See, Understand, Interact, and Plan: Space Analytics at Ayers Saint Gross

August 7, 2018
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At Ayers Saint Gross, we like to start every planning project with space analytics. Space analytics is precisely what it sounds like—a study and quantification of existing space showing existing utilization and a projection of current and future space needs.

This analysis serves as the foundation for our iterative process to identify challenges and opportunities, develop strategies, and build consensus and buy-in. In a world of constrained budgets, space analytics helps institutions achieving the highest and greatest use of capital assets. Without that analysis, the use of capital resources is guesswork—and guesswork can be costly. Recent coverage of our work in The Chronicle of Higher Education put it another way: space analytics takes the emotion out of facilities decisions.

Ayers Saint Gross uses proprietary space analytics tools such as SAMi™, a cloud-based data interactive visualization tool, an integrated planning tool, and GIS mapping, which provides a snapshot of an existing campus’ space use and overlays the data on future projections to determine prospective needs. Robust visualization is key to making data accessible to decision makers, helping them to understand the best ways to manage an institution’s physical assets.

We’ve summarized our approach to space analytics and its relation to the planning process in our most recent discipline book, Telling a Story with Data: Space Analytics at Ayers Saint Gross.

Together with our clients, we address challenges and provide a data-driven framework for decision-making. These resources strengthen an institution’s ability to prioritize investments, resulting in more robust physical resources and greater student success.

 

Hack the Block: Notes from the Equity by Design Hackathon 4

July 24, 2018
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I recently had the opportunity to attend the Association of Community Design Conference, an event hosted by the Neighborhood Design Center, a Baltimore nonprofit that facilitates the development of healthy, equitable neighborhoods. The conference was two days filled with discussions about the roots and relevance of community design. Over and over again, conversations referred back to Whitney M. Young Jr.’s famous keynote address at the 1968 AIA Convention, in which he called out the architecture profession’s “thunderous silence” in the face of civil rights movements.

I revisited the full speech and was struck by how relevant it still is. In 2018, even though architects have the skills to be strong stewards of equitable communities, we sometimes fall short of our own tremendous potential to have a positive impact on the built environment and on people’s lives.

While the task at hand can seem tremendous, I am interested in how we can change that. This is why I attended the Equity by Design Hackathon 4: ArchitectuREvolution, a terrific event that took place at the Syracuse University Fisher Center in New York City on June 20.  This occasion brought together designers to tackle the ideas of improving justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the architectural practice as well as the communities we serve.

Here are my major takeaways from the event:

  1. We have a lot in common. There were around 40 people at the event, of various ages and backgrounds, but when we broke into small groups for an icebreaker two common threads emerged: bilingualism and urbanism. Almost all of us spoke at least two languages and we either grew up in or currently lived in large cities. Finding emphasized our shared experiences over our differences.That said, another experience we all seemed to share was the sense that architecture is a tough profession for women and people of color. We need to push harder to make ourselves heard in order to avoid being sidelined in our careers. It was both good and bad to hear that other people were struggling with similar issues.
  1. Working fast is fun and useful. I really enjoyed the hackathon experience. It was invigorating to brainstorm and present a transformative idea in a single day. Having to think up and communicate concepts quickly is essential for designers and architects in all stages of their careers.
  1. Data is an essential component of 21st century design. Thanks to our shared experiences of living in urban areas, the members of my hackathon team were familiar with one of the downsides of city life: abandoned and neglected properties. How could architects address this problem systemically as a profession? My experience working with the East Baltimore Revitalization Project made it clear how essential it is for architects and planners to engage with a community. We need to make the design process transparent, teach non-designers important terminology to make discussions understandable, and really listen to what residents want and need. The social benefits extend well beyond any individual project. A community that understands the process of how its physical environment changes, from concept to design to construction, is well-equipped for future challenges or opportunities that arise in its neighborhood.

So, for the hackathon, our team decided we wanted to create a resource that would allow architects to work with people to repurpose or redesign spaces to align with local needs. Our proposed program, dubbed Hack the Block, was a nonprofit that would map both vacancies and needs in underutilized areas with community members.

The data collected would eventually inform community-led construction efforts and be shared with government organizations to build upon what we’d started.

To be truly successful, Hack the Block’s community engagement would be key. Telling people what they want or need is usually far less effective than asking them.

