A New Model for Floating Wetlands

May 10, 2018
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The National Aquarium has an ambitious mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures.

With its prime location in downtown Baltimore on historic shipping piers, the Aquarium wants to localize this mission by restoring aquatic environments in its own backyard, the Chesapeake Bay. To that end, the Aquarium is planning to redevelop an inlet at the heart of its campus with a large-scale floating salt marsh.

These recreated wetlands will serve multiple purposes. They will support greater biodiversity in the Inner Harbor and provide infrastructure for supplemental oxygenation of the water. They will also be an immersive experience for learning about the Chesapeake Bay watershed and its component ecosystems.

Several major technical challenges stand in the way of realizing this vision. First, conventional floating wetlands are costly, and yet they typically last a mere five years. It would be prohibitively expensive for the Aquarium to replace such a large floating wetland structure (planned to be 16,000+ SF) twice per decade.

Secondly, conventional floating wetland systems are topographically flat and not readily calibrated to create a range of microhabitats. They are incapable of supporting the ecological diversity that the Aquarium desires for this unique environment.

Lastly, conventional floating wetlands are not stable enough to support maintenance personnel. For the Aquarium to be able to manage such a landscape, the structure needs to be designed with a high degree of stability.

To realize the client’s vision, our designers (and our partners at Biohabitats, McLaren Engineers, and Kovacs Whitney) had to create a durable and more topographically varied floating wetland.

***

A brief history of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor: in pre-Columbian times, there was tremendous biodiversity in this zone of the Chesapeake Bay. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the area became a major shipping port. Hard infrastructure development mirrored rising urban populations into the early 20th century, replacing natural shorelines. Humans reshaped the harbor to suit the needs of industry and shipping, which resulted in lost habitats and waning species diversity.

The heavy industry eventually faded, and in the 1980s the Inner Harbor was one of the first post-industrial waterfronts transformed into a cultural amenity. Unfortunately, while the land surrounding the Inner Harbor’s water was revitalized, the water itself was largely neglected.

Another significant development that affects the health of the Chesapeake Bay is sprawling urbanization throughout much of its watershed. Hard surfaces cover soil and prevent infiltration of rain water into the ground, so when rain falls on buildings and pavement, it carries lawn fertilizers, pet waste, and road salts into storm drains. Leaks in an aging network of sewer and stormwater pipes, running underneath the city, also added excess nitrogen and phosphorous to Inner Harbor waters. This polluted urban stormwater runoff joins suburban and rural runoff and ultimately flows downstream into waterways like the Inner Harbor. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous, transported in polluted stormwater runoff, is utilized by naturally occurring phytoplankton species and fuels an endless cycle of algae population explosions and crashes throughout the Inner Harbor. When the excess fertilizers that enabled the algal blooms to occur are consumed, a massive die-off of phytoplankton follows. The dead algae sinks to the bottom and provides food that fuels a major bacterial bloom. The rapidly growing bacteria population uses up all the available dissolved oxygen in the water and effectively smothers fish, crabs, and other aquatic life.

Reversing years of environmental degradation and creating a renewed and thriving ecosystem requires a large-scale intervention capable of delivering a wide array of ecological services. Floating wetlands were a natural choice for the Aquarium’s project. 

However, as noted above, conventional floating wetlands have some significant drawbacks. They are typically made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) injected with marine foam for buoyancy. Plants are placed in drilled holes to allow their roots to reach directly into the water. The PET layers are typically flat with upper layers extending out of the water – a form that does not mimic the varied topography and microhabitats of most wetlands or tidal shorelines. Thus only a limited number of aquatic species can thrive in them (falling well short of the Aquarium’s ambitions for this project).

Additionally, with time, biomass accumulates from plants and bivalves that colonize the PET mesh, causing the entire wetland to sink under its own weight. 

Therefore, while current models of floating wetlands can serve decorative and educational purposes, they are ultimately more akin to a flower show exhibit than to a real-life habitat that is both durable and functional enough to achieve the Aquarium’s objectives. We had to develop a new floating wetland model and adapt an array of technologies from other disciplines to realize our goals.

***

In collaboration with the Aquarium and our multidisciplinary team of scientists and engineers, we designed a new kind of floating wetland. It improves upon the technologies of conventional floating wetlands while remedying their shortcomings in terms of habitat-creation capabilities and the lifespan of the final installation. These new technologies and variables have been prototyped and are currently being tested within the harbor on the Aquarium’s campus.

First, we addressed the issue of topography.

In lieu of a flat floating sheet of PET, our team created a layered topo-model with varied planting surfaces at different elevations, some submerged, relative to the water surface. In the middle of the prototype, a deeper channel provides habitats analogous to shallow salt marsh tidal channels. On the edges, the layers stack up to simulate the low and high marsh environments of the Chesapeake Bay. The prototype also features airlifts and air diffusers, which help to oxygenate and continuously circulate the water and prevent water stagnation in the channel and around the outer edges of the form. All together, these interventions create a variety of microhabitats, which will be utilized by a greater diversity of species and life stages of those species.

