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.

Fall & Winter 2020

  • "Law & Order:" Traditional Building Profiles Silverman Hall Classrooms

    Traditional Building magazine recently featured our work renovating and restoring three classrooms at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, situated within historic Silverman Hall, and highlighted the project’s balance of preservation with the integration of cutting-edge learning technology. Daniela Voith explains that “we like to say that we design spaces for the development of the mind and the development of the soul. These three classrooms do both.”

  • African American Museum of Bucks County Looks Forward to New Home

    We are proud to have been part of the expert team behind the renovation and restoration of Boone Farm, also known as the Godfrey-Kirk House, for its conversion into the first permanent home for the African American Museum of Bucks County. The Middletown, PA property, a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1717 and will retain many of its historic features when the museum opens. AAMBC has served as a mobile museum since 2014, hosting temporary exhibits throughout the county and visiting area schools to share African American history, culture, and heritage with students.

  • Project Awards & Recognition

    We’re so proud to have our work recognized with a number of awards this year:

    University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Silverman Hall Interiors

    AIA Philadelphia Honor Award, Historic Preservation/Adaptive Reuse

    University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Silverman Hall Classrooms

    IIDA PA/NJ/DE Chapter, Best in Education/Institutional <30,000sf

    AIA Pennsylvania Chapter Design Awards Finalist, Historic Preservation

    The Lawrenceville School Abbott Dining Hall

    ICAA Stanford White Award, Commercial, Civic, and Institutional Architecture

    ASID Eastern Pennsylvania Design Awards, Honorable Mention – Institutional Design

    Millbrook School Callard House

    ASID Eastern Pennsylvania Design Awards, Winner – Institutional Design

  • Millbrook School Dining Hall Named for Longtime Headmaster

    In November, Millbrook School formally named their new dining hall for Drew Casertano, headmaster of this Hudson Valley boarding school for decades. As our working partner throughout three comprehensive campus plans and over a dozen capital improvements, we have seen Drew’s commitment to Millbrook firsthand and congratulate him on this important honor.

    Daniela Voith offered the following statement: “Drew’s tenure at Millbrook has been so transformative under his clear, passionate leadership. He has been such a positive force and I have learned a lot from his example. Listening to the post on Facebook this morning I almost started to cry: the Dining Hall is all about building community and no one has done more, or cared more about that, than Drew. He and Linda have cared for the school with grace and love so to have that place carry their name is imbued with deep meaning.”

  • Celebrating Staff Achievements

    Congratulations to Robert Duke on earning his professional accreditation through the American Institute of Architects (AIA)! Rob achieved this career milestone while simultaneously managing some of the firm’s highest profile projects, like The Commons at Villanova University, as well as the inevitable disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. We are extraordinarily proud of his dedication throughout and hope you’ll join us in wishing him continued success.

  • On The Boards

    As a full-service design firm, our slate of projects continues to run the gamut from large, new construction to more targeted technical preservation work. Our reputation as one of the nation’s premier campus architects is also reflected in the new and renewed partnerships we are developing with educational institutions:

    We are pleased to be working again with a local independent school, transforming a former garage into a STEAM center appropriate for students of all ages at this PK-12 girls’ school. VMA completed a feasibility study for the project in 2018.

    Work is underway on a comprehensive campus plan for Green Hedges School, a PK-8 independent school in Virginia. Programming meetings conducted earlier in the Fall, held outside in tents with physical distancing, will help inform a series of suggestions for campus improvements.

    Following a series of studies for Philadelphia Youth Basketball, we are thrilled to be working with them on the design and construction of a new dedicated home for this community-oriented program that empowers young people as students, athletes, and positive leaders.

Special Edition: Home Learning Environments

  • Learning Experience

    The pandemic forced students and parents around the world to adapt to virtual home schooling for the first time. Dining room tables to outdoor patios were quickly converted for use as makeshift classrooms. While many schools have strived to return to in-person learning this Fall, there are still many parents for whom home learning is still very much the reality – whether they are prepared for it or not.

    Many of our staff are parents themselves who are adapting just like everyone else, albeit with the benefit of many years’ experience designing classrooms for students of all ages. We checked in with them to see what they have managed to create within a multitude of different circumstances so that other parents can hopefully benefit from their lessons learned.

  • John Cluver: A Not So Empty Nest

    John Cluver is Partner and Director of Preservation at VMA. He has a daughter, Hannah, who is a college senior and a son, Ben, who was looking forward to starting his freshman year of college this Fall. Instead of living on their respective campuses, John’s kids are living at home as both of their schools have gone virtual for the semester.

