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Solar-powered police station raises the bar for sustainability

Blue goes green with Cincinnati’s new net-zero headquarters

police headquarters All images by Dish Design unless otherwise notes

Sustainable, solar-powered, community-focused: Yes, this is a police station.

Covered in solar panels and decorated with artwork that reflects nearby neighborhoods, Cincinnati’s new District 3 police headquarters sets new standards of sustainability, and plays against the stereotype of boxy, fortress-like city stations. It’s the latest progressive example of how architects, designers, and planners have sought to develop police buildings with a greener, community-focused approach.

After a year of operation, that station became the first of its type in the country to be certified net zero energy, meaning the solar panel-covered roof of this super-efficient structure generates enough energy to supply all its power needs. Achieving such a high measure of energy performance has extra resonance for such a busy facility. Unlike homes, schools, or offices, which are closed or empty most of the day, this new 39,000-square-foot police headquarters sees action 24 hours a day, with nearly 200 officers and staff cycling in and out. Despite these challenges, the building still uses half the power of a typical structure of its size.

Via an extensive solar array on its roof, the building can provide all the power it needs.
Messer Construction

Just as important, District 3 was designed to be a pillar of the 14 west side neighborhoods it serves, a welcoming community center built with local input and transparency at the forefront. Architect Jim Cheng, principal of hometown firm Emersion Design, says the design team, which included Messer Construction and Human Nature, a local landscape architecture firm, held a dozen community meetings, from the months before construction started in 2013 to last year, when the building’s final form was taking shape.

“The initial design concept was the deconstruction of a civic building,” he says. “Think about a classic courthouse or police station, which has big, intimidating entrance. This project took apart those pieces and rearranged them in a more welcoming ways.”

The interior was designed around openness and extensive natural daylighting.

The goals of openness and sustainability worked hand in hand. In order to achieve the net zero standard, the blueprint included drought-tolerant landscaping, a roof plastered in photovoltaics, 40 geo-exchange wells for heating and cooling, and plenty of natural daylighting. It’s a rare police station with plenty of high-performance windows (albeit bulletproof) and a welcoming entry plaza, all the better to provide electricity-free lighting and ventilation. As the city’s first new station in 40 years, it offers a sharp contrast to designs from the ‘60s and ’70s, concrete, fortress-like structures that reflected the “siege mentality” of the times.

“There was very clear agreement from everyone involved that the community was a big focus,” says Cheng.

Sited near the West Price Hill Neighborhood Center, the station is connected to bike lanes and nearby streets designed with an improved pedestrian focus, the first created under the city’s new Plan Cincinnati, which incorporates additional community feedback. The station reflects the neighborhood, and Cheng and the city hope, can also serve as a catalyst for development.

The row of columns in the welcome plaza feature images of local landmarks

The neighborhood anchor also showcases community icons. A series of 14 columns on site all feature artwork and neighborhood landmarks, and within the entrance lobby, a three-dimensional map of the district gives police and community members a visual aide for talking about what’s happening in the surrounding area. If their design has resulted in more spaces for those kind of conversations, Cheng and his colleagues will feel like they’ve accomplished their mission.

“The city has been talking about the importance of being open and inviting to the community for years, before the national wave of tension around policing we’ve seen lately,” says Cheng. “The city has been thinking about how the city should work for everyone, and more recent events have made something like this even more important.”

A topographic map in the entrance lobby serves as a point of reference for police and community members