Regenerative Urban Ecology: Fostering a place-based work space


Regenerative Urban Ecology: Fostering a place-based work space


Valerie Lynn Sherry, Adam Chamy & Michael Sisson
University of Maryland


Peter Noonan & Powell Draper
University of Maryland



This project dives deep into watershed issues and addresses the idea of river water filtration robustly. The sense of place is very strong and successful. The tower offers compositional relief and nicely gestures and relates to the site. The intention to save energy is there, however there is a lack of clarity around the effectiveness of the thermal chimney and passive ventilation.


Regenerative Urban Ecology: Fostering a Place-based Workspace reimagines the typical underutilized urban brownfield site as a regenerative, sustainable resource that is net-zero in energy, filters and cleans the water, and directly engages place making through education, strengthening the street grid, and focusing on environmentally sensitive, locally sourced design materials.  The program of the building is a 15,000 square foot center for environmental economics research. The design proposes a small 25-person research facility combined with the mission of outreach and education of methods of revitalization of the ailing economy of Baltimore through sustainable design and revitalization of the Jones Falls Waterway.

The site is situated on a flat, narrow, and long plot of land in Baltimore that connects Little Italy to downtown at the historic birthplace of Baltimore along the Jones Falls Canal.  The site is located at the intersection of two historic street grids, the irregular street grid of early Baltimore low-rise development and the more regularized street grid of the burgeoning downtown financial district. At this intersection and hinge point within the city, our building mediates two varying construction types within the downtown that are typical of Baltimore City. One type is a brick and masonry wall like construction whereas the other is a steel frame with glass curtain wall construction typical of office buildings nearby. By choosing a small, underutilized urban brownfield site- the project encourages infill rather than environmentally unsustainable Greenfield development. Through a series of weir systems, permeable boardwalks, a horizontal thermal loop system, and the creation of a small wetland – the site itself becomes a filter, which begins to address the pollution problem plaguing the canal and river system while generating energy. 

The site captures water flows from the hardscape environment from urban Baltimore through the implantation of a green roof, addition of new trees, and wetland basin while the site filters pollution flows coming upstream from the canal.  The building itself reuses the grey water it captures through cisterns located in the tower element. The extensive green roof also houses 1,300 square feet of living machine greenhouses which digest and clean the water to be used as grey water and irrigation for the building while teaching visitors about the process.

As the site sits within the tidal flows of the Baltimore Harbor, the weir system also acts as a place making commentary to visitors about the idea of time. When tidal flows are low, the locks between the weirs become small pools, when high or during storm events- the system returns to being a river.  Visitors are able to access the site through a variety of green infrastructure including nearby bike lanes, high frequency bus, and light rail.  For pedestrians, a series of boardwalks and rehabilitated existing historical bridge- help reconnect the site to the surrounding neighborhood. Moreover, the site currently bridges the vibrant residential neighborhood of Little Italy to the more commercial and office oriented downtown harbor- helping to create a more seamless sense of urbanism for the visitor.

Nearby the site a series of 19th industrial towers and 18th century shot towers dot the landscape. Harnessing this local vernacular, the project reimagines the shot tower as 21st century sustainability icon that acts as a cooling tower while housing and exposing a water cistern system and thermal loop supplied heating and cooling systems.  Given the tight constraints of the site and the microclimatic conditions of the nearby canal and larger office buildings, the design acknowledges the site constraints while maximizing opportunities for occupant comfort. Eighty nine percent of the building has access to daylight and 48% of the building is within 15' of an operable window.  Salvaged wood light fixtures, LED lighting, and disassemble furniture allow for both a well-lit, green-oriented interior work space.  Energy loads of the building are dramatically reduced through the horizontal thermal loop system housed within the canal and the stacking effect of the tower. The Energy Use Intensity (EUI) of the building is 165kBtu/ft2/yr not including the reductions in energy that would be factored in due to the thermal loop system, water reuse, and energy output from photovoltaic panels. The 48 4kW photovoltaic panels on the south side of the building are strategically placed outside the main shadow of the larger nearby office buildings providing an estimated production of 5,278 kWh per year.

Two masonry shear wall cores strategically bracket the building to account for the wind loads in the building. The first floor is envisioned as an entire public space with a café, small and large meeting room, and demonstration kitchen opening with sliding doors to a boardwalk, public plaza, and small courtyard. The second and third floors focus more on the research facilities and provide open and closed office spaces, and small meetings rooms – all with views of the canal or the vibrant urban environment of Presidents Street.  On the third floor, a large event room engages views of Baltimore Harbor and the canal. Finally, the roof houses the living building systems and green roofs, which are open to visitors to the building.

Perhaps most importantly, the building serves as a model for long-term sustainability and adaptability over time. Utilizing local, salvaged materials found within Baltimore both taps within the embodied energy of the materials while giving an economic model for repurposing materials on the site. From bricks from old row houses and steel from a Baltimore-based ship deconstruction yard to regionally sourced furniture- the design focuses on embodied energy as a means towards sustainability.  Moreover, steel and ecologically sourced glulam girders were chosen as the primary structural system both because of their links to the local salvage economy but also for their ability to allow for larger more open floor plans and spans- allowing for the building to evolve and change over time as needed. Flexible, interior partition walls systems and furniture systems were also intended to be disassembled as program needs change over time.

The project envisions not just a sustainable building but also an educational component. To ensure the building performs as it was designed, the louver systems would be part of a building automation system. The system would be able to be monitored by the users- helping them engage further and better understand the environmental impact of their decision-making.   To ensure the programmatic spaces worked as intended- we modeled a variety of activities- from salsa classes to farmer’s markets in the large public spaces. We also consulted with a variety of technical experts from building skin consultants, green technology experts, architects, structural engineers, and more.  Post-occupancy, we would be interested to see how users actually inhabit and learn from the space.  Was our mechanical system tower a heroic teaching moment? Do users actually use the louver system as intended? We consulted with engineers on our design of the horizontal loop system and living machine- but both are unusual in this context- do they work as intended?

During the design of the buildings we experienced the tension that can come in balancing programmatic necessity, architectural integrity, and green technology.  Our best strategy for overcoming these difficulties were to focus on our primary intent- fostering green design rooted in the local Baltimore context- and return to our basic diagrammatic intention.  The site- with its tight constraints and our intension to leave some community outdoor space- gave us limited options on the diagram of the space – leading to a simple yet elegant massing. Perhaps one of the most important lessons that will carry to future projects is the importance of starting with a flexible diagram that can incorporate a variety of design interventions – particularly on a site with tight constraints and difficult program requirements.  We felt that our goal – a contextually sensitive, ecologically sustainable urban building and site- was largely achieved.