Find VMDO at the ACUHO-I and SCUP National Conferences this Week

By Lynelle Douma, Marketing Coordinator

VMDO Architects is gearing up for a busy week of conferences! Representatives from the firm’s Higher Education Studio will be in attendance at both the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International (ACUHO-I) Annual Conference & Exposition in Seattle, WA and the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) Annual, International Conference in Vancouver, BC.

On Saturday July 9, Associate Frances Watson Lengowski’s ACUHO-I pre-conference workshop, “Completing the Loop: Connecting Building Design and Student Experience”  will explore four main themes – common space amenities, living unit configuration, student ownership, and safety / security – that help connect the loop between design, student experience and, ultimately, student success. This workshop will be led by Frances’s fellow “Completing the Loop” co-authors: Chris Heasley, Kurt Haapala, and Nobert Dunkel. Their article was recognized as the 2016 Robert P. Cooke Talking Stick Article of the Year, and they will accept the honor at the closing banquet on Tuesday night. The pre-conference workshop based on the article is set for 1pm in Skagit 4 (lower level).

On Monday July 11, Principal Michele Westrick will be presenting “Renovating for Success: Using Adaptive Planning Principles” with Kate Myer and Gay Perez of the University of Virginia and Glenn Wise of New Atlantic Contracting. Their 60 minute interest session will explore how renovation projects at colleges and universities offer unique opportunities to adapt planning efforts to support iterative, phased design and construction. A strategic planning process can help translate otherwise “run of the mill” renovations into substantive projects that respond to shifting trends in residence life and A/E/C markets. Their session will empower attendees to foster a planning process that is value-driven, flexible, and responsive to project-specific needs. Join them on Monday at 4:15pm in 712 Skagit 5 (lower level).

The team will present their project again at the 2016 SCUP Annual, International Conference on Wednesday July 13. Michele, Kate Myer and Frank Harris will explain how they challenged design and construction norms while working cohesively towards improving the project.  The team found that not only did the process maximize value but it resulted in a better design and a better building! Catch their session from 8:30 – 9:30am on Wednesday in Room 212-214.

We’re looking forward to presenting at both of these conferences in the coming week and hope to see many of you there!

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David Oakland Elevated to AIA College of Fellows

by Lynelle Douma, Marketing Coordinator

On May 19, members of the VMDO team traveled to Philadelphia for the National American Institute of Architects’ 2016 Convention.

A major highlight of this year’s convention was the investiture ceremony where the 2016 Jury of Fellows elevated 149 AIA members to the prestigious College of Fellows. Our very own David Oakland was among those elevated to the College of Fellows- one of the highest professional accolades an architect can receive. Congratulations to David and the other 148 FAIA recipients!

VMDO attendees enjoyed several insightful sessions at the three day convention. Our head of design research, Dina Sorensen, participated in the Committee on Architecture for Education Research Roundtable. The short talk addressed the vital importance of research as architects and planners strive to create meaningful learning environments that enrich students’ opportunities, readiness to learn and the ability to lead healthy, engaged lives. The newly formed interdisciplinary task force affords the CAE the opportunity to work together across disciplines to prioritize research activities and practice-relevant topics with a special focus on the learner and learning futures.

Overall, the AIA Convention 2016 was a momentous occasion. We are looking forward to next year’s event in Orlando!

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VMDO Hosts Center for Green Schools and Instituto Thomas Jefferson

by Lynelle Douma, Marketing Coordinator

Last Wednesday, VMDO kicked off an enriching three day visit from our friends at Instituto Thomas Jefferson, Ramon Carvajal and Priscila Gomez, and Director of the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools, Rachel Gutter. Representatives from VMDO met Rachel, Priscila, Ramon, several Center for Green Schools team members and guests from the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington for a tour of Discovery Elementary School led by project manager Wyck Knox. The entire group was very impressed by the net-zero school and enjoyed hearing from 5th grade tour guides about their experiences at the school this year.

On Thursday morning, Priscila and Ramon were able to tour many notable sites in the Charlottesville Area including: Monticello, the Lawn, the Miller School and the Graduate Center for Jefferson Fellows. Thursday afternoon allowed for a special presentation from Rachel about the state of our schools in the US and how architects can help schools meet their potential through sustainable design and healthy learning environments. Ramon shared some history and current work at the Instituto Thomas Jefferson in Mexico City, and Priscila closed with statistics on the state of schools in Mexico and efforts by Representaciones Intelligencia Sustentable (RIS) and ITJ to improve sustainable education practices in Mexico.

