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Collaboration Drives Community Design-Build: Volunteers Update DC Neighborhood’s Favorite Soccer Field

DCBIA Community Improvement Day’s wide range of AEC volunteers a ‘testament’ to truly ‘partnered design’

By Stephen Parker, AIA NCARB LEED AP BD+C,
Architect + Planner, SmithGroup

Editor’s Note:

Architect and planner Stephen Parker, AIA NCARB LEED AP BD+C, based out of SmithGroup’s D.C. offices, is an architect, planner, community designer and advocate who writes about community-driven issues and equity. Stephen serves as the AIA’s Young Architects Forum National Advocacy Director & co-founder of the AIA’s National Design Services Act (NDSA) Coalition. He is a recipient of the 2018 AIA Young Architect Award and was recently elected to the AIA’s Strategic Council as its youngest At-Large Representative. Parker led SmithGroup’s participation in this year’s DCBIA Community Improvement Day. In his own words, here are his impressions.

In the early morning light of late September, dozens of design professionals arrived at Keene Field in the District of Columbia’s 5th Ward see their designs come to life. Undeterred by the light rain and the first chill of fall, they prepared for the hundreds of volunteers who would soon arrive to work together in teams during the 30th Annual Community Improvement Day to transform this public park, a favorite local soccer spot.

The annual event, which is organized by the DC Building Industry Association (DCBIA), a membership-based consortium comprised of architecture, engineering, construction and development firms, involves months of careful planning and design alongside the local community with the goal of transforming a public space or building. Each year, DC-based design firms provide pro-bono teams to lend a helping hand under the guidance of design and construction co-chairs. This year, Sonal Shah, of HOK, and Meral Kanik, of Gilbane Construction, spearheaded the combined design and construction teams. With AEC professionals from SmithGroup, HKS, HOK, David M. Schwartz Architects, KCCT and Moody Graham, the teams divided Keene Field into zones, each championing a different amenity for community. A series of community engagement meetings allowed the teams to listen, learn and understand the residents’ needs and use of the park.

Making a lasting, physical impact for the community

For Janki Bhatai, an architect in SmithGroup’s Cultural Studio, the event speaks to the ethos of the profession. Bhatai explains, “As architects we strive to promote health, happiness and prosperity of the community. Volunteering with DCBIA, fellow architects and designers, has been a wonderful way to make a lasting, physical impact for the community. We hope that the design for Keene Field tells the story of a vibrant outdoor space, where soccer is the beloved sport, landscaping, artwork and amenities weave throughout the park to promote learning, exercise and social activities for children and adults.”

Situated between two charter schools, including the DC Bilingual School, Keene Field serves as the outdoor space for recess, recreation and sports practice for both students and local residents. In previous years, DCBIA has renovated community centers, recreation complexes and even built DC’s largest urban farm. With up to a thousand volunteers and millions of dollars of funding, donated materials and skilled labor or services, the Community Improvement Day is the largest and longest running community design-build program in the region. Throughout the design process, teams observed and listened to residents who regularly used Keene Field. Since pick-up soccer games make up the field’s most popular activity, the SmithGroup design team, led by Stephen Parker in partnership with Monarc Construction, played with the concept of an unfurled soccer ball, or polyhedron, to organize the design across the site. This drove the design direction of the other zones, including an outdoor classroom with a reciprocal frame pavilion, seating spaces and a gateway community billboard.

Wide range of participants shows off truly ‘partnered design’

Co-chair Sonal Shah says, “It is a testament to a truly ‘partnered design’ when this year’s highly varied list of stakeholders, development authorities and volunteers, covers almost every aspect of the DC building community: area architects, area landscape architects and engineers, general contractors, subcontractors and product vendors.”

Other teams, such as HKS and Clark Construction, led by Rebecca Soja, developed a picnic space, exercise stations and a bike rack to encourage active play. KCCT, led by Cindy Chow, developed signage across the site to encourage neighborhood kids and students to dynamically explore the park. Moody Graham, a landscape architecture firm, developed the site design and plantings across Keene Field in concert with each team, including a “barefoot” therapy garden. Meanwhile under the leadership of Pradipta Banerjee, David M. Schartz Architects, along with Gilbane Construction, developed a series of interactive fence structures including suspended planters, bird houses painted by local children and silhouettes of local wildlife.

Building a better future starts with collaborative spirit

Each year, design teams set out to respond to community needs, maintaining a sense of mindfulness towards site context and budget constraints, plus the understanding that the effort requires the participation of hundreds of volunteers, who build most of the structures in a single day. Designed to be built with volunteer labor with limited skilled trades, many elements were made with gabions, a type of steel cages filled with rocks or masonry. While commonly used for retaining walls, gabions can be easily assembled by volunteers and filled with recycled stone and donated, surplus masonry from local suppliers and construction sites. These gabions formed benches, bike racks, picnic tables and even a new entry gateway to Keene Field.

Ultimately, the improvements the volunteers are able to make for their neighbors in just one day serve as a remarkable testament to the generosity and collaborative spirit of DC’s AEC community with its shared goal of collaborating to build a better future.


Hunter Douglas Architectural is a proud supporter of the 2018 DCBIA Community Improvement Day.

Photos Courtesy of Stephen Parker / Joshua Hendershot

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