AEC Cares Project-Philadelphia 2016

Design Team (left to right):  Jeffrey Brummer, Kathy Lent, Heidi Segal Levy, Patrick Snoke, (back row) Morris Zimmerman, Howard Lebold.  Not pictured: Terri Schmitt

Imagine that you had $300,000 worth of building materials and 150 willing volunteers.  Could you transform a public recreation center that has been underfunded for decades?  The answer to that question seems pretty easy, but how about completing the renovation in 10 hours?  That was the challenge posed to me and six other design professionals who volunteer with the Community Design Collaborative in February of this year.  What an amazing and challenging opportunity for our team, not only to create a good design, but also to help seek out the many building materials needed for the project through donations.  AEC Cares provided us with this incredible opportunity.

AEC Cares is a nonprofit organization that was formed in 2011 and has completed a transformative project each year since then, such as: renovating five homes that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina, restoring a building for transitional housing and job training, updating a school for underprivileged youth, and renewing a crisis shelter for homeless youth.  The annual projects are selected based on the location of the AIA national convention, and the day of service for the project is performed the day before the opening of the convention.  Since the convention was in Philadelphia this year, we were given the opportunity to participate in the AEC Cares project-Philadelphia.

The project selected for this year was the renovation of the Athletic Recreation Center in the Sharswood neighborhood, which has a long history of providing afterschool and summer programs to hundreds of children since 1911.  The Community Design Collaborative volunteer team’s role for this project was twofold:  to create a design that can be implemented by a volunteer workforce in one day and to only use materials that can be donated or found locally.  The design team consisted of veteran volunteers from the Community Design Collaborative, who have provided countless pro-bono design service hours for non profit clients throughout the Philadelphia area.

Our team held the kickoff meeting at the building site in early February and quickly assessed the building.  We selected five rooms to become the focus of our design intervention:  the main entrance hall, the art room, the auditorium, the kitchen and costume room.  Once we had our design areas defined, we held weekly meetings to define the scope of work and clarified the extent of our design intervention.  We quickly developed a schematic design to present to the Athletic Recreation Center staff and community, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation (who own and manage the center), and AEC Cares staff.

We immediately needed a firm understanding of how much time and effort would be required in preparation for the build day to make our design a reality.  Not only would we have to take the lead in procuring much of the material used in the renovation, but we also had to present our design clearly so the volunteers could quickly understand our drawings to complete the design on schedule.  Once the schematic design was reviewed and approved, our team started defining what preparation work would be completed in advance by Philadelphia Parks and Recreation’s skilled trades staff and volunteer contractors.  Tasks such as vinyl floor demolition and installation, demolition and installation of light fixtures, and any demolition/preparation work above 12′ high were completed prior to the build day.  Volunteers from the neighborhood were also an important part of the preparation phase of the project as they cleaned out years of stored items and clutter to empty out the work areas.  The housecleaning was also an important step in creating excitement throughout the center for the big changes that were to come.

Once the preparation work was complete and many of the donated materials were secured, our team had a clear idea of what parts of the project design needed to be altered.  Luckily our design only needed minor changes as the build day was quickly approaching.  Final coordination was completed with multiple fabricators and materials were being delivered to the center; everything was in place for the 150 volunteers to do the work.

The build day on May 18th, 2016 was a great success and we were able to complete most of the work as a team.  It was quite a sight to see so many people working in one building at one time.  It was great to work with talented volunteers from all over the country.  Volunteers recruited by AEC Cares represented many design related firms and corporations from all over the United States.  The upgrades to the Athletic Recreation Center were dramatic and the children loved their new building.  The renovated spaces would support the numerous programs at the center.

Now that a few months have passed since the build day and my crazy schedule has slowed to a normal pace, I’ve had some time to reflect on this project.  I learned that people are more generous with donating their time and materials for a good cause than originally thought.  We couldn’t have completed such a dramatic transformation without the support of so many generous donors and volunteers.  Another lesson that I learned during the project was to have a flexible design.  Our design team benefitted from having a flexible design that could be altered as the project progressed, without losing the main intention of the renovation.  In the end, we were able to meet the challenge, and in the process, create a legacy project that will benefit the Sharswood neighborhood for years to come.

Jeffrey Brummer, AIA, LEED AP has been a volunteer at the Community Design Collaborative since 2003 and has participated in many design grant projects throughout the Philadelphia region.  Please visit for additional information about the Community Design Collaborative or if you are interested in becoming a volunteer.

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