Secondly, we addressed the issue of buoyancy. Conventional floating wetlands have what is called static buoyancy from integrated marine foam, which means they can generally restore equilibrium in response to pressure (ie, they don’t capsize or sink easily). Our design adds a rigid support structure underneath the PET layers with capabilities for adjustable buoyancy. This “skeleton” is made of high density polyethylene (HDPE) pipes and pontoon structures that provide the wetland with ballast.

Adjustable buoyancy is essential to longevity. As the plants grow and become heavier, the PET bed can be raised or lowered by pumping water into or out of the pontoons as needed. This design feature also allows for easier maintenance and unique research opportunities. The pontoon structure acts similarly to a ship’s ballast system, whereby trim and list are controlled through adding and removing water. That way, the elevations of individual areas of wetland can be controlled, rather than solely raising and lowering the entire structure uniformly.

The reserve buoyancy system within the PET layer is one of the most difficult and sensitive portions of the design. As buoyancy is directly related to the weight of water displaced, PET mesh itself has very little buoyancy in reserve to counteract the added weight of maintenance workers and waves. To address this issue, we filled hollow cavities in the PET layers above the waterline with marine foam, which is engineered to provide added buoyancy and stability to allow people to stand on the edge of the wetland without it swamping. The foam cavities are carefully spaced in linear strips to avoid interference with plantings.

Additionally, we added a cementitious bonding coating to the PET to increase longevity with regard to ultraviolet degradation.

The 200-SF prototype was shop-fabricated, transported in pieces, and then assembled in a shipyard on the Middle Branch River before being towed to its current position in the Inner Harbor in August 2017. Aquarium staff then planted it with over more than 1400 plugs of native plants. (The staffers were pleased to report that the wetland was stable and firm underfoot—a pleasure to work on compared with the small conventional floating wetlands that have been used on a small scale around the Inner Harbor.) Every square inch of this ecological powerhouse provides opportunities for a diverse range of organisms to grow, colonize, molt, spawn, or eat.

***

Nine months into the experiment, preliminary results are promising.

Almost immediately after implementation, Aquarium scientists observed a rapid colonization of the submerged woven PET material by biofilms, a type of beneficial bacteria that creates a sticky, living coating of the vast PET surfaces. Biofilms feed on excess nitrogen and other nutrients in the water and are the first step towards reaching broader biodiversity and recreating a more natural and multi-layered food web.

By the third day, schools of killifish moved into the prototype’s central channel, and a blue crab was observed molting in the protected shallow water of the new habitat. More fish, anemones, and crustacean species soon followed, along with the arrival of larger species like wading birds and muskrat. The recreated wetland has brought several native species back to the Inner Harbor and into full view of people passing by.

Going forward, the performance of the prototype will continue to be measured. Its impact on water quality will be monitored using data collection equipment installed nearby in the same inlet. This information will help us to calibrate and refine the design of the floating wetland system, so that it has maximum impact when it is fabricated at full scale.

We’re excited to see what’s next for the Aquarium, the Harbor, and the Bay, and what role our newly designed wetlands can play in improving these vital and beautiful places.

 

Jonathan Ceci, Shelly Drees, and Amelle Schultz contributed to the writing of the article.

Ayers Saint Gross at KA Connect 2018

April 25, 2018
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If you’re going to be in San Francisco next week for KA Connect, I hope to see you there, especially on May 2 for my talk on change management in AEC firms.

Collaborative Communications: The Key to Business and Culture Change

Over the past five years, Ayers Saint Gross has crossed over a mountain range of change—including onboarding a new president (me) and leadership team, re-organizing the practice around integrated delivery of services, and converting to a 100% employee-ownership structure. Our team facilitated these business and culture transformations by building collaborative communication channels up, down, and across the business. In this talk, I will share strategies, tactics, and lessons learned from the firm’s business and culture change journey.

Presenter
Luanne Greene, President, Ayers Saint Gross

Details
Wednesday May 2, 2018
9:00 AM – 10:00 AM
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Green Week 2018: The Carrot Awards

April 18, 2018
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Ayers Saint Gross hosts an annual Green Week to advance sustainability literacy within our staff so we can provide better high-performance designs to our clients. We use this time to:

  • Evaluate our performance in the AIA 2030 Commitment, a voluntary program of the AIA in which we report the predicted energy use intensity of our whole building projects and the lighting power density of our interiors projects.
  • Recognize the most energy efficient whole building project and interiors project under design with the annual Carrot Awards to inspire other projects to strive for greater energy efficiency.
  • Share information colleagues have learned through project experiences, professional certifications, and attendance at conferences.

Since Green Week’s inception in 2013, every year’s programming gets more robust and more engaging. Last year’s Green Week included five sessions and awarded 99 continuing education units to our staff. This year hopes to top those numbers by offering seven sessions across all three of our offices.

