Special Edition: Green Gazette

  • Introducing the VMA Green Gazette

    Kaetlin McGee, Sustainability Coordinator, took the initiative to develop a newsletter on all things sustainable at VMA: the Green Gazette! We’re pleased to share the excerpts from the first issue which debuted October 1, 2021.

    “The One Where Kaetlin Starts a Newsletter”
    Are you looking for the latest and greatest in green building technologies? Do you need a one stop shop for sustainable news within the firm, Philly, and beyond? Well, you have come to the right place!

    The purpose of this newsletter is to keep VMA staff up to date on what’s happening in the green building industry. It is my hope that each team/department uses this as a source of information to add to their architectural arsenal, or at the very least, learn a fun fact. As sustainability coordinator, it is my job to care about these things, and I hope to add to your passions for sustainable design by creating a fresh newsletter unique to VMA’s practices.

  • Branching Out

    “Design Solutions Combine Beauty & Structure”

    WholeTrees Structures gave a very informative virtual presentation in September. Their Structural Round Timber (SRT) products use cull trees – trees that are normally weeded out of timber forests for being too small or having too much character. They can be used cosmetically or structurally, often out performing steel columns. Branches have a naturally high axial and lateral strength because the wood’s composition is not affected by cutting it.

    They had a ton of design examples including grocery stores, zoos, amphitheaters, playscapes, and indigenous community centers. One of the biggest takeaways for me was the company’s focus on creating local jobs and industry surrounding sustainably managed forests. WholeTrees has taken care to ensure SRT products can coordinate with traditional building materials as well.

  • Sustainability Symposium Recap

    “Green Building United 2021 Even Held Virtually in September”

    The theme for this year was Equitable Decarbonization in the Built Environment. Overall, it was a great event, and I learned a lot of new terms and resources surrounding sustainable design. It was cool to have people from different companies and backgrounds from across Philadelphia, come together to have a constructive discussion on the challenges we face as global citizens in the building industry.

    The keynote speaker was Donnel Baird, CEO of BlockPower. His startup created a unified technology platform that analyzes a buildings energy usage. They take this a step further and help clients finance these projects, as he often works in underprivileged communities. He emphasized how workers, capital, and data must work together in order to make the necessary improvements. When combating disbelievers, Baird said he likes to “break it down to a level even my kid can understand”. A building manager can get easily overwhelmed with green building upgrades, and that’s when BlockPower steps in.

    One session I attended was Operationalizing the Whole Life Cycle Carbon Approach. Panelist Cecilia Freeman talked about how to make more mindful interior design choices. I also attended Diverse Voices for Change – Women Architects in a Quest for Regenerative Design. Here, each panelist discussed a project they completed, and how they worked through their respective certifications. It was also great to hear the opinions of architects from other countries, learning how their culture and leadership strategies impacted their design methodologies.

  • It's Not You, It's Me

    “Why Clients Are Breaking Up With LEED Certification”

    As a sustainability coordinator new to the architecture industry, I was surprised to hear that some clients are no longer interested in LEED certification. No more memorizing urinal flowrates? What about the fancy plaques in the entryway? With the building sector consuming 20-40% of all energy produced in the US, why are we shying away from USGBC’s green building standard?

    As the climate crisis worsens, one would expect the 23 year old certification program to be in it’s prime. But alas, the honeymoon phase is over between USGBC and new construction. Purse string holders are turning more and more to a “LEED certifiable” building standard, minus the fancy plaque. In some ways, I see the appeal; no certification costs with all the perks of a green building. And in any case, if sustainable design is a “given” nowadays, why pay extra for good design?

    Still, there are die hard LEED fans who trust the process. Obsessive documentation holds project teams accountable on sustainable building standards. An architect quoted in one blogpost says “I’d feel better about not pursuing LEED if I felt there were a true commitment and we had other ways to prove the overall sustainability of the project. But in most cases, I feel if the project loses LEED, they’ll lose any hope of a more sustainable project.” The plaque stands for so much more than an extra design cost. This will definitely be a multi-part article, so stay tuned as I research more on this topic.

  • A Quiet Place

    “No Monsters Here, Just a Loud Transit System”

    In July, INTUS Windows gave an interesting virtual presentation on sound abatement. They provided many examples on how chronic noise can have a damaging impact on city dwellers. This presentation resonated with me (pardon the pun), as I remembered all the times during quarantine where I screamed internally about the noise outside my apartment, dreaming about traveling to the middle of nowhere for some peace and quiet.

