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Building and All Its Meanings
Nan Harvey, A.I.A.

What we do - architects, landscape architects, engineers, planners, urban designers - is create a stage on which human interaction is performed. In the best cases they are nice stages. We can allow things to happen, things good and bad: the chance encounter in the office plaza that turns into a fifty year marriage or the rape in the secluded parking garage corner. Sometimes our best-intentioned attempts to make things happen a certain way only irritate and confound the users: having to bear right on the beltway at 97 south to stay on the beltway, the dirt paths pedestrians carve through our strategically placed planters or the inscrutable office floor plan wrapped around a monumental stair.

We are limiting our potential, though, if we don't look up from our drawings and use our skills to direct the design process which is then performed by the users themselves. If we rise to our opportunity we can have a much more lasting impact on our urban environment than merely creating a well articulated corner. We can help people work together to change the environment, their neighborhood, and help them create common goals. The potential reward, and ours, besides the new fellowship neighbors might have with each other, is something that can be readily observable by all involved at the end of the joint process. The park, the new office, the community space in the church basement becomes a by-product and not an end in itself.

A perfect example of tremendous team energy is the transformation of the Enoch Pratt Free Library Branch No. 2 in the Hollins Street Market/Union Square area into the Pratt Center for Maryland Neighborhoods. The Romanesque-style building was H. L. Mencken's library branch, but had been closed and become a storage building for old library furniture. Harkins Builders and their project manager, Bob Widmer, were the contractors who provided pro bono construction management services; they should be justly proud of the gem they helped put back in use. The project was the brainchild of Ellen James, now Assistant Secretary, Neighborhood Revitalization Division of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and Union Square Community leaders. Initially, the task seemed overwhelming: the funds to be raised, the coordination of the design team members, the community, the tenant in the rear of the building. The Enoch Pratt, the City, the Maryland Historic Trust all had input from funds, to ideas, to requirements. The project was muscled through the process by hundreds of people through their generous donations of money and time and led by Carol Gilbert, NDC Executive Director and soft-spoken woman of steel and vision.

The building puts the "center" back into the Neighborhood Design Center. NDC is a 30-year old non-profit organization that mobilizes design and building industry professionals to offer expertise to lower income communities and their revitalization projects. You can visit the building and use the computer database of community resources at 1401 Hollins Street. Better yet, you can fill in an application and join the most proactive group of designers in the city, indeed, in the state. Find out what incredible benefits there are working with other like-minded people making your city achieve its potential. The big surprise is that the more you give the more you get back. And the more you give, the bigger the city's potential becomes.

And that is when we build more than buildings.

Nan Harvey attended Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA (BA in Art), and graduate school at Va. Tech. in architecture. She moved to Washington, DC then Baltimore, where she renovated a rowhouse and then an old farmhouse while working for various architectural firms in Baltimore.

Nan started Building Consultants, Inc. construction monitoring and condition survey services in April 1990, and added environmental services in 2000. As a dedicated volunteer for Habitat for Humanity International, Nan has built houses for deserving families in Nepal and Brazil.

She can be reached at BCI at (410) 715-2277 or nan@eConstructionServices.com. BCI provides expert project review for real estate transactions.

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