So what exactly is a Carrot Award and who are this year’s winners? Sustainable design is sometimes oversimplified to as “carrots and sticks” process, in which carrots are enticing incentives that inspire great design and sticks are cumbersome requirements design teams have to meet. We believe sustainable design is great design, so high-performance projects are a carrot to us. Our highest performing projects under design in 2017 are aspirations for every project in our firm to reach for.

This year’s whole building Carrot Award goes to Washington College’s Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall in Chestertown, Md. It is a new construction project of approximately 11,000 GSF that will support academic and lab spaces for environmental programs and the Center for Environment & Society at Washington College. The project is working toward a Petal Certification under the Living Building Challenge and is predicted to have an energy demand 71% less than baseline. The remaining energy consumption of the building will be offset by on-site solar power which will allow the building to achieve net-zero energy operations annually. To achieve this extraordinary level of energy savings, the project prioritized appropriate building orientation to maximize passive heating and cooling strategies. It will also optimize on-site solar production. A highly efficient geothermal heating system supports the project’s capacity to meet all of its HVAC demands without any on-site combustion.

The project is designed to use daylight whenever possible and supplement as needed with efficient LED lighting. End users have also strategized with designers about how to minimize plug loads, as these become a higher percentage of the total end use of energy in net-zero buildings than in other buildings.

This work would not be possible without the collaboration of an engaged client and our teams at Gipe Associates and CMTA.

This year’s interiors Carrot Award goes to our renovation of George Washington University’s Marvin Center. This student collaboration space in Washington, DC acts as a campus living room and decreases lighting power density by 73%, nearly three times the current AIA2030 reduction target, through daylighting and LED lighting.

Congratulations to this year’s winners, and be on the lookout for more sustainability-focused projects from our firm. For more on how Ayers Saint Gross approaches sustainable design, see our firm’s sustainability strategy, Take Action.

Ayers Saint Gross at 2018 National Planning Conference

April 17, 2018
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If you’re in New Orleans for the APA’s 2018 National Planning Conference later this week, I hope you’ll join me on Saturday April 21 for an educational program on creating a master plan for one of the most challenged neighborhoods in Baltimore. Our approach uses robust engagement founded on empowering residents to provide comprehensive community input and involving public and private stakeholders across a city.

Restoring People While Rebuilding Properties

For decades, the Broadway East neighborhood has struggled with some of the highest vacancy and poverty rates in Baltimore. Economic disinvestment, housing abandonment, and crime have left the community destitute. While many residents have fled over the past few decades, a number of lifelong citizens and institutions remain, anchoring the neighborhood with hope and memories of a past vibrant village.

In response to the spring 2015 unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, Reverend Donte Hickman, a neighborhood leader, met with Ayers Saint Gross. The need for a clear, collective vision and master plan for the future was evident. It was essential that this vision be founded on community input. The public outreach was a comprehensive, three-step process, focused on empowering residents by teaching them about planning practices, terminology, and process. While the plan is founded on community input, the overall engagement extends across the city, through both the public and private sectors, building consensus, support, and resources for future development. With corporate partners, city leaders, and community members on board, development is beginning to take off.

Upon completion, participants will be able to:

  • Create a robust, community-centered engagement process that empowers residents of a disenfranchised neighborhood by teaching them about planning practices, terminology, and process;
  • Engage a community that has typically been underserved, and has recently been under national scrutiny as the center of civil unrest; and
  • Understand the value of consensus building from not only a community engagement perspective, but also among city agencies and private investors.

Presenters
Adam Gross, Principal, Ayers Saint Gross
Rev. Dr. Donte L. Hickman, Pastor, Southern Baptist Church
Amber Wendland, Associate, Ayers Saint Gross

Details
Saturday, April 21, 2018
1:00 PM – 2:15 PM
Ernest N. Morial Convention Center
900 Convention Center Boulevard
New Orleans, LA 70130

Ayers Saint Gross at CCFM 2018

April 5, 2018
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If you’re attending the Conference for Catholic Facilities Management in Austin next week, you can catch Ayers Saint Gross presenting on our transformational planning project for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Creating a New Vision for Catholic Schools in Baltimore
From the 1880s to the mid-20th century, Catholic education flourished in the United States with the peak of Catholic school construction in the mid-1960s. Since then, deferred maintenance costs, increased competition, changes in the labor market, and shifting demographics have placed increased pressure on the viability of many schools. In Baltimore, schools operated well below capacity, and were often consolidated or forced to close. The Archdiocese of Baltimore sought to stem this decline, and in 2015 began a process of addressing the existing conditions at 22 schools throughout the diocese.

Through a series of community and school meetings, workshops, and strategy sessions, the Archdiocese worked with a team of consultants to analyze demographic, facility, enrollment, and financial data to formulate a strategy for reinvestment. That plan, along with a rebranding and media campaign, has injected new life into the school system, spurring capital investment and enrollment growth.

Members of the Archdiocese and planning team will share the process, tools, and outcomes from this transformational planning project and will share how the framework can be used for institutions of all sizes.

