Doing Things Right, Doing Right Things: The Story Behind Princeton’s EMS/Rescue Station

Doing Things Right, Doing Right Things: The Story Behind Princeton’s EMS/Rescue Station

The Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad (PFARS) is a combined paid and volunteer rescue/emergency medical service (EMS) squad that serves more than 30,000 people in Princeton, New Jersey. H2M architects + engineers worked with the PFARS team for more than 15 years to find and design the perfect new home. Recently, PFARS was featured on an episode of Station Cribs on the Heroes Next Door YouTube channel. In this article, architect and lead designer for the project, David J. Pacheco, AIA, NCARB, tells the story behind designing the multi-award-winning station.


[Interviewer]: Let’s start at the beginning: How did you first connect with the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad?

[David Pacheco]: We actually met the client through a seminar we were teaching on station design. What we were talking about resonated with the client. It was forward-thinking and addressed the issues they were equally concerned about. They thought that we would be a good fit for their project.

At the time, what was their project? What were they looking for?

They were in this really old, very cramped, brutalist-style building that had little natural light. They were living in a basement. Many of their vehicles had to be parked outside under tents and in adjacent parking lots. They knew they needed to do something. What they didn’t know was exactly what they needed, where to do it, or how to get it done.

How did you help them figure that out?

Our initial scope of work was really to do what’s called a program to determine the Must-Haves, the It-Would-Be-Nice-To-Haves, and If-We-Could-Have-Everything-We-Want. Doing the program helps you distill that down where you see what’s really necessary. Do we really need a room that accommodates 70 people or can we deal with a room that accommodates 50? You have those conversations before you start designing anything.

What were some of those Must-Haves?

Certainly one of the things in the Must-Haves column was the operational response base for the apparatus. As I mentioned, they had apparatus that were outside that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and, in many cases, holding medical supplies and medical equipment. If you’re a person in distress, I think you’d want a nice warm ambulance showing up, not necessarily one that’s been sitting outside, freezing.

From the client’s point of view, a Must-Have was a space that is like as second home away from home. Their old living spaces were in the basement with no windows, poor ventilation, it was damp, it was moldy, it was just an awful place to go and work and wait. They know with a volunteer organization that having people in the facility cuts down on response times. You get more volunteers if they’re coming to a nice space. You get more camaraderie and there’s a lot more knowledge transfer that happens if people are sharing the space together if they’re having coffee around a comfortable table. These spaces just really did not exist in a meaningful way in their previous facility.

Once you knew what needed to be in the building, you then spent 15 years working with Princeton to find the perfect site. What was that process like, going from site to site to site?

I think, in many ways, it’s tougher for the clients in those situations. It’s disheartening sometimes when it takes that long. But I think this is a great example of how taking the time to do things right and do the right thing has made a facility that I think far exceeded any expectations they had in terms of just community support and involvement and location and the design awards it’s won and the accolades it’s received.

After we had done all of our initial work, the owner selected three architectural firms for a design competition. They paid each a stipend to come up with a vision for the facility. I think the point of the competition was two-fold: one was to really highlight the architect’s vision and, just as important, the vision from the client’s point of view. In the end, the site and the exact design were less relevant than the approach, the understanding of the project needs. We won that competition with a lot of hard work, a very good design approach, and I think a successful interview when the owner saw how invested we were.

 What went into that design? How did you develop it?

We had a very large 30 inch-diameter water main running through the site that could not be relocated. There was a concern that the building was going to impact this existing water main or that, if the water main ever failed, it would undermine the new building. This is the reason we have a ramp and a couple of stairs. The municipality wanted us to maintain a safe distance above and away from the water main. In the end, that ramp has actually become a feature in the building because it’s where we highlight the client and their history and all the folks who have come through PFARS over the years. That’s when the design is really working well when you can take those challenges and make something great out of them that you didn’t necessarily originally plan.


Sitting here in 2024, the building has been complete for several years. What design elements do you think contribute to the station’s current success?

As you watch the video, people who are coming through the building the first time see some of the design elements that were so crucial in our planning, such as the direct pathways to response. When you’re talking emergency medical service, time saves lives, so that is something that I think people instantly recognize in the facility.

The other thing we hear so much is the amount of natural light. This was really important for the client, coming from this dark building with almost no windows and their living spaces in the basement. It could be midnight, could be noon, you just had no idea. You hear in the video how even the office that’s in the center of the building gets natural light because we made sure we have windows on the outside and the inside.

In the Great Room, we spent a lot of time thinking about the little details that make a space feel welcoming and comfortable. I had this concept of this craftsman-style home where you have the disengaged columns in the separation between the dining area and the living room. It’s a signal to people that this is really a homey place. To hear that, as people go through, they pick that out. It makes you feel so good as a designer because you put it in, hoping that people really feel that way and understand the implication of it. It’s validation.

Another design element that has been praised is that the station looks good at 30mph and at 50mph.

Yes! A very challenging site. On one side you’ve got a state highway, on another you’ve got a municipal building across the street and a main road, on the third you’ve got residential properties, and a little pocket park on the fourth. At times, you’ll go past this building at 50mph or maybe 15 mph or you might be walking by. The building needs to look good from all sides.

So how did you accomplish it?

One of the things we did was scale the building down on the residential side and scale it up on the highway side. The very tallest part of the building is towards the highway side and the shed roof slopes down to the lower residential side. Where the bunks are, it’s even lower. On the residential side, the windows are smaller, the massing is smaller, the detailing is meant more for that. On the other [highway] side, it’s bigger because you’re not going to see individual punched windows as well, so we have grouped windows instead.

Any final reflections on the PFARS station’s design?

This was a team effort. Dennis Ross and Katrina Pacheco were instrumental to its success. We’re very proud of how appreciative the client is and how the building performs for their needs in the end. We achieved nearly every program goal within their budget in a form that has received rave reviews and won numerous awards and accolades and has really become as important a symbol to PFARS as the service they provide. Their old building wasn’t necessarily a symbol of who they are, I think their new building is very much a symbol of who they are: the transparency, the fact that at night you see the vehicles, you see through into the apparatus bays, you know what they do, you know they’re there. Their old building had these doors with no windows, you didn’t know what was inside. Maybe it was a rescue squad, maybe it was an auto repair shop. You wouldn’t know. Here, so much of their identity now comes through, their professionalism, what it is that they do, and their orientation and openness to the community. In the end, it’s very satisfying to do and to know that you’ve accomplished that for a client.