Monday, December 1, 2008

Welcome to The Plant

This fall, six people interested in the built environment and the future of cities began meeting to discuss a new vision for green building in Baltimore. We were brought together by Prescott Gaylord, owner of Baltimore Green Construction. Prescott volunteered to help plan a session for the 2008 Baltimore Bioneers Conference and he wanted to be sure that the event included some forward-thinking ideas about sustainable design and construction.

The Plant team (L-R): Prescott Gaylord, Lisa Ferretto, Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, Eric Leshinsky, and Fred Scharmen. Not pictured: Thibault Manekin

We met in the wee small hours before work at a local breakfast spot. Over several weeks, and many cups of coffee, egg sandwiches, and the occasional slice of chocolate cake, we honed in on some of the challenges facing Baltimore and began to conceive of possible solutions.

Lisa's breakfast: Chocolate cake and coffee.

The Plant is the result of these meetings. We generated a Powerpoint presentation to share the idea during the Bioneers Conference and that presentation is below.

This blog will be a place to continue this conversation. We will keep you posted on new developments with this idea and will write about topics related to sustainable design and cities.

We hope that you will join us in this conversation, both online and in person. Those of you in the Baltimore area should join us this Wednesday, December 3 for the monthly Baltimore Design Conversation, where we will be presenting this concept for discussion as part of a broader conversation on vacant lots. You can learn more about the event by clicking here.

*Note on the slides below: You can click on the images to see a larger version.


For much of its history, Baltimore has been a city of production. From the American Can Company to The National Brewery to Bethlehem Steel, many residents found their livelihood at the local plant.

When those largescale industries left, the city floundered, searching for ways to again think big and to recapture former economic glory. The small-scale answers tended to get lost along the way, as did the livelihood of the city block.

Like many cities, Baltimore’s economic model shifted from one of production to one of consumption and we transformed our warehouses and our plants into condos and shops. But as recent economic events have made painfully clear, unmitigated consumption fails. It does not address the real, ground-level needs of citizens.

It is time to return the city to a place of production, a place where each neighborhood has the essential resources to survive and to thrive. It’s time for Baltimore’s new power Plant.

Imagine a series of easy-to-assemble prefab structures designed to plug the broken teeth of a rowhouse block and to activate vacant land with productive programs. Imagine a structure that radiates surplus to its neighbors through shared infrastructure such as solar technology and WiFi.

Imagine also, a structure that collects energy: Just as the solar cells harness the diffuse energy of the sun, the new power Plant will collect the energy of those dedicated neighbors looking to radiate hope. It will galvanize efforts in a symbolic structure serving the particular needs of each neighborhood.

Here’s how it works: Take a typical Baltimore city rowhouse block in a struggling neighborhood. Broken teeth, vacant land, empty houses. Perhaps two or three in this row have occupants.

The Plant is inserted. This prefab structure includes ground source wells for geothermal heat pumps, solar hot water, and photovoltaic panels. Outside, you have biofiltration for local stormwater management. and rain water catchment system for bioretention and greywater uses. Land, where available, is transformed into a community farm and edible gardens.

The building itself is a container for cultural and non-profit institutions, and a generator, creating surplus energy, water, and connectivity for the rest of the block.

The Plant takes the standard vertical dimensions of the Baltimore Rowhouse and turns it on its side, extending horizontally to fill gaps in the block.

This space is occupied with sustainable infrastructure...

… and cultural containers housing nonprofit groups with rental housing above.

The lower level of the basic type is flexible enough to accommodate offices, classrooms, a corner store, a daycare …

The first floor of this structure is open and active and invites the neighborhood in. This is their space. Neighborhood leaders are consulted about their community’s particular needs. They consider aesthetic and programmatic choices in order to help this become their endeavor.

The first floor commercial space could, for example, be dedicated to what we’ve dubbed the "sustainable home depot.” It provides a locus for residence to learn about greening their homes and leading greener lives, having access to supplies (recycling bins, rain barrels, soil testing kits, compact fluorescent light bulbs), and to classes that teach things like how to start an urban garden.

And the upper levels are rent subsidized apartments.

The building is made from a few basic prefabricated modules, allowing it to expand and contract into a variety of site conditions …

… always serving as a threshold to a larger landscape in the block’s interior, with community gardens inside.

This backyard produces food and mediates groundwater runoff.

… becoming part of a larger landscape network, linking neighboring blocks.

The Plant acts as a catalyst for further investment in the existing housing stock in the block.

… and incentivizes the construction of new housing in the other existing vacant lots.

When rehabbing the existing vacant homes, the roofs, floors and stairs would have to be repaired first. Existing contents and debris can then be reused or recycled. A ‘core’ can be developed to plant into these existing vacant homes. The core would consist of one plumbing wall with stacked bathrooms, kitchen and laundry on either side. A solar hot water heating system would also be incorporated. The other interior walls in the house can come later after the basic needs are met. Only after the vacant existing houses are rehabilitated, and people are moving back, then the vacant lots can start to be infilled with new rowhomes. The same core could be utilized there as well.

We also need to spur citizen reinvestment. Residents and potential residents need to believe that their properties are not going to be swept up via eminent domain for large-scale development. They need to see that the city is not landbanking for future projects and favoring the developer over the individual or collective. A sense of empowerment and ownership needs to return to Baltimore’s neighborhoods. Just as the city spurred homeownership and redevelopment with the $1 House model in the 1970s, a new financial incentive can be put into place to encourage and support the green rehabbing of city-owned houses. Sweat equity would be rewarded with two tracks: homeownership or a long-lease for those incapable of financing a home.

Just as in the investment model, the sustainable strategies for the Plant use a set of pre-existing systems …

… to create efficiencies in the near term, and surpluses in the longer term. The initial Planting cost of the infrastructure investment is paid back by the excess energy and activity that the Plant generates.

Local fabrication of building components encourages the re-tooling of the city’s manufacturing capacity.

So we create a new industry in Baltimore: a corporation that fabricates prefab units and components …

… for both Baltimore's needs and other city's with similar vacant housing stock and urban conditions. Consider how much of the vacancy is owned by the City, how many identical infill/rehab opportunities exist, and how the only existing economy-of-scale model is to bundle vacant sites for developers. The City could become a major developer of small sites or help other developers and new homeowners with products that could possibly change the rehab cost equation.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, SHoP Architects worked with local volunteers to create a building in the town of Pass Christian that would serve as a meeting place and container for the displaced community.

The half century long disinvestment and disintegration of Baltimore’s economic base constitutes a similar emergency, one that is no less urgent for having unfolded in slow motion. Baltimore needs new focal points for neighborhoods to gather around, it needs new places for services and culture to occupy, and it needs new small scale infrastructure to generate the energy and surplus that will sustain all of us into the next era.

Think of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system as an example: each neighborhood has its own branch.

The Plant is a work in progress, we’ve explored a lot of territory in our discussions about what this building could be …

… and we invite any questions, comments, criticisms, or complementary ideas to help us move the project forward …

… so that our city can continue to grow in a sustainable way.

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson
Urban Palimpsest

Lisa M. Ferretto
Hord Coplan Macht Architecture

Prescott Gaylord
Baltimore Green Construction

Eric Leshinsky
Parameter Architecture

Thibault Manekin
Seawall Development Corporation

Fred Scharmen
Ziger Snead Architects