coalition of ministries raised millions to build a new home for homeless men in Alabama’s largest city. The Firehouse Shelter wins Honorable Mention in the 2020 Building Team Awards.

November 03, 2020 |
Firehouse Shelter exterior at dusk

Birmingham’s Firehouse Shelter opened in February. In addition to living spaces, the shelter has medical exam rooms, a restful courtyard, a chapel, a classroom/training area, and case management offices where social workers can consult privately with residents. All photos: Edward Badham / EB Visual Productions

The Firehouse Shelter, an outreach program of the Cooperative Downtown Ministries, provides an emergency shelter, a day shelter, meals, clothing closets, and addiction and literacy programs to up to 100 homeless men in Birmingham, Ala.

At its founding, in 1983, the shelter was housed in an old fire station. Over time, as the firehouse began to crumble, demand for services soared, and maintenance costs shot up, it became clear to the ministries that they needed a new, larger building.

It took two years to raise the nearly $5.7 million to build the new structure. The city contributed $1 million; the bulk of the money came from individuals and local charitable foundations.


Firehouse Shelter ChapelThe crossed structural steel beams of the chapel provide an uplifting setting for meditation and prayer.


During that time, a design-build team led by Dunn Building Company met with the shelter’s staff to understand the most critical operational aspects of a facility for the homeless. The kitchen staff offered ideas on how to set up the food storage, food prep, and serving areas. Security personnel explained why certain areas of the building needed to be locked down at various times.

Shelter coordinators described the special needs of overnight guests. This led to the development of a three-tiered system of living quarters where guests can move up in privacy, based on how actively they participate in the shelter’s social programs.

Two factors emerged as paramount: durability/low maintenance, and a desire to create an inviting, non-institutional feeling. CMU, polished concrete, and epoxy-coated concrete were used on the walls and floors to ensure these elements would be highly durable, washable, and still have eye appeal. All finishes were selected with durability and cleanability in mind. The shelter area was equipped with hose bibs built into the walls so that living areas and heavily trafficked spaces could be easily washed down. Each bedding space has floor drains.


Firehouse Shelter shower roomA walk-in plumbing chase between the main shower area and main toilet area provides ready access to pipes and fixtures that are most likely to need service. Restrooms were designed with durability and serviceability in mind.


The team worked diligently to select furniture, flooring, and equipment that would serve the needs of the shelter occupants, provide durability, look good, and fit within the $202/sf construction framework.

To create an aesthetically pleasing, cost-effective facility, Poole & Company Architects and structural engineer MBA Engineers designed a pre-engineered structure clad in horizontal ribbed insulated metal panels, enhanced by vertical trim between the panels and fire engine red trim at the windows and storefronts.

Just as Dunn Building Company broke ground, down came the rains—17 days of downpours in the first 35 days on site. Rather than try to recondition the wet, fatty clay soil, the contractor replaced it with a more suitable sandy clay. That effort took time and money, but the contractor had no choice, and the project still came in on time and within the budget.

The new Firehouse Shelter, with twice the beds (100) of the old facility, opened on February 18, giving renewed hope to Birmingham’s homeless.


The three-tier system of housing enables guests to go from open sleeping quarters, to semi- private quarters, to graduated bedding, based on their level of participation in the facility’s addiction, GED/literacy, employment, and faith-based programs. The shelter also has limited emergency accommodations for up to two families.


Judges’ Comments
Juror Josh Greenfield, praised the project team for providing an outdoor courtyard/place of respite, plenty of natural light, and a meditation space (the chapel). Judges also noted that the constructors had to work within a building site that touched the property line on three sides, leaving little room for laying down materials and maneuvering equipment. Deliveries had to be received and unloaded in the street; materials had to be stored out of the way of construction activities, requiring precise coordination with all trade contractors on site.


Submitting firm/General contractor: Dunn Building Company

Owner: The Firehouse Shelter 

Architect: Poole & Company Architects 

Structural Engineer: MBA Engineers 

Mechanical/plumbing engineer: RJ Mechanical 

Electrical engineer: Wadsworth Electric/Hyde Engineering

Size: 28,000 sf 

Construction cost: $5,659,000 

Construction time: January 2019 to February 2020 

Delivery method: Design-build

Photo credit: Edward Badham / EB Visual Productions 

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