Baltimore Rehab:

Socially Responsible Development

Download Main Street News PDF - 2009/04

There's a new model for sustainability coming to Baltimore. Miller's Court is the culmination of a local developer's vision for socially responsible development. The Miller's Court developer, Seawall Development Company, is led by a father and son team, Donald and Thibault Manekin. Donald developed a passion for helping Baltimore City Public Schools after volunteering to serve as the school system's interim chief financial officer from 2002 to 2004; he saw an opportunity to help the city through building design.

Miller's Court: After

The Manekins realized they could help Baltimore schools by building a supportive environment for Teach for America participants working in the Baltimore City Public School System. Teach for America is a program that encourages recent college graduates to work in underserved schools across America for two years.

One of the challenges expressed by many program participants is the sense of isolation they sometimes feel – moving to an unfamiliar city, learning how to teach, learning how to engage children from distressed environments – which leaves some of these teachers feeling depressed and ultimately causes them to drop out of the program. By creating a supportive environment where the teachers feel like they belong to a community, the Manekins are working to reduce the dropout rate from the program.

Rehab: Environmental Sustainability

With this in mind, the developers set out to find a property that would support their vision. Eventually, they chose the historic H.F. Miller & Sons Tin Box and Can Manufacturing Plant. Located in a transitional neighborhood in northern Baltimore, the property had been sitting vacant for nearly 20 years, occupied only by squatters, graffiti artists, and pigeons.

Miller's Court: Before.

Constructed in stages between 1874 and 1910, the facility was an active can manufacturing site until the 1950s. After that, the building was leased as inexpensive industrial/flex space until the final tenant, the United States Census Bureau moved out in the mid-1990s. The property was not only an ideal space; it was in an ideal location, situated near the headquarters of the Baltimore City Public Schools, and a mere four blocks away from the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, where many Teach for America participants earn their master's degrees while teaching in the city school system.

Through a combination of historic preservation tax credits and enterprise zone credits, the structure is now being redeveloped (on a tight budget) as a mixed-use facility for which the developers are seeking LEED-NC Gold Certification. What makes this facility unique, however, is not its focus on environmental and economic sustainability, but its focus on social sustainability.

Social Sustainability

Approximately 35,000 square feet of space has been redeveloped as offices for nonprofit groups that support Baltimore's public schools. About 40,000 square feet is being used for below-market rent apartments targeted at Teach for America participants. Through extensive interviews and surveys of these teachers, the developers came up with a series of key design elements to create a supportive, collaborative environment for the residents and tie the building into the surrounding community.

One of the keys to promoting social sustainability is to create an environment that lets people interact with one another, without forcing them to socialize. One of the best ways to create places that will engage a building's occupants is to provide spaces that they will want to use. An easy way to find out what occupants might want is to ask potential tenants what they would like to see in the building. The conversations the Miller's Court developers had with prospective tenants had a significant impact on the final building.

One of the design team's initial concepts included two common laundry rooms, which have proven to be more ecologically friendly – people tend to do fewer, larger loads at public laundries; and commercial, coin-operated machines use significantly less water and electricity than those in private residences. The designers thought common laundry rooms would give residents a chance to "hang out" and chat while they were doing their laundry. Interestingly, potential residents strongly objected to this concept, saying that common laundries made the building feel like a college dormitory and they felt that they had left "dorm life" in the past.

On the other hand, through ongoing discussions with prospective tenants, the design and development team learned that many Teach for America participants spend a lot of time in local copy shops because their schools don't have the equipment for them to make the copies they need for their classes. So in place of one of the proposed common laundry rooms, the design team inserted a workroom with a high-volume copier so the tenants don't have to make late night runs to the copy store. Instead, they can make copies at home and chat with other tenants while using the workroom.

The project also made use of its limited outdoor space by creating an inner courtyard designed to encourage both office and residential tenants to spend time outdoors. The old loading dock for the complex has been retained as a seating area with a new fire pit installed; and the central court has been reconfigured as a bocce court.

Other elements of outreach include working with local artists and a sculpture studio from the Maryland Institute College of Art to create site-specific art pieces that utilize elements removed from the building during redevelopment and engaging the neighborhood to discuss the history of the building as it relates to the neighborhood.

Economic Sustainability

An innovative, energy-efficient mechanical system was employed in the project as well. By creatively approaching heating and cooling, the developers produced a 32.6 percent savings in energy for the building, which yielded nine points toward the anticipated LEED-NC Gold certification. In analyzing the energy model it was confirmed that during the heating season the office component of the facility would still be a net generator of heat and need cooling, while the apartments would require heat to maintain occupant comfort. As a result, the design team re-evaluated the options for new mechanical systems in the building.

In lieu of conventional heating and cooling systems, consisting of roof top air handlers feeding a variable air volume (VAV) distribution for the commercial office space and individual air-source heat pumps for each residential apartment, the developers selected an alternate system that uses an energy recovery unit. Placed on the office exhaust air system, this unit captures the waste heat generated by the commercial office areas and then feeds it into a condenser water line serving heat pumps in each residential unit. This creative approach to serving the mechanical needs of the building also eliminated the need to place 40 individual residential compressor/condenser units in a tightly constrained urban site. 

Multifaceted Sustainability

Another way the project has approached sustainability from a variety of perspectives is in the design and programming of the commercial office space. Recognizing that most organizations need occasional access to conference and meeting rooms, the developers requested that the basement level be designed as flexible meeting space, consisting of six individual meeting rooms that can be opened up into two large meeting venues. Tenants schedule meeting space when they need it and can request space to accommodate anywhere from two to more than 100 participants.

This decision had several positive benefits – in terms of social sustainability, it provides yet more opportunities for people to mingle with individuals from other organizations that have similar goals. Also, by providing meeting space on an "as-needed" basis, the project allows tenants to rent fewer square feet of office space because they don't need conference rooms. This saves the tenants money, allowing them to provide more services within their limited budgets. The developer was also able to lease to more groups, because each group required less space. The building was completely pre-leased six months before completion and the developers already have a waiting list for the next project they are considering.

As is true of so many other adaptive-use projects, this building rehabilitation removed a neighborhood blight, which in turn spurred investment in the surrounding area. Since the rehabilitation, an interesting cycle has developed. Improvements to the rehabilitated structures led to improvements throughout their neighborhoods, which are now leading to further improvements to the originally developed properties, with higher-end tenants moving into the ground-level retail and upper-level office spaces as they become available.