Urban Upcycling with Neighborhood Design Center

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BmoreArt’s Picks: March 14-20

The magazine in which this article first appeared—as well as almost everything around you, from the chair you’re sitting in to the building or park where you’re reading—represents embodied carbon. Fossil fuels have already been burned to create almost all man-made materials, and most of those products also contain carbon that could potentially escape to the atmosphere. As long as these objects and places remain intact, their carbon atoms are safely stored as usable matter, until a process such as combustion or aerobic decomposition in a landfill bonds them with oxygen to form the notoriously pesky greenhouse gas CO2.

“I like to think of embodied carbon almost like one of Newton’s Laws. Energy can’t be created or destroyed, it’s just transferred,” explains Karla Brent, an architect, sustainability expert, and project coordinator at the nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center. “Different amounts of energy end up going into the production of every material. But compare the intense fabrication process of metal to wood—a material that’s renewable; it comes from trees! I love that you can look at a piece of wood and understand where it came from. Plus, it stores carbon.”

This is a concept most tend to grasp at the scale of consumer goods, but seldom consider at the scale of the built environment. How many homeowners have forsaken single-use water bottles but still want a brand-new house wrapped in vinyl siding? Giving some TLC to Baltimore’s vast supply of already-built structures comprising energy-intensive materials, such as brick, and carbon-sequestering hardwoods, is one of the easiest ways to fight global warming locally.

“If you look at adaptive reuse projects, at least half of the building you need is already there,” Brent says. “The energy that was needed to build that was used years ago,” whereas new building projects require production and shipment processes that create pollution and consume raw materials. “Not to mention the added cost. When we have people who can’t afford to rent, they look elsewhere. In Baltimore, we have so many great old buildings that are no longer used for their intended purpose. We should be focused on restoring them.”

Interior of the Sock Factory, pre-renovation
Salvaged construction materials at The Compound

That’s especially true considering the alternative to accommodating regional growth: destroying forests and fields to build car-dependent suburbs and infrastructure, far from public transit and walkable jobs in dense neighborhoods.

That latter strategy was, unfortunately, the paradigm for much of the last century. But that problem called a group of prescient local architects to action. In 1968, those architects founded the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) in the wake of the riots and white flight that decimated Baltimore and, as a secondary effect, the onetime countryside surrounding it.

In the nearly five-and-a-half decades since, NDC has helped community organizations, residents, and local governments on more than 3,700 projects to revitalize neighborhoods with affordable housing and public art, green vacant lots, streets redesigned to human scale, and more. They’ve accomplished this through a process known as “co-design,” wherein design professionals listen to community members and assist them to consider and articulate their vision—navigating processes that are often intimidating or confounding to the layperson.

“This is our challenge,” Briony Hynson, NDC’s Baltimore City Deputy Director, enthusiastically tells me over Zoom. “We cover broadly all of these different fields of the built environment and when you get to a neighborhood context, these issues are all intertwined: tree canopy, racial justice. No matter what your objective is, you have to consider everything from structural inequality to building code.”

In the same call, NDC’s Community Design Program Director Allie O’Neill elaborates on the importance of thinking about resources locally. “This is where sustainability and justice run parallel,” O’Neill says.

“A strength-based approach to planning is about looking at what’s already there and amplifying what’s great. And that’s how you tackle challenges—not by bringing in new things, but by cultivating and fostering.”

Artists have always pioneered those strategies, recycling vacant spaces from abandoned storefronts to cavernous industrial buildings as multi-functional spaces to live, work, and foster community. Unfortunately, those aspirations don’t always comply with building codes. After the tragic Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California, killed 36 people in 2016, artist-run spaces faced more scrutiny.

Locally, that resulted in the eviction of dozens of artists from the Bell Foundry DIY space. Subsequent public outcry led then-Mayor Catherine Pugh to convene a Safe Art Space Task Force, which recommended an easier process and guidance for artists and their landlords to achieve code and zoning compliance for their adaptive reuse projects.

The Sock Factory will one day provide affordable space for artists and nonprofits.
The existing building boast sturdy bones and generous ceiling heights.

Once again, NDC answered the call to help stabilize a community. Brent now leads NDC’s Arts Space Technical Assistance (ASTA) program, which has so far offered pro-bono design consultation, architectural drawings, code analysis, and various other services to around twenty artists and collectives looking to make their spaces legal and safe.

“When people are DIY-building, I believe they have the best intentions,” Brent says. “They’re trying to fit what they need to do in a space with their own hands and their friends’—but what you don’t know, you don’t know. It’s especially true in renovating.” Brent acknowledges that building codes are challenging to navigate, but they are designed to protect people. For most clients, the ASTA process is their first experience working with an architect, so explaining the process, permits, and city policy is essential, as well as keeping the project moving forward at a sustainable pace.

