Baltimore Firms Volunteer to Renovate School Libraries

by Tracy Ostroff

The BELIEVE In Our Schools program, a Baltimore initiative, provides free library designs to Baltimore City Public Schools. Thirteen local architecture firms have teamed up with engineers and other consultants to produce as many innovative designs for school libraries in Charm City.

The program began when, three years ago, Alexander Design Studio was approached by Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc. to volunteer with a library design for Southeast Middle School, AIA Baltimore reports. Construction would be funded by the state of Maryland through a program called QZAB (Qualified Zone Academy Bonds). Now 13 local firms have donated their innovative ideas to Baltimore City’s schoolchildren, saving the city hundreds of thousands of dollars while simultaneously providing children with the best and most creative designs for their libraries.

“Our firm has always done pro bono work,” says Charles Alexander, AIA, founding principal, Alexander Design Studio. “About three years ago we were approached by a local developer who put me in contact with Baltimore City schools, which was interested in implementing a program similar to the New York City’s L!brary Initiative, a partnership of the Robin Hood Foundation and the New York City Department of Education.” To fund the work, the school applied for the QZAB grants. “The big difference is that although the work in New York was privately funded, the Baltimore schools had to search for public money to carry out their plans. The notion was that Baltimore-area architects could extend the resources by donating services to advance the renovations.”

Alexander encouraged city officials to deviate from their regular procurement practices to try a pilot project to bring a creative design to life. His firm offered to take on a middle-school library renovation. The project proved to be a success. Another round of funding allowed the school and the architects to expand their horizons. Alexander says he went around with school officials to identify future sites and offer evaluations and cost estimates. Because the reach of the need extended throughout the county, they decided to concentrate their efforts on 10 projects to be renovated with public funds. Two more were added later with private funds.

12 architects for 12 schools
With the middle school design and pilot program under the firm’s belt, Alexander Design Studio took on the role of coordinator of pro bono services and intermediary between the schools and the volunteering architecture firms. Alexander helped with the budgeting and program issues and, importantly, found 12 architecture firms willing to donate their services. With the firms (see reference-column list), they also found an equally impressive number of eager engineering firms and other consultants amenable to donating their services. The firms are working on a wide variety of school types, from a 200-square-foot library for an elementary school to a 6,000-square-foot high school. Some of the schools need only aesthetic updates, whereas others involve HVAC and mechanical work.

Alexander figures his firm has donated more than 300 hours to the project. He says three people—a project manager, senior associate, and intern—worked on the design project and notes that the library projects had particular allure. “It’s the one learning space through which everyone in the school passes,” he says. “The children deserve excellent design.”

Alexander says one of the frustrating aspects of the projects is working out liability issues with the school district. “When we started this process, the schools seemed amenable” to releasing the architects from liability for the pro bono services they are providing, he says. But the lawyers for the district are now balking at setting a precedent for released liability. That is making some of the architects nervous—to the extent that two of the projects may not be completed—but Alexander is confident that there are enough people on board that they will be able to reach a compromise.

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The National Clearinghouse for Education Facilities offers design ideas for K–12 library and media center design.

Pilot school with 2002 QZAB funding
• Southeast Middle School, by Alexander Design Studio

Current projects with 2004 QZAB funding
• Arundel Elementary/Middle School, by Gaudreau Inc.
• Bentalou Elementary, by W Architecture
• Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle School by Hord Coplan Macht,
• Collington Square School, by Murphy & Dittenhafer
• Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary School, by Marks Thomas Associates
• Hamilton Middle School by Design Collective Inc.
• Patapsco Elementary/Middle School, by Richter Cornbrooks Gribble
• Sarah M. Roach Elementary, by Ziger/Snead
• Steuart Hill Academy, by Cho, Benn, Holback
• Thurgood Marshall Campus, by Ayers/Saint/Gross, architect

Current projects with private funding
• Langston Hughes Elementary School, by SMG Architects Inc.
• Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School, by Melville Thomas Architects Inc.

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