    Noise exposure in building design is not new news. In 1975, a study was done in New York City on how noise from an elevated train effected student’s reading ability. Children attending classes on the quiet side of the school had less interruptions and were more engaged with the lessons. On the other side, students were a full reading level behind peers in the same grade due to the train noise.

    Want your hotel room comped? Pick a room next to the interstate or airport. One of the biggest complaints in hospitality is noise preventing a solid nights sleep. The right window selection can save a company from refunding rooms and receiving negative reviews.

  • LEED Credit Spotlight: Quality Views

    This indoor environmental quality credit is worth a whopping 1 point. The intent is to give building occupants a connection to the natural outdoor environment by providing quality views. 75% of all regulatory occupied spaces must have a direct line of sight to the great outdoors.

    Something I have looked into for several credits, is LEED’s definition of “regularly occupied spaces”. Luckily the website provides a list of examples, one of which is a correctional facility cell or day room! This goes to show how important daylight is for human health and wellness (even if it is only 1 point).

    As crazy as it sounds, yes, you can have a LEED certified prison. There are several located across the US. In some cases, there are even educational programs to teach inmates about LEED design.

Summer 2021

  • New Team Members Join VMA

    Continuing our momentum in the beginning of the year, we’re thrilled to welcome six new team members to VMA.

    Arismaldy Cruz, Interior Design Coordinator, worked for a high-end residential firm after graduating from Jefferson University. She is a constant crafter who is especially fond of creating cut paper art.

    Kaetlin McGee, Sustainability Coordinator, holds a degree in mechanical engineering from SUNY Buffalo. She regularly with Bethesda Project, an organization that supports and provides emergency shelter for Philadelphians experiencing homelessness.

    Maria Niedziejko, Designer, recently earned her graduate degree from the Catholic University of America, where she was President of the school’s AIA Student chapter. Her frequent baking projects have proven to be a real treat for her new co-workers.

    Cevan Noell, Designer, is a recent graduate of Jefferson University, where he studied both architecture and historic preservation in addition to serving as Treasurer for the school’s NOMA Chapter. He is an avid musician who can play guitar, bass, and keyboard.

    Aylen Phommachanh, Interior Design Coordinator, is a currently studying interior design at the Community College of Philadelphia. She brings extensive community-oriented experience, like her work with the Khammouane Development Project in Laos.

    Barry Whitfield, Designer, holds a degree in interior design from the Community College of Philadelphia and recently graduated with a degree in architecture from Jefferson University, where he was Vice President of the university NOMA Chapter. He spends much of his free time applying his professional skills to the restoration of his own home.

    You can read more about our growing team here.

  • Lehigh Business Breaks Ground

    Construction for a new marquee building for the Lehigh University College of Business is officially underway. At a groundbreaking ceremony held in May, Dean Georgette Chapman Phillips said that “the joy of our new building goes beyond structure. For me, it symbolizes how we are embracing new ways to engage business students, business leaders and business faculty.” The 74,000 sf building, which sits catty-corner from the Rauch Business Center, reflects the university’s tech-forward approach to business education.

  • Brown Hall Modernized and Restored at Princeton Theological Seminary

    Brown Hall, completed in 1865, is one of several historic buildings on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary. A sensitive modernization has helped bring Brown Hall into the 21st century as a residence hall. Single rooms are equipped with private bathrooms. Lounges on each floor, perfect for studying, feature furniture produced from wood salvaged on site.

  • Preservation Alliance Recognizes Two Projects

    We are proud to have two projects recognized through the annual awards program hosted by Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. The seating replacement and accessibility at the Academy of Music and the renovation of three historic Silverman Hall classrooms at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School both received Grand Jury Awards. The Silverman Hall classrooms were also honored by AIA Philadelphia and IIDA PA/NJ/DE Chapter through their awards programs after being featured in Traditional Building magazine last year.

  • On The Boards: Summer 2021

    Our growing team is bringing a variety of different perspectives to the exciting work we have underway right now.

    At Kutztown University, a reimagined DeFrancesco Building will bring new vibrancy to the university’s business programs. A new main entry will better direct circulation while creating a prominent focal point.