The group reconvened on Friday morning in Buckingham County to tour the Carter G. Woodson Education Complex. They were joined by Primary School Principal, Pennie Allen, Director of Facilities, Chip Davis, and Primary School Counselor, Palmer Castrodale. The group discussed day to day life and programming at the school as well 4H and Center for Green Schools partnerships.

We hope everyone enjoyed an enriching three days of tours and discussion related to green building design! We’re looking forward to meeting up again soon!

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Young Harris College Campus Center Recognized by USGBC at Georgia Capitol

By Sara Teaster, Sustainability Manager

On February 3, USGBC Georgia celebrated the work of educational facilities in the state that are creating healthy and efficient learning environments. The third annual High Performance Healthy Schools Recognition Day at the Georgia Capitol hosted 200 guests representing 62 schools and districts, 10 institutes of higher education, as well as 12 community partners who are all making a difference in Georgia.

The High Performance Healthy Schools (HPHS) program was formed in 2009 to encourage healthy learning environments for all students in the state of Georgia. These efforts were spearheaded to improve energy efficiency, indoor air quality,  natural light, and to support eco-literacy. These changes were driven by a desire to increase student performance, improve student health, and to work within tight budgets.

The Rollins Campus Center, which earned a LEED Gold rating, builds on the significant commitment to sustainability underway on the Young Harris campus—marking the 5th LEED certified building on its grounds including Enotah Hall (LEED Silver) and the Recreation & Fitness Center, The Village, and The Towers (LEED Certified).


The new Rollins Campus Center and Zell and Shirley Miller Library have transformed campus life at Young Harris College. Highly anticipated, it is now recognized as the social and intellectual heart of campus. Designed to catapult the student experience into the 21st century, it combines union, dining, event, and library spaces into an innovative mix of uses within one dynamic building. The RCC has made a welcoming place for students, faculty, staff, visitors and alumni to gather together as a college community. According to President Cathy Cox: “It draws students in like a magnet—they love it and want to be there all the time!”


A geothermal exchange system of 180 wells uses the earth’s naturally constant temperature to heat and cool the building. Radiant heating and cooling elements called “chilled-beams” offer quiet comfort without fan noise or additional energy use. High-performance glass allows for expansive mountain views and ample daylight to spaces. Porch cover shades the southern sun, plus a pattern of silk-screened glass on the Library’s dramatic bay window helps reduce heat gain.

Regional materials include careful use of rustic stone and wood timbers—harvested, extracted or manufactured within 500 miles of the College—with crisp and modern detailing as a forward-looking take on local and regional approaches to building and craft along the spine of the Appalachian Trail.  In all, the building’s sustainable features have resulted in an estimated 40.5% savings in energy use over baseline expectations for a building of this type and an estimated 33.2% savings in indoor water use.


The campus has a history of sustainable building initiatives including using early geothermal systems to heat and cool a number of its residence halls—which made adding the Campus Center to its geothermal portfolio a welcome choice. YHC employs Green Cleaning procedures throughout its campus, offers parking discounts for Low Emission Vehicles, and supports a robust campus recycling program encouraging the spirit of Young Harris with each bin featuring the “Love Purple, Live Green” logo (which continues to expand on the original recycling program started in the 1980’s).

The college is a member of AASHE, and supports sustainability efforts not only in facilities management, but also in an increasingly diverse academic program that now includes a minor in Sustainability and a campus-wide focus on local Appalachian culture and ecology. Hands-on learning opportunities through the YHC Farm and the Beekeeping Institute will celebrate its 25th year this year. The school supports these efforts with a $5 Green Fee from each student per semester.

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VMDO is Hiring!

VMDO is looking to hire talented and eager professionals designers to fill several full-time positions. Please visit our Employment Page for information.

The positions include:

Entry Level Architect

Project Architect


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Makerspaces & the Art of Tinkering to Enhance Learning


By Dina Sorensen, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C

…In one corner of the room, a student is building an airplane out of popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners and circuitry. At the center of the room, a small group of students is playing games with geometric blocks that teach them math as part of an interactive game…and just outside the studio window…a team of teachers and students are launching small air-born weather balloons that will collect climate data for a joint project with a team of children in South America….

Hands-On Learning isn’t entirely new to effective pedagogical practices. Dr. Maria Montessori’s work at the turn of 20th century Italy adapted traditional teacher-taught subjects in the arts and science so children could use physical materials to guide their open-ended research and to follow their individual interests. The child-centered, hands-on approach characterized by Montessori education continues to influence and evolve programs like STE(A)M, PBL [Project Based Learning], SEL [Social Emotional Learning] and countless practices that tap into a student’s ability to learn through making, testing, sharing and assessing as a tactile feedback loop. Montessori observed that setting up learning environments for hands-on investigation encouraged children to work to a much higher level than most educators thought possible for children from 6-12.