In the end, Hack the Block didn’t win – that honor went to Team Value Menu, which envisioned a Zillow/Yelp-type reviewing system for architecture firms that would allow job applicants to evaluate firms on a variety of metrics like community engagement, office culture, and mentorship opportunities. Often, young architects have only one hard number – salary – to go on when making crucial early career decisions, and a more complex and informative way of comparing employers would be useful.

I did, however, notice that Hack the Block and Team Value Menu shared a common thread. Both teams saw that people want to make well-informed, empowering decisions about their own lives. Top-down thinking from existing power structures doesn’t produce good design or good work environments. I love that Equity by Design is working hard to create a profession that reflects and serves a diverse world.

My hope is that the future of architecture looks more like another passage from Young’s speech: “It took a great deal of skill and creativity and imagination to build the kind of situation we have, and it is going to take skill and imagination and creativity to change it. We are going to have to have people as committed to doing the right thing, to inclusiveness, as we have in the past to exclusiveness.”

WELL 101: Creating Healthy Places

July 23, 2018
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For many people in the AEC industry, sustainability is synonymous with LEED, the world’s most widely used green building rating system.

At Ayers Saint Gross, however, we define sustainability as balancing the unique needs of people and ecological systems with the economic realities inherent in each project. That definition recognizes that there are multiple ways to measure success in sustainability. It also supports the triple bottom line of people, planet, and payback, and acknowledges that LEED may not always be the most appropriate yardstick with which to measure sustainability on every project.

One of the latest green building rating systems to take the AEC industry by storm is the WELL Building Standard. WELL poses a people-centric, rather than planet-centric, question: How can a building support better health, happiness, and well-being for its occupants?

I was inspired to become the first WELL AP at Ayers Saint Gross, earning my certification in June 2018, because we often design buildings for the education of health care professionals, such as our recently completed Howard Community College Science, Engineering, and Technology Building and the University of Pikeville Health Professions Education Building. It’s important to me that these projects more directly support occupants’ well-being and put the environmental factors that influence health outcomes on display. The WELL system was developed over a six-year period and formally launched in October 2014. Now administered by GBCI, WELL provides a pathway for measuring, certifying, and monitoring how buildings support human health and well-being.

Every WELL Precondition or Optimization is substantiated by medical, scientific, or industry research to ensure a data-driven system. WELL also requires ongoing monitoring, annual reporting for some features, and re-certification every three years.

This level of rigor ensures that a building doesn’t just operate as intended on day one, but that it continues to do so on day 1,001 and beyond. It’s an exciting prospect to move beyond how buildings are predicted or intended to function, and to talk about how they do function on an ongoing basis.

The WELL Building Standard v1 sorts its 105 Preconditions and Optimizations into seven concepts: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. Below are more details on these concepts, and some suggestions for how designers and clients can thoughtfully approach the WELL certification process.

  • Air. This concept aims to optimize indoor air quality through the minimization of introduced contaminants, as well as filtration and testing to ensure air quality is conserved throughout occupancy. High indoor air quality has been linked to improved cognitive function, so it makes sense that this concept is the most heavily weighted subject within WELL.
  • Water. The water concept aims to ensure easy access to potable water and to maintain stringent standards regarding inorganic, organic, and agricultural contaminants in water for human consumption. To meet Preconditions and Optimizations, WELL projects incorporate a variety of filtration systems to ensure the purity of water for human consumption.
  • Nourishment. This is my favorite WELL concept because even without owning a commercial or institutional building, there are requirements in here that can change how I go grocery shopping and help me improve my health. Among other standards for projects that provide food service each day (including vending machines), processed foods are held to sugar restrictions and dinnerware must be within prescribed size limits to support portion control.
  • Light. The light concept addresses access to daylight and views, as well as the impact electric lighting can have on circadian rhythms. While energy conservation is not a stated part of the WELL Building Standard, many of the features within this concept help minimize energy use. Designers can develop appropriate building masses that allow for greater levels of daylight penetration to support success in this concept.
  • This concept encourages active transportation both for commuting and within a building. Project owners have multiple policy requirements within this section including activity incentive programs (like those offered at Ayers Saint Gross).
  • Comfort. The comfort concept addresses ergonomics, acoustical comfort, olfactory comfort, and thermal comfort. WELL recognizes that different kinds of work require different kinds of spaces, and create different acoustical and thermal conditions. Building a variety of comfort conditions into a building ensures that everyone can maximize their learning and productivity.
  • Mind. The mind concept addresses biophilic design, adaptability, sleep, business travel, and other subjects that impact mental health. Opportunities for innovation are also recognized within the mind concept.