    “Compared to pre-school or elementary school students, older students – in particular those in high school and college – face a different challenge with virtual learning. Gen Z students, such as my children, were already comfortable with learning online, studying anywhere, and doing virtual get-togethers with friends for years. And they don’t need our help to do it. There are, however, a couple of things that they do need. Front-and-center is reliable wireless internet service. Everywhere. Their rooms, the living room, the backyard. They want the flexibility to connect, so getting a WiFi extender (or two) is money well spent. And make sure that it is compatible both with your router and your internet provider, so that signals can seamlessly transfer between access points.

    “The second way we can help is to give them space(s). In high school and college, each class is in a different room, or building, often specialized for the particular topic, and several studies have shown that learning and information recall is improved by studying in different locations with unique visual, auditory, and even olfactory cues. I was reminded of this watching my college freshman do his calculus class on the couch, chemistry at his desk, freshman seminar on his bed, and environmental science (of course) outdoors. Even if your space is limited, simple changes like facing in a different direction or putting up a different poster for each class can provide some much-needed variety and sense of identity. And these spaces need to be something they can count on to be ‘theirs.’”


    – Strong internet infrastructure allows his kids to learn from anywhere – even outside – without slow speeds affecting their ability to connect.

    – Laptops can be taken almost anywhere, but specialty equipment like media recording devices may need dedicated workstations.

    – Although studies have shown it is better not to work from bed to avoid impacting sleep patterns, it remains a common solution for older students who already identify their room as “theirs.”

  • Sennah Loftus: When Work is Play

    Sennah Loftus is Associate Principal at VMA and a leader of our interior design studio. Her daughter, Hadley, is a regular visitor in our office and so has started her design education young!

    “For the youngest of children, there is a fine line between what constitutes a home classroom from that of a playroom; sometimes the spaces appear indistinguishable. When the pandemic hit and kids were sent home from schools my three-year-old was one of them, and I was challenged to convert the basement playroom within my Philadelphia Row Home into a space for focused learning. Committed to the Montessori education method, I looked to create for her an environment to support her self-directed, tactile, and exploratory activity-based learning.

    “Allowing her inherent creativity to take the lead, the space is laid out by zones and outfitted with a variety of mediums including a blackboard wall for lettering and drawing, art table for painting and clay modeling, coffee table for honing motor skills, and a low seated couch for cozy reading. Note the lack of any screen, tv or computer; an intentional omission to keep directed focus on the activity at hand.

    “The furniture is small in scale; and through the use of color the traditional drop leaf table, the Vitra Panton chair, and the IKEA hacked stools play nicely in a relatively small space. Lastly, the window, albeit a subterranean window well, provides natural light, sightlines to the sky, and connectivity to the garden just above.”


    – The blackboard wall, which can be used for lettering and drawing, will continue to be useful as Hadley grows older.

    – The “art table,” with a roll of paper attached at one end, is the surface for potentially messy activities (painting, clay modeling) at a height that’s perfect for either standing or sitting.

    – A deep windowsill doubles as a display shelf for educational toys.

    – A mix of kid-sized pieces and low-lying seating and surfaces creates a space that is just right for the scale of young child.

  • Ryan Dougherty: Making the Most of Every Inch

    Ryan Dougherty is a VMA Senior Project Manager whose wife, Megan, has a background in early childhood education, so his family approached home learning for their three- and four-year-old kids from multiple perspectives. They have chosen to establish a “pod” with a nephew of the same age who lived nearby, with Megan developing the lesson plans.

    “Instruction for little children happens anywhere, anytime. It is fluid and is only limited by one’s imagination. My four- and three-year old’s brains are currently using about 40 percent of their body’s energy right now as they grow, meaning every activity they engage in is changing and affecting the growth of their minds.

    “I have been blessed that my wife Megan has a background in early childhood education, is working part time, and has a preschool aged nephew living just a short drive away in New Jersey. We never considered ourselves ‘pod’ people, but with the current situation, this is an opportune moment for our children to learn, grow and better know their cousins. The inside and outside of the house become our teaching space: circle time and reading on the living room rug; craft and art time in the dining room; outings to our backyard and the zoo for explorational learning.”


    – Wheeled carts are an excellent tool for moving supplies from one learning space to another.

    – Their basic home garden became its own classroom with daily visits used as opportunities to study topics like the parts of a leaf.

