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.

Spring 2020

  • Balancing Preservation and Performance at Penn Law

    Our latest partnership with the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School is stunning proof that historic preservation and contemporary design needs are not mutually exclusive! We renovated three classrooms located in what had originally been the grand reading room of Silverman Hall, designed by Cope & Stewardson, using an approach that prioritized celebrating the rooms’ existing historic details while still enabling their use as high-performance 21st century learning environments. Each of the three classrooms were redesigned to offer different opportunities regarding capacity, layout, and the types of pedagogy they can support. They were also outfitted with large LED arrays attached to freestanding steel assemblies that could be installed with minimal impact to the existing architecture. Hidden cove lighting highlights the new panels as well as the original repaired plaster ornament that run the perimeter of the vaulted ceilings.

  • Coming Soon(er): County Theater Consolidates Construction Schedule

    We want to thank all of our construction partners for their diligence in mitigating the impact of mandatory work stoppages implemented in response to the Covid-19, as well as for their commitment to following health & safety best practices on their jobsites upon reopening. Thanks to their efforts, we continue making progress on projects across the region.

    One of those projects has been the expansion of the County Theater located on the Main Street of Doylestown, PA. Construction was originally split into two phases so that the theater could remain open throughout. When it became clear that the pandemic would require the theater to shut down for at least several months, however, the project team turned a challenge into an opportunity: taking advantage of forced closure to consolidate two phases of construction into one. Thanks to this plan, work is now scheduled for completion months earlier than originally intended.

    Once completed, the theater’s addition will include a new concession lobby, restrooms, and a 175-seat theater. The design will also continue the strong historical identity of the district and surrounding buildings, including a street-level storefront to continue the rhythm of the commercial street which it is located on. You can follow updates on the theater’s website here.

  • VMA Adapts to the "New Normal"

    We are fortunate to have made a relatively smooth transition to working remotely the past few months in response to the pandemic. So, what exactly has WFH looked like for our team? This inforgraphic helps tell some of the story!

    While working from home has offered some challenges to maintaining the collaborative office culture that was established prior to COVID-19, we’re nevertheless proud of out team for coming up with innovative ways to collaborate, create, and connect- both professionally and socially. This has included weekly themed happy hours and virtual coffee chats to replace those little moments of chatter in the communal office kitchen, allowing those remaining in Philly and those who have decamped elsewhere to feel like they’re still only a few desks away. We’re especially loved when “guests,” be they pets or kids, drop by to say hi. VMA staff even each offered some of their favorite tunes to give you a curated VMA Work From Home Playlist, available here.

    Our office reopening plans are in place for when the time is right to return, which we certainly hope is soon, but in the meantime we continue to send our very best wishes to each and every one of our friends and partners.

  • Celebrating Staff Achievements

    We’re pleased to announce the promotions of three VMA staff members:

    Scott O’Barr, AIA, has been promoted to Associate. Scott joined VMA in 2019 bringing experience with traditional design & preservation, especially for residential commissions, some of which have been published in New Old House, Period Homes, and Architectural Digest. He has served in leadership roles for both AIA Philadelphia and AIA Pennsylvania and actively volunteers with the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art Philadelphia Chapter.

    Ryan Dougherty, AIA, has been promoted to Senior Project Manager. After recently managing the Center for Social Impact at Malvern Preparatory School and the Performing Arts Center at Villanova University, Ryan is currently working on a diverse array of projects for The Catholic University of America, Saint Joseph’s University, and Kutztown University.

    Andrew Lipschutz has been promoted to Senior Project Manager. Andrew has contributed to award-winning projects for The Lawrenceville School and The Hotchkiss School. He is currently managing a new center for Philadelphia Youth Basketball and a new residence hall at Gettysburg College. For several years, he has volunteered with the Partnerships for Achieving Careers in Technology and Science (PACTS) at the Franklin Institute which fosters leadership and STEM skills in young teens.

  • A "Phase 1" Milestone at Church Farm School

    The Buck Family Center for the Arts, a significant part of the Phase 1 campus improvements at Church Farm School, is now complete! The Center will consolidate the school’s arts program into a centralized and modern facility with studios, labs, classrooms, an exhibition gallery, and practice & performance spaces. The Phase 1 projects are the firs to come out of the comprehensive campus plan produced by VMA; they include a new campus entry, new parking, and renovations and additions to Greystock Hall, the school’s main academic building. You can read more about the exciting improvements coming to CFS here.