While LEED is an important tool for talking about sustainability in the built environment, I am excited to engage with newer rating systems that allow us to have more human-centered discussions about sustainable design.

Just as LEED and other codes, standards, and rating systems are updated on a regular basis, WELL has been updated this summer. WELL v2 is a pilot program and it’s unclear how long the pilot period will last. As of this posting, projects can choose to register under either WELL v1 or WELL v2 and IWBI assures project teams that when WELL v2 becomes the dominant WELL Building Standard advance notice will be provided.

Check WELL’s FAQ for more on the transition between WELL v1 and WELL v2. You can also reach out to me to learn more about how WELL might be applicable to a project you’re considering at awilson@asg-architects.com.

2018 Comparing Campuses: Student Housing

July 10, 2018
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2018 marks the 20th edition of our firm’s Comparing Campuses poster. Since 1998, we have explored hundreds of campus plans from leading institutions around the world. We assemble this collection as a tool for institutional planners because we believe that understanding campus organization and data will lead to the creation of even better spaces in which we live, learn, and teach. We understand the importance of research, and believe that sharing our research contributes to creating better campuses.

Last year, we turned to the past, exploring historic campus master plans and how they helped shape their respective campuses today.

This year, we’re going home – or more precisely, to the on-campus places that students call home.

Housing plays a central role in students’ lives. The residential experience can be a competitive amenity that contributes to a university’s brand. Well-designed spaces and varied typologies should meet the needs of students as they change and grow throughout their college experiences.

Our 2018 poster compares campus-owned housing typology, density, and distribution across 10 institutions. Each map highlights housing facilities color coded by the predominant unit type, overlaid with a series of circles scaled to represent the number of beds in each building. We hope you enjoy exploring how these different institutions have created places that students can call home.

If you won’t be at SCUP, please email us at comparingcampuses@asg-architects.com and we’ll be happy to send you a copy. Additionally, the entire Comparing Campuses collection is available on our website. Visit us there, or at booth 109 at SCUP 2018 to claim your copy. We’ll see you in Nashville, and look forward to discussing the many ways to help students feel at home on campus.

Ayers Saint Gross at ACUHO-I 2018

June 27, 2018
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If you’re attending ACUHO-I 2018 in Denver, I hope you’ll visit Ayers Saint Gross at booth 120, and join us for our educational session on the importance of outside-the-unit spaces in student housing.

Customized Spaces Support Engaged Students
In the age of digital 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 residents’ culture, spirit, and academic pursuits is critical to the community’s vibrancy.

Vibrant communities lead to engaged students, and engaged students achieve more success. Our educational 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
ACUHO-I 2018
Sunday July 8, 2018
1:30 PM – 2:20 PM
Room MT704
Session 2

In Conversation: Ann Powell and Dan Henderer

May 21, 2018
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Ayers Saint Gross currently counts two AIA chapter presidents in its ranks. Ann Powell serves as the president of AIA Baltimore, leading one of the nation’s largest and oldest AIA chapters in our firm’s hometown. Dan Henderer recently became president of AIA Middle East, a relatively young AIA chapter, as he enters his eighth year of living in Saudi Arabia as the leader of one of the firm’s most ambitious international projects. In this conversation, they discuss current projects, do some trend forecasting, and explain how to get more involved in AIA.

Q: How did you first get involved with your local AIA chapter?

DH: There was a conference in Riyadh in 2012 called Riyadh Design Days organized by the AIA which I attended. Previously I wasn’t aware there was a Middle East chapter, as I was still a member of the AIA DC chapter. I learned more and attended the first AIA ME Year End Conference in Dubai in 2013 which was great. I was encouraged to participate and became the AIA ME Country Representative for Saudi Arabia, and then served as the chapter secretary for two separate terms before becoming the chapter president in January.

AP: I moved from New York to Baltimore in 2004, and wanted to expand my professional network. I joined the Historic Resources Committee and became co-chair of the committee in 2010. I moved onto the Board of Directors in 2013.

Q: What are your goals as chapter president?

AP: Our goal is to help us find a new location where we can establish a Center for Architecture and Design. We have 1,000 members which makes us one of the 20 largest chapters in the country. That puts us in this AIA group called “Big Sibs.” Many of the Big Sibs have been able to elevate their position in their communities with Centers for Architecture and we want to bring this to our community. Most people are familiar with the Washington Design Center and the Center for Architecture in New York City. Right now, AIA Baltimore is in a townhouse in Mt. Vernon, and it’s very introverted. By moving to something that’s more like a storefront, we will have an external presence and hopefully be able to bring partners into a united co-working space for allied organizations like the Urban Land Institute and Baltimore Heritage. I want to be there when we sign that lease. That’s my goal.