    – The two small reading chairs help define the reading corner but can be tucked away when not in use.

    – Reusable trays help reduce messes in spaces serving multiple purposes, like the dining room where art projects happen.

  • Robert Douglass: A Room of His Own

    Rob Douglass is a VMA Senior Associate and parents two boys with his wife, an independent schoolteacher. They applied lessons learned from their unexpected shift to online learning in the Spring to plan ahead for a potential Fall disruption.

    “For our seven-year old, starting first grade represents the first time that spaces for work and play are meaningfully distinguished. His pride at crossing the milestone into numbered grades is palpable. At school he has his first individual desk, with (for now) neatly stacked supplies inside and a laminated reference guide taped to the top.

    We worked to create an ‘office’ that would simulate some of the values of his new Big Kid status – and address the biggest problems we had last Spring: acoustics, distractions, and the stress of having to do class squeezed between dad and little brother at the dining table.

    The space, selected by him, is a low under-eave closet that opens off my wife’s workspace. It does not have the natural daylight we’d recommend, but it does give him some distance form little brother. Reference pages taped above the desk help stimulate memory. While a screen is necessary for some parts of his work, it must be removable to help keep focus directed, and located so it’s visible from the door, so we can monitor participation. Because we’d never expect a seven-year-old to sit at a desk all day, we’ve included a separate reading area.”


    – Rob included a low reading chair, appropriate books, and pillows so that he can join Henry in his ‘office’ for afternoon reading or other activities.

    – The location, situated directly off an adult home office, offers just enough isolation to minimize noise distractions and foster a sense of independence.

    – The scale of the furniture is just right for Henry’s size and makes the most of the small space.

  • Robert Duke: A Place for Everything

    Rob Duke is a VMA Associate whose wife had already been homeschooling their kids, ages infant to seven-years-old, prior to the pandemic. While working from home the past six months, he’s had a front row view of the various methods Judy employs to keep things efficient and organized.

    “Our morning lessons take place on the couch in the living room then, after a short break, we move to the table. Afternoon lessons take place in the dining room and sometimes upstairs. Judy is also a fan of spontaneously moving lessons to our screened-in porch or to the park or the car where we all enjoy a treat. Read-aloud’s over water ice has been a summertime favorite.

    “We have a relatively small house (for this many people) so we try to keep school things to a minimum. Books we’re actively using are kept in a small basket in the living room or in a moveable cart in the dining room. We have a hutch in the dining room for crafts, supplies and notebooks. Ideally we’d have a beautiful, bright room dedicated to school but this set up works best for us, keeps everyone comfortable and motivates us to keep school things in check.

    “Judy had resisted putting maps up in our dining room but this year we decided to find a few that she really liked and just go with it. So far, I think we use them more because they’re in the dining room. Over dinner when we talk about a friend or family member, current event etc., we can take a quick look at the map.”

    – A daily rotation of comfortable spaces provides much-needed structure for young kids, even with the occasional impromptu trip for water ice.

    – Learning aids are blended into everyday life: a bird identification chart is posted next to the window for easy reference, and a world map in the dining room inspires questions and casual discussion.

    – Storage, always essential in homes with kids, is positioned to allow little hands to grab things like books and certain supplies like paper and crayons. Paint and other messier materials are kept out of reach.

    – A small-scale whiteboard, study enough to withstand daily use, is an excellent multi-purpose tool for displaying prompts or to practice handwriting.

  • J. Scott O'Barr: The Sky's the Limit

    Scott O’Barr, VMA Associate, is not a parent but has extensive experience working on residential commissions with families designing age-appropriate spaces for their children. He speculated on what those clients might have wanted, if they had the freedom to design a home learning environment from scratch.

    “It’s an interesting question; so many homes include a custom home office, but there had not really been a widespread need for dedicated space for kids to do their own classwork. Many of the elements that make for an effective home office also make for an effective home classroom, so that is where I started looking for inspiration. It is a very practical space, but also one that feels cozy and supportive. This arrangement is best suited for older children, like those in middle or high school, or for college students. I opted for a more traditional design approach, but the general set-up could be adapted to suit any style.”


    – Cork backing behind the desk makes for easy pin-up space for notes, pictures, and calendars.

    – Situate a separate table close by to be used as activity or breakout space.

    – Locating the desk in an alcove keeps it free from distraction. Ideally, a nearby window will help bring in natural light.

    – A combination of open and hidden storage accommodates books, basic supplies, and even a few healthy snacks.