  • Best Wishes for Yiran Zhao

    Please join us in congratulating Yiran Zhao as she leaves VMA to pursue her Master of Architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design. Yiran worked with VMA after receiving a Bachelor Degree in the History of Art with a Minor in Growth and Structure of Cities from Bryn Mawr College where she studied under Daniela Voith. During her time at VMA she contributed to projects at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Saint Joseph’s University, and the Academy of Music.

Winter 2019/2020

  • Millbrook School Dining Hall Wins ICAA Stanford White Award

    Millbrook School Dining Hall has received a 2019 Stanford White Award in Commercial, Civic, and Institutional Architecture. The annual awards program, held through the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, recognizes projects in architecture, interiors, landscape, urbanism, and building craftsmanship & artisanship that demonstrate classical or new traditional design.

    The new 400-seat dining hall is airy, quiet, and architecturally expressive of the school’s mission and identity, giving the school community a space to dine together daily and a venue in which host special events. Millbrook’s commitment to sustainability is embedded in the building’s design through material choices, daylighting, geothermal systems, and framed views to the school’s organic gardens to the north. The project had previously received a Trumbauer Award from ICAA’s Philadelphia Chapter and was featured in Traditional Building magazine.

  • John Cluver Inducted Into the Carpenters' Company

    This February, VMA Partner/Director of Historic Preservation John Cluver officially signed the registry of the historic Carpenters’ Company of Philadelphia and was formally inducted as a member. The Company, founded in 1724, is the oldest extant craft guild in the country. It supports, engages, and educates leaders of the architecture, engineering, and construction industries while also providing stewardship over its home, Carpenters’ Hall, a landmark whose significance includes its role as host of the First Continental Congress in 1774.

  • VMA Continues to Grow!

    VMA is excited to introduce several talented individuals who are contributing to our continued growth. Please join us in welcoming Troy Posnansky, Kevin King, Nathaniel Gotcher, Derek Supinsky, and Roya Aghaeifar, who bring with them diverse skills in data analysis, interior design, and architectural design.

    But we’re not done yet – we continue to look for creative individuals to join our team of architects, planners, interior designers, and preservationists! Contact us today to apply.

  • Villanova University Pedestrian Bridge Recognized with Two Awards

    Villanova University’s Lancaster Avenue Pedestrian Bridge, completed in association with Robert A.M. Stern Architects, has won two separate awards for its design and construction. The Delaware County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers named the bridge its 2020 Outstanding Project of the Year and it also received a 2020 Transportation Design Award from the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute. The bridge offers Villanova students and visitors a practical, elegant, and safe elevated walkway over bustling Lancaster Avenue, and required significant planning and foresight to accomplish. Congratulations to our team members!

  • APPA Loves "Trends in Classroom Design & Technology"

    Following their successful reception at the NJAPPA 2019 Spring Meeting and through a live webinar hosted by ERAPPA, Partner John Cluver and Associate Principal Sennah Loftus joined representatives from Rutgers University (portfolio link) and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School (portfolio link) to present “Trends in Classroom Design & Technology” yet again – this time for a webinar hosted by APPA itself. The continued relevance of the topic shows that integrating technology to create effective learning environments is an ongoing issue for higher ed facilities professionals nationwide. A recording of the webinar is available through APPA’s YouTube page here.

  • Lessons in Church Stewardship

    Associate Robert Duke and Project Manager Jeffrey Peters represented VMA during a half-day workshop on church stewardship held in conjunction with Partners for Sacred Places and Keast & Hood structural engineers. The team presented on topics ranging from basic maintenance to planning & implementing capital improvements, with a special emphasis on the challenges faced by those managing historic buildings. Rob and Jeff each have experience working with congregations on addressing needs to their facilities, most recently at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, and drew from their own lessons learned before offering a case study on VMA’s renovation of the Neighborhood House at Christ Church Philadelphia where the workshop was held.

  • Celebrating Staff Achievements

    After hours and hours of hard work, along with their strong dedication and commitment to the architectural profession, staff members Anne Niedrach and Maggie Holsinger have successfully completed their journeys to professional accreditation. We are proud of their accomplishment and hope you join us in celebrating this important milestone in their careers!

    Both Anne and Maggie have recently spent their time working on some of the firm’s higher education projects. Maggie was involved in the renovation and restoration of classrooms in historic Silverman Hall at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, while Anne has been managing the renovation of Brown Hall dormitory at Princeton Theological Seminary.