DH: To maintain services and engaging activities for the members in our region, and continue the momentum of the chapter in creating awareness of the AIA. The AIA Middle East Year End Conference is our main event, bringing together members of the chapter, and we will focus a lot of energy on holding a successful event. We’ll announce the location soon, either in Lebanon or Bahrain. We are also working toward finalizing a partnership with Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, which will give us a physical address there and enable us to hire staff for the first time. 

Q: What’s unique about your region and chapter

DH: The Middle East chapter is unique first because of its area. We represent all of the Middle East and North Africa, which is a large area to maintain an active presence in all places. We have small membership in some countries, while others, like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have many members.

Secondly, it’s unique in that it can be a transient place for architects who, like myself, move to the region for a specific project or for a limited time.

Parts of the region have been booming for some time, with Saudi Arabia perhaps leading the way from the 1970s and 1980s, and the Gulf States since the 1990s.  When you visit a place like Dubai, it is truly astonishing to realize the amount of development in the past 20 years. There was a significant impact from the last global financial crisis, followed by a successful rebound, which has slowed again in some areas with lower oil and gas prices. It is an interesting place to be an architect because of the scale and ambition of many of the projects. Many projects are built to be landmarks and the clients are keen for signature architecture. Thankfully some of the large projects have been government-led educational and cultural institutions, not solely commercial. 

AP: Baltimore is still a unique city. When you look at the way retail has evolved, you walk into a Gap anywhere in the country and it’s the same merchandise. There’s so much homogenization that’s happened in our culture. But what I like about Baltimore is it’s a little bit understated on the East Coast, overlooked between DC and Philadelphia, and within that is a real opportunity to maintain a sense of place. We embrace that individualistic culture that we have, and you can see that in the projects in the area. We’re a major metropolitan area, and we have great big projects, but we also have lots of quirky little stuff going on and that’s what makes it exciting.

Q: What projects are you working on right now?

AP: I am working on an admissions and financial aid center for Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, which is in construction. Everything else I’m working on is for the Smithsonian. The addition at Udvar Hazy Center is in construction, Pod 6 at Museum Support Center is in design, and we’re doing some planning work at National Museum of American History.

DH: I have been working on the redevelopment of a historic site for over 10 years. The site is called Atturaif, which was the ruling center of the first Saudi era beginning in the 18th century. When we started it was a 58-acre site of ruined mud brick palaces and defensive walls which had been excavated and surveyed, but was largely untouched since the siege of the city in 1818. Atturaif achieved UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2010, and conservation and construction began in late 2010. The plan has been to conserve the archeological finds and remaining architectural heritage, as well as to redevelop the site to promote visitation and education. New, modern museums have been inserted into vacant areas, or integrated with buildings on the site. Ayers Saint Gross has led many of the designs for the visitors’ infrastructure, landscape, lighting, signage, modern museums buildings, and exhibition design.

Q: What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed in architecture as a profession in the last 10 years?

DH: The use of BIM and the predominance of sustainability are obvious movements which have become fairly standard in the profession in the past 10 years. There are more material choices and systems than ever.

There are also so many platforms and ways which architects can publish and share their work now. I think it has elevated the level of design everywhere. 

AP: Technology makes start-up costs more expensive, so it’s harder for small firms to get started and to stay afloat. It’s a barrier on many levels, because you need technical expertise in the software in order to do drawings. I think it’s important to keep it real and balanced among the technological piece, communicating with clients, and what we need to do to build a project. Those are the three skills that need to be balanced. Technology gains so much emphasis that you worry that it obliterates those two other components. Using software is an introverted act, but we still need to make sure we can communicate to clients. It’s a tool. It doesn’t replace these other things.

On the upside, there are great things that are coming out of tech improvements that are really awesome. Using the cloud to host software to have multiple offices working on BIM models that are linked together, that is hugely helpful. We do mark-up sessions on Bluebeam Studio, which is cloud-based so all the consultants are using one unified set of drawings. So the advancement in technology is huge, but you can’t lose focus on what it is to be an architect.

Q: What does it mean to you to be an architect?

DH: I think it means many things to many people, and it takes many kinds of architects to make places and buildings. To me, fundamentally, the role of the architect is to design the physical environment to achieve the functionality the users need, while bringing creativity to the process of planning and design. 