    Cresson Hall at Lincoln University is one of the most historically significant buildings on campus but has been underutilized for years. A renovation and restoration will bring it back to service as a residence hall.

    Next door to Cresson Hall, construction is almost ready to begin at Vail Hall, another part of the historic main campus of Lincoln University. Originally built as a library, today it houses the President’s office and other administrative functions.

Special Edition: Passive House

  • Rob Douglass: Passive House Retrofits for Older Buildings

    Rob Douglass is a Senior Associate at VMA and recently became our first Certified Passive House Designer. In our most recent e-newsletter, he shared examples of how Passive House can help benefit our institutional clients. For this follow-up, he expands on those concepts to explore how Passive House can be applied to the retrofit of older buildings.

    I believe that Passive House offers exceptionally useful tools, based in good building science, that can help develop new buildings in a more sustainable manner. Knowing how many of our school and university clients have adopted campus-wide carbon reduction goals, though, it is worth exploring how Passive House can also help improve the performance of older buildings as well.

    It starts with the question: do we consider a building in the context of an historical object, or a living asset? Because many of our projects are for active, living buildings which need to continue serving their campuses productively, we try to balance between the two extremes which means including the energy profile of the building as an important aspect in developing an effective design response.

    We prefer to use energy modeling to help us establish what the best approach is for an older building, balancing energy use against a number of factors: the likelihood that intensive efficiency interventions may significantly impact the long-term durability of a masonry building; that “tightening” a building in certain climates and use-profiles has energy use implications of its own; and the potential impacts to a building’s historic character brought by aggressive retrofits.

    Fortunately, the Passive House Institute recognizes these challenges – as well as the benefits of preserving our built heritage – and gives an alternate compliance path that certified designers can use to map future renovation. EnerPHit, a retrofit plan which is typically pre-certified by the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), allows for an overall strategy to be identified and for work to be completed in phases. The project might start with window and door replacement as a summer project to improve occupant comfort, continue to roof upgrades at the end of the current roof’s service life, and finish with wall upgrades at a time when the building’s general lifecycle calls for an interior renovation. The standard also recognizes that the Passive House thresholds for energy use and air-tightness might not be achievable in an older building, and establishes alternate paths and criteria specifically for retrofitted buildings.

    It is worth keeping in mind that vernacular styles were developed as a direct response to their specific environmental conditions – older buildings were often designed and sited to minimize energy use, for instance by taking advantage of cross breezes for natural ventilation. Maintaining a conscious connection to these living traditions is fundamental to finding a new equilibrium in our rapidly evolving habitat. This concept of the “original green” can help us bridge the perceived divide between historic preservation and sustainable design.

  • Scott O'Barr: A More Comfortable Home Through Passive House

    Scott O’Barr is an Associate at VMA and leader of our growing residential practice. In our most recent e-newsletter, he shared examples of how Passive House can help benefit homeowners. For this follow-up, he expands on those concepts to explore how Passive House can deliver not just a high-performance home, but one that is inherently comfortable.

    When approaching the design of a new home, “comfort” is understandably a top priority for most of our clients. Although it may not be the first thing that comes to mind to most people when they think of Passive House, producing an extremely efficient well-insulated building actually leads to a naturally more comfortable interior that can be an important end result in the final design.

    Imagine: no more drafty windows on a cold winter day or dealing with air-conditioning that proves ineffective in our increasingly hot and humid summer climate, thanks to the high-performance building envelope called for in Passive House standards. Other benefits of those thick exterior walls include less intrusion of noise from traffic or other causes and, thanks to the reduced need on mechanical systems, less dust and other external irritants brought inside.

    While the high energy efficiency of a Passive House is great for the environment, the fact that it leads to interior environments that are healthier, quieter, and generally more comfortable for occupants helps make a strong argument for clients who are considering pursuing Passive House standards.

Spring 2021

  • Construction Begins on Penn’s Biotech Commons

    The transformation of the University of Pennsylvania’s Biomedical Library into the new Biotech Commons is officially underway. VMA produced the project’s original feasibility study, then led a design process that reinforced the collaborative and tech-forward nature of the Commons. New windows will open up to the surrounding campus and share the activities taking place within. Biotech Commons will be open for the Fall 2021 semester.