Presenters

Nolan McCoy, Director of Facilities Management, Archdiocese of Baltimore
Joel Fidler, Associate Principal, Ayers Saint Gross

Details
Conference for Catholic Facilities Management
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
Session 1: 10:30 AM until 11:30 AM
Session 2: 1:30 PM until 2:30 PM

Ayers Saint Gross at AIA DC’s Building Enclosure Council

March 26, 2018
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If you’re in the greater Washington DC area this week, I hope you’ll join me on Tuesday March 27 for a lecture sponsored by AIA DC on an in-depth case study of a unique approach to a high-performance renovation.

Over-Cladding for Thermal Performance and Building Resiliency

The Nelson Harvey Building patient tower occupies a dense urban site in the heart of the Johns Hopkins Hospital campus in Baltimore, Maryland. Ayers Saint Gross teamed with Wilmot Sanz to renovate the exterior and interior of the nine-story, 33-year-old, 118,500-SF building. The innovative and sustainable approach in developing a new hybrid building envelope combines high-performance over-cladding with the existing envelope. The result is a modern design aesthetic that is energy efficient, environmentally sustainable, and highly resilient. In addition to new exterior over-cladding systems, the renovation includes new pat ient rooms, the first-floor lobby, main entrance, and plazas.

After attending this course, participants will be able to:

  • Identify the code implications related to exterior enclosure on existing infrastructure that inform design decisions in a repurposing project;
  • Describe the role that technology plays in assessing, coordinating, and implementing design strategies for new enclosure design on existing infrastructure;
  • Examine the impact of design decisions related to cladding materials, fenestration, roofing, and insulation on the constructability of a new enclosure design; and
  • Discuss the various strategies to future-proof buildings through innovative design systems that address short-term and long-term building enclosure performance and sustainability objectives.

Presenter
Dan McKelvey, Associate Principal, Ayers Saint Gross

Details
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
6:00 PM – 8:00 PM
District Architecture Center
421 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20004

Credits
2.0 HSW | LUs

Ayers Saint Gross at SEAHO 2018

March 6, 2018
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If you’re attending SEAHO 2018 in Biloxi, Mississippi this week, I hope you’ll visit Ayers Saint Gross at booth 303, and join us for our education session on the importance of outside-the-unit spaces in student housing.

Customized Spaces Support Engaged Students
In the age of virtual communication and social media, student housing communities need spaces outside the unit more than ever to facilitate interaction and connection. Carving out the right amount of space is the first step in connecting students to their institutions; having the right mix of spaces is equally important. Finally, customizing these spaces to the culture, spirit, and academic pursuits of the residents is critical to the vibrancy of the community.

Vibrant communities lead to engaged students, and engaged students achieve more success. Our education session will review case studies at Ringling College of Art and Design and other institutions to illustrate how allocating and customizing outside-the-unit spaces in student housing fosters strong communities to drive student success.

Participants will gain an overview of outside-the-unit space benchmarks from the Ayers Saint Gross student housing database, including:

  • The application of these concepts at Ringling College of Art and Design, including increasing the vibrancy of a developing campus edge, using outdoor spaces to connect students to the broader campus, and incorporating student art into the design.
  • Cases studies from other campuses including Goucher College, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Colby College.
  • How accounting for de-densification of older residence halls in a housing master plan maximizes the student experience across housing inventory, not just in new construction.

Presenters
Tammy Walsh, Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students at Ringling College of Art and Design
Dennis Lynch, Principal, Ayers Saint Gross
Cooper Melton, Senior Associate, Ayers Saint Gross

Details
SEAHO 2018
Thursday, March 8, 2018
1:15 PM – 2:15 PM
Session 4

Announcing 2018 Promotions

February 27, 2018
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Ayers Saint Gross is thrilled to announce 26 well-deserved promotions. These employee-owners, who represent all three offices and multiple disciplines, are the future of our firm. We are pleased to be a place where people can learn, grow, and share their expertise with our clients.


PRINCIPAL


Eric Zobrist, AIA, LEED AP

Eric has more than 20 years of experience in planning, designing, and managing large-scale higher education, corporate, retail, and mixed-use residential projects. His recent work includes the University of Arizona Health Sciences Education Building and the Vertex Student Apartments. An integral leader in our Tempe office, he is currently directing the reinvention of the Hayden Library at Arizona State University.


ASSOCIATE PRINCIPALS


Dana Perzynski, AICP, EDAC, LEED AP
Dana enjoys building strong collaborations among disciplines, particularly in relation to master planning for health sciences campuses and academic medical centers. She has completed successful master plans for two of the country’s top three medical schools.


Lindsay Story
Lindsay, our Creative Director and leader of our graphic design practice group, is currently working on comprehensive signage and wayfinding efforts at the University of Denver and Gustavus Adolphus College. Her creativity has led to ongoing relationships with the National Aquarium, the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, and Bowie State.


SENIOR ASSOCIATES


Brian Gruetzmacher, AIA
Brian’s focus for 2018 is the completion of the historic renovation and expansion of Bancroft Elementary School on a challenging site in Washington, D.C. He is also a member of the firm’s internal strategic planning group.