In the interest of journalistic transparency, I should mention that Brent has been assisting me with the maddeningly complicated process of converting a long-vacant Downtown office building into a multi-use live/work art space through her ASTA program. But then again, with nearly 200 projects a year, it’s hard to find someone in Baltimore who hasn’t benefited from NDC’s work, either directly or indirectly. From first-hand experience, I can attest that Brent is as knowledgeable about Baltimore’s oft-byzantine building codes and zoning as she is passionate about sustainability.

NDC is where Brent managed to combine both passions. “The construction industry is a huge polluter—one of the worst—and the more I learned about it the more I wanted to stay working in this field,” she says. “We’ve got to think of a better way to do this using our existing resources. These old buildings are a great start.”

Blue Light Junction found another overlooked alley building to restore and activate.
Blue Light Junction
Kenya Miles in Blue Light Junction
Marigolds dry as part of the natural dye process.
How are we taking existing resources and looking at them creatively, with more precision? And how might we put these things together and bring them back into a new future?
Allie O’Neill

Brent is not exaggerating. According to the World Green Building Council, construction is responsible for roughly 11 percent of global carbon emissions. To put that number in perspective, it’s about equal to the amount of carbon emitted collectively by the mega-populated nations of Japan, India, and Brazil combined. If the cement industry alone were a nation, it would be the third-largest polluter behind China and the United States.

So Brent is thrilled that the artists she works with share her desire to upcycle materials. One of ASTA’s clients, Kenya Miles is converting a former auto body shop in Greenmount West into a community natural-dye studio called Blue Light Junction. She is determined to make the space code-compliant, and do so with second-hand materials wherever possible, a green ethos that compliments her creative process—Miles grows many of her own plant-based dyes, including indigo, from seed. The plans she’s drawn up with NDC include a future green space for hyper-local urban farm-to-vat production. They hope to involve the neighborhood in the build-out, opening the construction project as a kind of skill-share to empower others to improve their spaces.

A few blocks away, The Compound has stood as a successful proof of concept for artist-driven adaptive reuse since 2010—predating the ASTA program and serving as a model for its future partners. The collectively owned complex of postindustrial buildings and lots in the East Baltimore Midway neighborhood has been a thriving example of artist live/work space for twelve years, hosting studios, events, the Alternative Press Center library, and even chickens in its urban farm. The ASTA program recently collaborated with The Compound to develop a green renovation plan for four dilapidated row houses on their block.

Now, The Compound is busy converting the shells into sixteen affordable apartments that will function as a passive house—an ultra energy-efficient dwelling that uses sun and well-planned ventilation for most of its heating and cooling needs. The project will be the first live/work passive house in Baltimore City, welcoming new residents to The Compound’s little slice of utopia.

The under-construction passive house at The Compound
Nicholas Wisniewski tours the soon-to-be renovated Sock Factory

“These aren’t just any art spaces,” O’Neill says of NDC’s ASTA clients. “These are artist-driven projects. How are we taking existing resources and looking at them creatively, with more precision? And how might we put these things together and bring them back into a new future?”

One of the more ambitious projects in that new future, The Sock Factory will represent the culmination of years of experience for both the ASTA program and their client Nicholas Wisniewski, one of the original founders of The Compound. Walking distance from its predecessor, The Sock Factory will house offices for arts nonprofits, studios, a residency program, an exhibition space, a metalshop, and a much-needed neighborhood cafe—all under a roof terrace that will be part green space, part solar panels, and part usable outdoor space for the community.

That dreamy rooftop is just one example of many features in NDC-assisted projects that wouldn’t be possible in a typical DIY build, requiring analysis of load-bearing elements and shoring-up with new supports. Beyond highlighting issues such as these, the ASTA program helps put artists and arts organizations in touch with architecture firms to follow through with preliminary plans, organize materials for fundraising and permit applications, and serves as a bridge between artists and the oft-intimidating world of city agencies.

“When we get into projects there are these roadblocks and systemic barriers in place,” Hynson says. “People think ‘the system isn’t made for me—I need to create my art here, and also I’m going to need to sleep there!’ Getting that to pass muster is a huge challenge. [Society] isn’t building systems with enough flexibility to acknowledge that there are different needs. I think the same thing is true with a lot of marginalized communities: there are these very ossified rules and regulations that don’t take into account local considerations or priorities. We can get to a place of traction when we can really listen to what communities need. We need to find ways of convening to get to solutions.”

Getting the right people at the table is perhaps what the Neighborhood Design Center does best. And if one day that table is under a green roof in an upcycled building, all the better—for Baltimore’s creative community and the planet it depends on.

This story is from Issue 14: Environment, available here.

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