  • Rob Douglass Recognized as Certified Passive House Designer

    Please join us in congratulating Rob Douglass, who has been accredited as VMA’s first Certified Passive House Designer (CPHD) by the International Passive House Association. Rob leads VMA’s strategic approach to sustainable design and believes strongly in the benefits of Passive House principles in delivering practical, effective, and energy-efficient architecture. He committed to months of study and a rigorous exam process in pursuit of this certification and is now in the perfect position to advise other VMA staff who are pursuing CPHD accreditation this year.

  • John Cluver Co-Presents SCUP Keynote on Villanova Campus Development

    John Cluver joined representatives from Villanova University and Robert A.M. Stern Architects to present one of the keynotes at the Society of College and University Planners (SCUP) Mid-Atlantic 2021 Regional Virtual Conference in March. The team shared details on the collaborative process that led to the successful completion of projects like The Commons student housing and the Mullen Center for the Performing Arts, especially the approach to community engagement that ultimately led to a stronger design response.

  • New Additions to the VMA Team

    The past six months have been a period of remarkable growth in our office. We are so pleased to introduce the following new staff members:

    Suki Che is the new manager of the VMA interior design studio. She loves working with her hands, whether sewing or making pottery, and draws inspiration from her travels.

    Ricky Jimenez DelValle brings experience with adaptive reuse projects and an educational background in historic preservation to our design team. He speaks Spanish fluently and is always ready to talk about soccer, his favorite sport.

    Anna Fowler holds advanced degrees in interior architecture complemented by a minor in sustainable design. She loves to play the clarinet and considered music education before pursuing design as a career.

    Alison Kass, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, can go beyond designing homes to actually building them, having spent a semester in college building a home from the foundation up. Since arriving in Philadelphia, she has been particularly struck by the city’s many murals.

    Jeff Lewis, AIA, has a breadth of experience ranging from contemporary high-end residential projects to more traditional institutional design. He is happy to admit, though, that post-modern architecture is his favorite.

    Tarin Martinez, a student at Bryn Mawr College, joined VMA to build on her coursework with real world experience. She brings a passion for design honed through working for her family’s aerospace design/build manufacturing company.

    Matthew McCarty is the latest addition to our historic preservation studio and has particular experience working at the intersection of preservation and interior design. After spending seven years in the horticultural industry, he still has a strong personal passion for gardening.

    Steven Schloeder, PhD., AIA, is a specialist in the planning and design of ecclesiastical architecture, especially for Catholic congregations. He joins us after almost twenty years managing his own firm.

    Tyler Stull is not just a designer, but also an experienced IT support professional. His passion for sustainable design has led him to research regenerative design and energy modeling.

    You can read more about all our staff here.

  • Daniela Voith Named President of ICAA Philadelphia Chapter

    Daniela Voith has extended VMA’s involvement with the Philadelphia Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA) by accepting the role of President. The mission of the ICAA is “to advance the appreciation and practice of the principles of traditional architecture and its allied arts by engaging educators, professionals, students, and enthusiasts.” Daniela previously led the chapter’s Education Committee and is serving on the jury for the 2021 Bulfinch Awards, held by the ICAA New England Chapter.

  • On the Boards

    Our strong reputation for architecture that reflects innovation in the context of tradition has led to exciting new partnerships:

    The renovation and restoration of the historic Sedgwick Theater, shown above, on behalf of Quintessence Theatre will combine two of our specialties: preservation and performing arts design. The goal is to transform the theater into “Northwest Philadelphia’s landmark cultural destination.”

    At Middlebury College, design is underway on a new dormitory to replace Battel Hall, the traditional home for first years on campus. We are also developing conceptual designs for a new student center and new art museum.

    Planning for the relocation of Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary is underway, with conceptual designs in progress that make the most of their new site at Gwynedd Mercy College. The heart of the new campus will be a chapel designed to reflect the seminary’s mission and heritage.

  • Sennah Loftus Named Knoll Emerging Leader

    Sennah Loftus has been named a member of this year’s Knoll Emerging Leaders Program cohort, nominated for her role as executive leader of our interior design studio. This eleven-month program connects an array of rising design professionals through a series of weekly professional development workshops hosted by national leaders in the AEC industry. Knoll, one of the nation’s foremost interior design suppliers, established a curriculum that covers topics like applied improvisation for leaders, effective techniques for delegation, and the fundamentals of business writing.