Kim Heaney
Kim is the firm’s Contracts Administrator. Her organization and eye for detail is demonstrated through her handling of all contracts and subcontracts for every project across all three offices.


Adam Knepprath, CCNA
Adam, a member of the IT team, leads firmwide cybersecurity programs. He also conducts internal awareness programs to educate fellow employee-owners on the importance of cybersecurity issues.


Michelle Moseley, PMP, LEED AP BD+C

Michelle recently served as project manager on a complex planning, architecture, landscape, and signage team, delivering excellent design work on an aggressive schedule. In addition to work on projects such as the new dining and housing facility at the University of Maryland, she boosts corporate culture through multiple strategic initiatives.


Adam Ravestein, PLA
Adam brings a wide array of passions to the landscape architecture studio, urban design projects, and the entire design process. His diverse experience ranges from the Waterfront Campus Plan for the National Aquarium, the San Martin Drive corridor enhancements for Johns Hopkins University, and campus transformation projects for Grinnell College.


Doug Satteson, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, CDT, NCARB
Doug has enjoyed his extensive work with the Smithsonian Institution. He is currently working on the Collections Storage Module at the Udvar Hazy Center in Dulles, VA, as well as starting design work on the Museum Support Center in Suitland, MD.


Jasmine Shah, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Jasmine’s leadership and expertise extends throughout the design and construction processes. She currently serves as project architect on Delaware State University’s housing and dining facility while also completing construction administration on the Douthit Hills Hub at Clemson University.


Allison Wilson, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Allison is an architect and the firm’s Sustainability Director. She develops sustainability master plans and strategies for institutional clients, advances building projects through LEED certification and performance analysis, and leads programming for our annual Green Week and the Carrot Awards. Allison actively serves USGBC Texas and the ACE Mentor Program of Austin.


Eric Zahn, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C
Eric’s goal for 2018 is to elevate the firm’s dining portfolio. His recent work includes projects at Goucher College, Minnesota State University-Mankato, and Case Western Reserve University. Eric has also designed residence halls that are currently under construction at Penn State Behrend and Colby College.


Irini Zhupa Zendeli, AIA, LEED Green Associate
Irini is excited about a rare upcoming opportunity: the chance to design a project at her undergraduate alma mater. She will be part of the design team for a new dining and housing facility at the University of Maryland, currently slated to open in 2020.


ASSOCIATES


Shelly Drees, SITES AP
Shelly is the firm’s first SITES Accredited Professional. SITES is a comprehensive Green Business Certification, Inc. rating system designed to distinguish sustainable landscapes, measure their performance, and elevate their value. She’s currently working on campus transformation projects for Grinnell College.


Kevin Jones, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Kevin’s recent projects include the Texas Tech University Experimental Science Building II and the reinvention of the Hayden Library at Arizona State University. He is also a member of the firm’s internal strategic planning group.


William Kenton, LEED Green Asssociate

Following the recent grand opening of the Kent State University Integrated Science Building, William is currently working on both the Whittle School & Studios D.C. campus and a medical research lab project in Baltimore. He is also a member of the AIA Baltimore Historic Resources Committee.


Joe Kim
Joe is studying for his Landscape Architecture licensure while working on projects for Clemson University and Goucher College. He is proficient in BIM, and a member of the firm’s visualization group.


Daniel Lucenti
Daniel is currently working on construction administration for the Providence Innovation Center and The Enoch Pratt Free Library, and will start design for District Hall in Providence in the near future.


Tiffany McAllister, LEED Green Associate
Tiffany’s recent projects include Science @ Carnegie Mellon University and Purdue University’s College of Health and Human Sciences Master Plan. She is actively involved in the firm’s volunteer committee at Beechfield Elementary/Middle School.


Marie McKenna, LEED AP BD+C
Marie is hard at work on Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall at Washington College. It is slated to be the school’s first Living Building Challenge project.


Christine Pappert
Christine, a member of the firm’s finance department, created a user-friendly reporting structure that is now being implemented for multiple large firmwide projects.


Jeff Phang
Jeff enjoys finding efficiencies in processes and helping clients make smarter decisions by leveraging data. He’s excited about further integrating Space Analytics into campus planning and other disciplines.


Katherine Richardson, CID
Katherine is on the design team for the Interfaith Center at Goucher College and the student center renovation at American University. She also serves as the Legislative Coordinator for the Maryland Coalition of Interior Designers.


Corey Rothermel, ITCA-CR
Corey is pursuing his AICP certification while working on the 2018 University of North Texas Health Science Center Campus Master Plan and Tarrant County College District Visioning projects.


Rhiannon Rudolph, PHR
As part of the HR team, Rhiannon’s 2018 goal is to further develop a culture of learning at the firm. This role includes establishing a more thorough onboarding process for new employees and strengthening the leadership development program.


Alex Semkin

Alex is a part of the design team for the Duke University Physical Therapy School of Nursing Education Building, integrating complex program requirements into a modern building in harmony with the historical gothic campus. He is excited for construction to begin this spring.