AP: We’re problem solvers through a lot of different avenues, and design is just one aspect of it. Contract negotiation is problem solving. Going through construction is all problem solving. It’s balancing your technical understanding and your design knowledge with your communication skills, and using them all together.

Q: What will the biggest change to the architecture profession be in the next 10 years?

DH: The trends I see are the increase in use of the digital modeling assets which architects create to enable a more direct relationship with the fabrication and construction of buildings.

Also, the areas of biophilic design and biomimicry are very interesting to me from material use to larger systems as they become more used and proven.  Sustainability and occupant well-being will continue to increase in profile and value. 

AP: I heard this statistic that really blew my mind. I’m Generation X, and we’ve always been behind the Baby Boomers, who were so much larger than us. And the Millennials are so much bigger than the Gen Xers, coupled with the fact that a whole bunch of people left the profession during the recessions of late 1980s and the late aughts. But effectively within the workplace, because the Boomers are retiring and the Millennials are entering, the Millennials will be larger in number than the Boomers and the Gen Xers really soon. So that’s a huge shift. Culturally, the generations are different and we’re always working to reconcile that in both directions. But the sheer volume of the Millennials is really going to change the culture of the workplace. I don’t know what that’s going to look like. I just know that it’s coming.

Q: What drew you to architecture?

AP: I majored in Economics and English in college, and that was a lot of talking about stuff. Interesting stuff, but I really liked this idea that you started with nothing and end up with a completed project. It’s why I like to cook. I go to the grocery store, I fill up my cart with things that don’t even look like they go together, and we have a delicious meal. And architecture is the same way. And that’s what’s most gratifying to me about it.

As I worked in the profession and figured out what kind of architecture I really liked, because I’ve done a little bit of everything, what I gravitated to at Ayers Saint Gross was two things. One, we’re going to be doing projects that are going to be around for a long time. The decisions being made aren’t for the next five years. We’re building buildings that we expect to be around in 50 years and that is in line with my value system. Secondly, I like that we’re working with professional clients. I like the professionalism of the relationships, and the fact that they are long-term. I like the buildings. I like the long view.

DH: There have been a number of architects in my family so it sort of seemed like a normal profession, but in the end I liked creating things. Architecture combines problem solving with technical and creative aspects in a satisfying way. 

Q: What do you enjoy most about design?

DH: The most enjoyable aspect to me is seeing designs come to fruition as buildings and places. Something that you helped to create at your desk or in your office becomes a massive living, breathing thing that will impact people for many years. 

AP: Agreed. I like sitting back when it’s all over and looking at it. A good design solution, seeing it all come together, is the best.

Q: What’s your favorite building in your current city?

AP: In a previous job, I worked on the American Brewery renovation for the nonprofit Humanim. One, it’s a great building, a crazy Victorian mishmash folly building. It was all designed to wrap the brewing process. The form is really driven out of the original brewing process. But you wouldn’t guess that by looking at it. And it’s in a super-blighted neighborhood, and Humanim moved there to be closer to the people that they served. The idea was that this project, which had been such a blight on the neighborhood, could help it come back and be a catalyst to redevelopment. That’s a perfect story, right? Taking something great and bringing it back and making it relevant in such a powerful way. The best part of a project is taking something that was ignored and making it relevant again. It is no longer an underutilized building – it’s home to a nonprofit in the community that it’s trying to help.

DH: In Riyadh, my favorite building is Tuwaiq Palace. It was executed in the 1980s as a clubhouse for the diplomatic quarter. It is made of sloped Riyadh limestone walls which curve to create courtyards and has lightweight cable suspended tents for function areas. The building is very sculptural and fits into the landscape beautifully. 

Q: What would be your suggestion to somebody who’s thinking about getting involved in their local AIA chapter and doesn’t know where to start?

DH: I would suggest attending events to start, and getting in contact with some of the local leaders. There are always ways to participate or contribute and you will get more out of the AIA if you participate.

AP: That was me in 2004, the person who wanted to get involved. I had no idea but instead of feeling like I had to go find out all the answers I said, “Well, I’m going to look through this list of committees and join one and see what it’s about.” And that’s what I did.

Within that, even if you get to a committee and it’s not working exactly how you want it to be, that’s fine too. The whole idea is that we are a composite of our membership and the important part is to find a way to get engaged. And if you aren’t satisfied with what that picture looks like, change it.

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