  • A Visit with "Friends"

    We were pleased to welcome two Germantown Friends Students, Kenji and Jude, into our studio for several weeks in January. As part of their junior project, the two shadowed our staff members on job meetings, gained experience with some design software basics, helped archive design sketches, and learned more about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into running an architectural firm. Best of luck to both of them!

    If you’re a student or teacher interested in similar opportunities, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Fall 2019

  • Cameron Mactavish Takes New Role as Partner Emeritus

    At this year’s Annual Party, VMA was joined by our partners, friends, and family to celebrate Cameron Mactavish and to raise a toast to his new role as Partner Emeritus. We were honored by how many people turned out and proud to be sharing this moment in VMA’s history. After a trip down the Atlantic coast with his wife on their self-restored sailboat, we look forward to welcoming Cameron back this Spring as he trades daily office life for a more limited part-time role in the firm’s operations.

  • Montclair Kimberley Academy Primary School Expansion Opens

    This September, the Montclair Kimberley Academy’s Primary School welcomed students into its new expansion for the first time. The existing school needed a larger space on campus where the lower school could come together as a whole. The new expansion is a creative and practical response to that problem and includes a flexible cafeteria/auditorium, which can serve as a single large assembly hall or be divided for daily events, such as lunches or class performances. The new entrance and surrounding site were reconfigured to better support daily pick-up/ drop-off, and a central hall with built-in benches sized for students overlooks the pick-up/drop-off area. Throughout the expansion, the layout and design balances transparency, view to outdoor spaces, and natural light with the need for safety and security.

  • VMA Welcomes Scott O'Barr

    VMA is excited to announce that J. Scott O’Barr, AIA, NCARB, has joined VMA as our newest Project Manager. Scott has extensive experience in not only the design of new buildings, but also in restoration and adaptive re-use of historic buildings and sites. His work, which has been featured in New Old House, Period Homes, and Architectural Digest, is a perfect fit for the VMA philosophy of delivering “innovation in the context of tradition.”

    Outside the office, Scott is involved in the Philadelphia Chapter of The Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, and is on the board of Friends of Lemon Hill, an organization supports the preservation of the 19th century Lemon Hill Mansion in Fairmount Park.

  • The Grange at The Hotchkiss School Wins 2019 SARA National Design Award

    The Society of American Registered Architects (SARA) has recognized The Grange at Fairfield Farm, a unique facility on the campus of Connecticut’s The Hotchkiss School (link), with a 2019 SARA National Design Award of Honor. The Grange was designed to support the school’s student-focuses agricultural program which immerses them in nature and instills a sense of local and global responsibility for natural resources. Students harvest and process crops which are then served in the school’s dining hall. Taking cues from nearby vernacular agriculture forms, the flexibility of The Grange allows it to act as a classroom, dining, or event space; a vegetable washing station; a cooking classroom; and a highly insulated basement for bulk storage. Congratulations to The Hotchkiss School and to all our team members!

  • Daniela Voith Speaks at Anbound Conference

    Daniela Voith spoke as part of the Pedestrian Oriented Development (POD) Forum hosted by Anbound, a Beijing-based think tank, which focused on the topic of how progressive urban zoning policies can help deliver improved well-being for residents, shorter commutes, better walkable environments, and more active mixed-use developments.  Her presentation was based in part on her experiences on Philadelphia’s Zoning Code Commission and Zoning Advisory Group as well as contemporary case studies including the impact of the the Comcast Technology Center and changes in the city’s rowhouse zoning.


  • On the Boards

    We are excited about the many projects currently on the boards, most of which represent our strong reputation as a firm that specializes in campus design and planning. Some recent highlights include:

    University of Pennsylvania. We completed the preliminary plan  for the Biotech Commons, a re-imagining of Penn’s existing Biomedical Library, back in 2017 and are now working with the university on advancing the series of phased improvements.

    St. Joseph’s University. As executive architect for the first projects to emerge from the university’s comprehensive campus plan, we are developing early documentation for several projects including a new residence hall, new student center, Athletics Center renovation, and a new home for the Kinney Center for Autism.

    Millbrook School. After working with Millbrook on our third campus plan together, we are embarking on significant improvements to their athletic facilities.

    St. George’s School (shown). We are well underway on a comprehensive evaluation of their Newport, RI campus to produce a plan that will specifically address their residential program as well as greater, long-term considerations of facilities.