With this long history of interactive learning in place, why do we need to rethink the design of learning environments to enhance hands-on education now?

Because schools are taking hands-on learning to entirely new levels of application and practicality beyond the boundaries of the classroom. And Higher Ed institutions are moving to close the gap between academics and industry by catalyzing real world innovation on campus. And students benefit from opportunities to transform their ideas into viable innovations that make a difference in real world contexts.

It’s a hugely exciting time in education as more and more educators seek to provide places where students can ‘learn-by-making’. Designing learning environments that inspire hands-on learning and experimentation facilitates modes of teaching that include a much wider range of tools and resources. It makes sense that when teachers have ample space, natural daylight, properly designed storage and open work areas available, they are far more likely to create learning opportunities that include ‘making’ and experimentation. While modes of collaborative teaching have radically changed, physical learning environments have a tremendous opportunity for growth.

Makerspaces provide an exciting new role for libraries. Makerspaces of all sizes, shapes and types can be found across the country in both K-12 and Higher Education environments as a response to the rapid rise of the ‘maker movement.’ Quick, low-cost responses to student and teacher requests for both time to explore personal interests [“genius time”] and easy access to a range of materials [like craft supplies, sewing machines, snap circuits, 3D printers, Scratch programming, Lego sets] has produced a whole new breed of library spaces. The need for makerspaces has pushed librarians to transform their existing traditional libraries into active, inquiry-based media centers and maker spaces for science, art and technology explorations.

This next evolutionary step in the conception of the school library as a low-tech/high-tech center also invites library specialists to become facilitators of multidisciplinary project work, design thinking educators and network specialists in a truly student-centered environment. No longer acting as a collection manager in a sedentary space, librarians have an expanded role in the maker movement – guiding students to explore and perform research at a tangible, hands-on level – connecting and engaging them with their passions, interests and the deeper meaning of all their learning opportunities. More importantly, the space and the ‘making’ process reinforce the invitation for students to organize complex ideas and communicate them effectively with others.

The need for new types of learning spaces that provide for the mixing of disciplines and exposure to real-world projects has given rise to spaces like Idea Labs, Innovation Studios, Incubation Hubs, Makerspaces, Sandboxes, Hackspaces and SuperLabs. What unites these new learning spaces are the hallmark traits commonly seen in creative industries: spaces where a team of students can meet up and collaborate; a room lined with writable walls and surfaces, sticky notes and pens; quick access to prototyping tools where students have a variety of supplies and technical resources at their disposal. While testing their ideas, students actively bump into learning curves: the hope is that the space responds by being flexible, re-configurable and active too. This flexibility, combined with great collaborative teaching, creates a recipe for creative exploration and invention – a foundation for innovation.

Visionaries like Dr. Edith Ackermann [a MIT Visiting Research Scientist] and Mitch Resnick [LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research | Head of Lifelong Kindergarten, MIT Media Lab] who look for ways to use new technologies to enhance the learning experience are changing the way we approach learning in and out of the classroom. Expanding the notion of ‘making’ to capture the opportunities afforded by tinkering with technology is a delightful entry point for re-imagining digital spaces of learning as places of discovery and epiphany. 

What’s next? ‘Makerspace’ is defined by what it enables. Re-imagining the design of learning environments to enable collaborative, interdisciplinary teaching and learning facilitates a hands-on approach to learning. Designing for unhindered access to a wide range of analog and digital tools enables students of all ages to apply their creative ability to transform their learning into new possibilities for a future they help create.

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Green Apple Day of Service at Discovery Elementary School

By Sara Teaster, LEED AP BD+C, Sustainability Manager

On Wednesday September 23rd, VMDO staff traveled to the newly opened Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, VA to participate in the annual Green Apple Day of Service, sponsored by the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools.

The school’s entry canopy features an oculus that measures the movement of the sun –creating an opportunity for a solar calendar in the front plaza. Hours 9, 12, and 3 were measured during the Summer Solstice this past summer, and during the Autumnal Equinox, each hour from 9-5, and the 3:41 closing bell time were marked with a temporary stone marker.

The front plaza will eventually be paved and the hour markers will be replaced with carved stones so that next year, or 10 years from now, students will be able to come back on the equinox and find the sun in the same spot.

Each hour, teachers brought their classes to the front plaza, where the VMDO team described the sun’s special relationship to the earth and how the sun spot created by the oculus could be used to tell the time and the time-of-year.

Helping to create spaces that teach and encourage connection with the natural world is what make the Green Apple Day of Service so special. As the students were picked up at the end of the day, overhearing them explain to their parents how a solar calendar works brought smiles to our faces.