Legacy and Leadership: Designing the National Churchill Library and Center

February 23, 2018
National Winston Churchill Library and Center entrance
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“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” – Winston Churchill, 1943

Sir Winston Churchill was the most powerful statesman of his generation, and he remains an indelible symbol of British tenacity, wit, and honor.

His American connections were quite strong, though. Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome, was a New Yorker, and Churchill himself was granted honorary U.S. citizenship in 1963. That is partly why the International Churchill Society (ICS) wanted to create a strong Churchillian presence in Washington, DC. That ambition was realized in October 2016, when the National Churchill Library and Center (NCLC) at The George Washington University opened.

Because Churchill was a man of true historic importance, we designed the library to reflect his august legacy in a new and modern way.

The NCLC occupies 5,800 square feet within the university’s Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library. It is the first research facility in the United States dedicated to the study of Winston Churchill, and it currently houses 2,000 volumes.

In addition to study rooms and exhibition space, the NCLC includes staff offices and event space and offers a wide array of programming inspired by the center’s namesake. The many NCLC speakers  thus far include General David Petraeus, Irish Ambassador to the U.S. Daniel Mulhall, and former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

“Having the Churchill Library in the center of Washington is symbolically very important, given the fact that Winston Churchill’s legacy remains so vital to many people in positions of leadership,” said Michael F. Bishop, director of the NCLC. “There’s something compelling about having this only five blocks from the Oval Office.”

***

The idea for the NCLC originated with the ICS (formerly known as the Churchill Centre), which was founded in 1968 and is the premier membership organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of Sir Winston Churchill. The ICS had long desired a permanent home for Churchill studies in Washington, and found an enthusiastic partner in The George Washington University, which had underutilized space in the Gelman Library.

Infusing a space with the personality of a historic figure was familiar territory for Ayers Saint Gross. Our firm designed both the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mt. Vernon and the Visitor Center & Smith Education Center at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

In the case of the NCLC, the challenge was to create a “building within a building” at the existing library. The project demanded a collaborative, interdisciplinary design team that included architects, interior designers, and graphic designers.

At the project’s outset, members of our design team traveled to England in search of inspiration. We visited Chartwell, Churchill’s country estate in Kent, which provided some key colors and tones that made their way into our final design.

During our research trip, we also explored the Churchill War Rooms, a WWII-era London bunker that now serves as a museum. The War Rooms are a key precedent for the NCLC. The space set aside within the Gelman Library for the project was below grade, not unlike the War Room’s subterranean location. To create new volume and add height to the NCLC’s long and narrow space, the ceiling was left exposed and painted a dark tone.

“The design of the space is attractive and striking, a sleek silvery space. The exposed ceiling is suggestive of the Cabinet War Rooms in London, which I like very much,” Bishop said. “The NCLC is very distinct from the rest of the building, and distinct from the area immediately outside it.”

The NCLC features  a fritted glass entryway that balances visibility and privacy. Our team also designed a wordmark for the NCLC and some interior signage. The result is a richly layered design that draws visitors into the space.

In addition to Chartwell and the War Rooms, our design had another distinctly Churchillian inspiration: his signature cigar. Churchill often smoked Romeo y Julietas, a brand with a distinctive red band that encircled a brown wrapper. Drawing on that color palette, we created high-gloss red thresh holds embedded within dark wood walls.

Churchill’s love of cigars also inspired another major NCLC design feature: the “cigar.” This three-dimensional element divides the center into a more publicly oriented event space near the entrance and smaller, more private spaces for staff and individual study in the back. The warm walnut panels also have an acoustical function, separating the public-facing space from the quiet work and gallery area.

***

Today the NCLC is open 24 hours a day to The George Washington University community, and to the public five days a week. In addition to the library’s primary collection, the library features a touch-screen exhibit that allows visitors to see photographs and documents from Churchill’s life. This interactive element drew inspiration from a similar exhibit in the Churchill War Rooms in London. The chance to engage with Churchill’s life and legacy so far from his homeland is a draw for scholars and tourists alike.

“We’re a very unusual resource in that we offer visitors a unique glimpse into the life and career of Winston Churchill right in the heart of Washington, DC. We do that with books, documents, artifacts, and other exhibits, as well as outstanding programming with very prominent speakers,” Bishop said.

The design, construction, and ribbon cutting of the NCLC happened on a tight schedule. The project’s kickoff meeting was in June 2014 and it had to be completed before the end of 2016..

The grand opening was held on October 29, 2016. Speaking at the event, Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s great-grandson, remarked of the importance of the project: “The opening of Churchill’s permanent home in your nation’s capital is truly a thrilling moment. I am more confident than ever that Churchill’s legacy will now be secure in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

 

30 Years of Embracing Change: Reflecting on Jim Wheeler’s Career at Ayers Saint Gross

January 30, 2018
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2018 marks a significant change for our firm: it’s the first year since 1987 that Jim Wheeler has not been a part of our day-to-day operations. While Jim will continue as Chair of the Ayers Saint Gross Board of Directors, we will no longer see him each week.