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Being There: Opening Day at Discovery Elementary School

By Alissa Tucker, Intern Architect

On Tuesday, September 8th, a few VMDO’ers had the pleasure of visiting Discovery on its opening day. I wanted to share how special it was to see the students enjoying their new school. It was a wonderful reminder of why we do the work that we do.

The Arlington community has been incredibly supportive. Parents and a few high school students, with no affiliation to the school, volunteered over Labor Day weekend to help teachers get moved in and settled. Students at nearby Williamsburg Middle School said they wanted to grow up to be teachers so that they could work at Discovery. It is clear that the community is thrilled with what has been built and are eager to help in any way they can.

We often get caught up worrying about the details that we can’t control during construction. It was easy to cast our architect tendencies aside when we heard the students giggling and saw them smiling. We had parents in awe as they walked their kids to their class – some even insisted on going down the slide.

We heard students discussing whether they were in the “Woodland Deer Mouse” or “Gray Tree Frog” classroom. We enjoyed seeing teachers echo their corridor wayfinding theme in their classroom decoration – one even drew a giant pelican on her storefront window and one teacher used planes and clouds to welcome her class in the atmosphere corridor. We saw students getting cozy in their window box reading nooks. Students climbed all over their fantastic furniture. Many students sported awesome t-shirts with their grade level icons. Teachers took the students on tours, always stopping at the slide, and explaining that Principal Russo wanted to make sure each one of them got to go down the slide on their first day.

It was really nice to be there to lend hand as well. Ken swept the student bus drop off entrance. Brittney did a little problem solving to ensure the kids didn’t hurt their bottoms when they landed at the end of the slide. Philip helped prop open doors and move furniture to correct locations. Doug and Wyck helped ensure the school’s flag poles were complete with flags for the first day. I tried to document the morning while enjoying the atmosphere too. I look forward to seeing this great school be enjoyed for many years to come.

A video documenting opening day at Arlington Public Schools can be viewed here.

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UVA Students React to Renovation of Gooch Residence Hall

By Ellison Turpin

On Friday August 21, students began to move in to the newly renovated Gooch residence hall amid wishful comments from the upperclassmen aiding them. “I wish I could move back in to the building,” said Second Year student McKenzie Cromer. The excitement and positivity over the renovation filled the day as the frenzy of students and parents continued to unpack and fill the residence halls.

Many students were surprised by the modern and fresh look of the suites’ interiors after driving up to the buildings. “When you have old dorms, you don’t think the inside is going to be super modern looking,” said Minh Bui, a Third Year student. The Class of 2019’s moving-in signifies a new life for the area, as the new students’ energy brings vitality back to Gooch residence hall.

Major highlights from the renovation for the students included enthusiasm over the “modern” style bathrooms, new simulated hardwood floors, and the open and more spacious feel of the bedrooms after the transition from single to double rooms. The bathrooms especially were identified as a major improvement: “they are so incredibly nice now … they’ve got nice tile, all modern lights and everything,” said Second Year student Francis Vasquez.

The final phase of the Gooch renovation is scheduled to be completed by May 2016, followed by the beginning of the Dillard renovation that will occur May 2016 – May 2017.

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Checking-in with Healthy Eating & Physical Activity Design Guidelines

“The environments in which we live affect not just our behaviors, but our lifelong attitudes about things like healthy eating and active lifestyles.”

- Matt Trowbridge, UVA Professor & USGBC Research Fellow in Fast Company

In the case of schools, architects can leverage the transformational potential of design to improve health and well-being where students live, learn, and play.

Co-designed by a team of designers, educators, and public health researchers, the Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Design Guidelines (HEDG and PADG) – incorporated in the design of Buckingham County Primary and Elementary Schools – foster a culture of wellness, both inside and out. To date, the replicable HEDG and PADG have been published by the Centers for Design Control (2013) and PLOS ONE (2015), respectively.

This week, the healthy design strategies of the HEDG and PADG have garnered global attention from Fast Company Magazine and the Center for Active Design.


Fast Company: “How Smarter School Architecture Can Help Kids Eat Healthier”

Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years. Less than 25% of adolescents eat enough fruits and vegetables each day and only 4% of elementary schools provide daily physical education. The article describes how “smart architecture” promoting healthy eating behaviors in schools can tip the needle toward a culture shift that empowers healthier communities. In this way, the Buckingham project offers a new manifestation of “school” as a community asset and a teaching tool that can support transformational change over time.


Center for Active Design: “Kids Need Movement to Learn”

VMDO Project Designer Dina Sorensen describes how kids need to move in order to learn. “Designing schools to promote low to moderate physical activity all day long provides kids with the best context for better learning, better health and lifelong healthy habits.”

Refer to for more information on the Buckingham project.

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