This moment has been carefully planned for some time. But now it’s real. Jim has been a colleague, mentor, and friend. His impact on the firm has been, and will continue to be powerful.

When Jim Wheeler came to Ayers Saint Gross in 1987, the firm was already 75 years old, with a venerable history and deep local traditions, but also ready to transform itself. He saw a collection of people willing and anxious to take on the future – and change. That’s what Jim has always been about, and still is.

After a stock market implosion in the late 1980s, Jim and Adam Gross made a trip to the University of Virginia. Despite the economy, Virginia saw a boom coming in higher education and they would need to build. Inspired by that meeting, Jim and Adam said: What if we concentrated on higher ed? What if we became the firm colleges and universities turn to for new buildings, housing, and campus plans?

That moment of inspiration became a strategy that has endured for many years. The firm’s focus shifted to all aspects of higher ed planning and design. During the next three decades, Ayers Saint Gross grew from about 30 people to 170, from 10 or 15 projects to over 300, from one office to three, from Baltimore to the Mid-Atlantic to the western U.S. to 20 countries.

Jim embraced change yet again by encouraging the firm to redefine cultural attractions as educational institutions, thereby expanding our impact to a broader array of mission-driven institutions.

When it came to developing the expertise our clients needed, he encouraged us to go beyond architecture, investing in planning, graphic design, landscape architecture, and space analytics.

When it came to hiring, Jim pushed us outside of our comfort zone, purposely adding people with different points of view, contrary ideas, new voices.

When it came to connecting with our communities, Jim invested in multiple ways. He embraced our long-standing efforts to introduce the design professions to a wider audience of kids, particularly those at Beechfield Elementary School in West Baltimore. Jim’s understanding of the importance of giving-back led him to the United Way early in his career. When the challenge of leading the United Way of Central Maryland board came along, Jim saw a chance for growth and change – in the United Way and in himself. He helped lead them to pioneering projects, including a new home in Montgomery Park in 2017.

When it came to the firm’s future, Jim wasn’t content with conventional paths. He explored and implemented an employee-ownership structure – speeding a generational ownership transfer and refocusing the next generation of leaders and change agents.

When it came to leadership, Jim was a champion of real change. He insisted that the firm needed a new voice and a different outlook. I agreed to be his successor on one condition: if Jim stayed and worked with me for year to make the process as seamless as possible.

Jim was at the forefront of the firm’s business development efforts for many years. I’m pleased to announce that his successor there also comes within the firm. Since May 2017, Katy Hunchar has been serving as our Director of Marketing and Business Development. Katy first came to Ayers Saint Gross in 2011 and has since risen through the ranks to lead our strategic marketing and business development efforts across all disciplines for higher education, cultural institutions, and other mission-driven clients.

Now Jim is embarking on yet another change: his well-deserved retirement. He’s officially left the firm on a day-to-day basis, but will lead our board for through 2020.

Change, change, change. Many people run from it. Most resist or avoid it. And most companies whither from not keeping up with it or leading it. Not Jim. Not Ayers Saint Gross. I’d like to close with his own words:

“If you see change and are careful, that’s okay.
If you deny change, that’s doom.
If you see opportunity, that’s the future.”

Awards: 2017 Year in Review

January 3, 2018
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Our goal is to engage people and places to create designs that enrich the world. One of the ways we know we’ve achieved that goal is when our peers are kind enough to honor our work. Here’s a round-up of selected accolades Ayers Saint Gross earned in 2017.

2017 Architect 50: Top 50 Firms in Design. We are so pleased to be included on this prestigious list, ranking at No. 42. Our design portfolio showed a wide range of mission-driven work, from an open, transparent learning center for 21st century medical education inspired by the desert landscape of Arizona to a 14-acre innovation district in the heart of Philadelphia.

The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. This groundbreaking building merited two national AIA awards. This LEED Platinum certified building was named to the COTE Top Ten list because it embeds important public health values into the design via daylighting and a feature stair to encourage walking. (This project is the second Ayers Saint Gross project named to the COTE Top Ten List; the first was the University of Baltimore Angelos Law Center in 2014.)

This project also won a national AIA Honor Award for Interior Architecture. Its pod-like classrooms are set on the perimeter of the building, allowing for views of nearby Washington Circle.

Payette served as design architect and Ayers Saint Gross served as associate architect on the Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Salisbury University Guerrieri Academic Commons. This new building brings all academic support programs under one roof. Organized around a central atrium, each of the building’s four floors is dedicated to a different type of learning: staff-supported research, learning and teaching skills, individualized study, and public dialogue.

With its combination of rich programming and beautifully executed design, the Salisbury University Academic Commons merited Excellence in Design Awards from AIA Maryland and AIA Potomac Valley, and an Honorable Mention from AIA Baltimore.

The LEED Gold certified Commons also earned a USGBC Maryland Wintergreen Award for Education, and a Brick in Architecture Bronze award from the Brick Industry Association. The latter award honored the Commons’ brickwork, which echoes Holloway Hall, the university’s original campus building. The vertical elements and façade details lend a more human scale to the 226,000 SF building.

Ayers Saint Gross is the prime architect of record in association with Sasaki as design architect on this project.

University of Arizona Biomedical Sciences Partnership Building (BSPB). This 10-story building is the tallest on the Phoenix Biomedical Campus, adding much-needed research space and supporting the interdisciplinary efforts of the medical school and its public and private sector partners. A public mixing bar, designed to promote interdisciplinary collaboration, connects to the existing Health Sciences Education Building, also completed by Ayers Saint Gross and CO Architects. The BSPB won two prestigious regional awards – the AIA Arizona Distinguished Building Award and the ENR Southwest Best Regional Project in Higher Education/Research.

The project’s iconic design draws inspiration from the Arizona landscape, highlighted by the horizontal, chiseled striations of its exterior. The 4,800 copper panels reflect light and cast shadows that recall canyon walls. This element earned the project a North American Copper in Architecture Award from the Copper Development Association, Inc.

The project delivery is a continued partnership between CO Architects and Ayers Saint Gross.

University of Pikeville Health Professions Education Building. This building is a symbol of a change in the heart of central Appalachian coal country, as the global energy needs shift away from fossil fuels and towards a more health- and technology-driven economy. Located on a steeply sloped site, the building’s envelope uses material and color palate to meld with the surrounding environment to “bring the mountains inside.” This beautiful, forward-looking project earned Merit Awards from both AIA Kentucky and AIA St. Louis.

Ayers Saint Gross designed the Health Professions Education Building in association with Trivers Associates.

AIA Associate Award. Last but certainly not least, Linsey Graff, Assoc. AIA, was a 2017 AIA Associate Award Recipient. This award is presented to associates who are outstanding leaders and creative thinkers for significant contributions to their communities and the architecture profession. Linsey, an architect and campus planner in our Tempe office, was appointed to a three-year term on the AIA National Diversity and Inclusion Council, and she was one of 22 architects and educators invited to join the Equity in Architecture Commission. She will also be a member of the 2018 AIA National Education Facilities Awards Jury, and a member of the K-12 task force. Currently she is working on a campus master plan for Cal Poly Pomona and the Texas A&M Sustainability master plan.

2017 was a wonderful year of creating designs that serve our clients and their communities. We look forward to many wonderful collaborations to come in 2018.

SITES 101: Creating Sustainable Landscapes

December 20, 2017
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Most people connected to the AEC industry are by now well familiar with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, more commonly known as LEED, the world’s most widely used green building rating system.

Less familiar to many is the Sustainable Sites Initiative, aka SITES. SITES is, broadly, LEED for landscape. The rating is a way of helping designers set and reach sustainability goals with clients. The system was developed through an interdisciplinary effort by the American Society of Landscape Architects Fund, The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden. After a rigorous testing period, the program was transferred to Green Business Certification, Inc (GBCI) in 2015. It’s a relatively new force in sustainability for the built environment, and in my opinion, it’s a powerful one. I am excited about how SITES can help create a holistic approach to sustainability in the built environment.

Every SITES prerequisite or credit is based on the idea of ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are the benefits we receive from natural systems, comprised of both the living and the nonliving components of the landscape. SITES sorts these benefits into four categories: provisioning, supporting, regulating, and cultural. Below are more details on these categories and some suggestions for how designers and clients can thoughtfully approach the SITES certification process.

  • Provisioning. Any useful product produced by the landscape would be the result of a provisioning system. These products include food, lumber, energy supplies, medicines, and similar items. These credits can be earned through a variety of approaches such as incorporating edible gardens, or using local quarries for stone elements on a site.
  • Supporting. Supporting systems keep ecosystems healthy. They include soil formation, photosynthesis, habitat creation, and biodiversity. Credits for supporting can be reached through both design intervention and preservation. Much of the program focuses on preserving healthy soils and ecosystems that would take years of in-situ cultivation to recreate. Improving degraded sites through soil remediation and using native planting to improve habitat value are another way to earn credits.
  • Regulating. Regulating systems produce benefits by maintain larger systems through carbon sequestration, local and global climate regulation, and water and air cleansing. A common regulating technique is the use of bioretention and filtration to clean water and recharge the water table. Biofiltration facilities allow stormwater management infrastructure to function in a healthy way rather than adding to city storm water systems. These systems can often add a cultural value as well by improving the aesthetic of a place.
  • Cultural. This category includes a wide range of tactical choices, like outdoor exercise and gathering spaces, highlighting local icons, and healthy benefits. It’s everything from the creation of a healing garden near a hospital to the inclusion of native plants in a landscape design.

Personally, the thing that excites me most about the SITES system (and about being the first SITES AP at Ayers Saint Gross) is the ability to help a landscape project improve a place’s ecological functioning. Living landscapes are unique for their ability to recharge systems and can make a place function better than before intervention. Too often we see a LEED certified building that is a sustainable island in a landscape that doesn’t support the same high-performance objectives. SITES is a terrific tool to help align the development and management of land with innovative sustainable design.