Philadelphia is a Community that Builds Together
Building owners discuss success at AIA and GBCA panel
A sense of hope and optimism prevailed amid practical concerns during an event sponsored by the Joint Committee of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Philadelphia chapter and the General Building Contractors Association (GBCA) of Philadelphia. During the gathering and panel discussion, prominent owners discussed their definitions of success and the challenges that keep them up at night when contemplating the future of building in Philly.
About 60 attendees representing many of Philadelphia’s owners, GCs and architects mingled over lunch before the panel at the Center for Architecture + Design near Philadelphia City Hall and the Convention Center. Anne Papageorge, currently the VP of facilities and real estate services at the University of Pennsylvania and formerly the SVP and memorial design director for the World Trade Center Memorial in NYC, hosted the panel. She was joined by Michael Asnes, VP of construction at Dranoff Properties, Brian Cohen, VP and city manager at Liberty Property Trust, and Lindsey Scannapieco, the managing partner at Scout.
Challenges of ownership
Papageorge started with the hardest question: What keeps owners up at night? Scannapieco, who is overseeing the repurposing of the Bok Building—a former vocational school in South Philly with 340,000 square feet or, as she puts it, “an old building with a million things that can go wrong”—worries about “whether the building works for my mostly small business and entrepreneurial clients.” Scannapieco noted that 80% of the current tenants of the Bok Building are local to South Philly, and the community has embraced Scout’s work. The current tenants of the Bok Building include architects, photographers, film producers, artists and designers, craft businesses, and the popular Bok Bar, all of which have unique needs.
Asnes’s primary concern was legislation: would the city or state make development more difficult via zoning changes or alterations to the current tax abatements? Cohen took a long-term look at the impact of the work that builders and owners and architects do: he sees his role as a balancing act, satisfying shareholders of the public corporation he works for while also leaving a positive footprint on the built environment, which could impact “thousands or millions of people that interact with the project for decades to come.”
Teamwork, from design to delivery
In addition to positively affecting the people who interact with a building once it’s built, the panel also talked about what makes an effective team. For Cohen, “a successful project is also a project that’s successful for the entire team, for the customer, for us as the developer, for the contractor, for the consultants and design team…making sure that what we build has a lasting impact on the community.”
The panelists agreed that as owners they didn’t always competitively bid out for contractors or designers, but often they hired based on relationships with professionals who understood the needs of their projects, and then negotiated with the right team or professional for each job. “Making sure that our goals and our values are aligned with our team is important … thinking ahead, not being reactive but proactive, that’s what we look for with all of our contractors,” Cohen said. “Particularly with engineering services, we’re looking for innovation, for creativity, not just plugging numbers into a box, but how can we make this project work the best, be the most efficient, from a performance standpoint as well as a cost standpoint,” Asnes added.
Looking ahead: diversity, diversification, and tech
The panel also touched upon some hot-button issues in the industry: Scarrapieco voiced enthusiastic support for more projects that are concerned with the social impact they have on their neighborhoods, and Cohen built upon that by bringing diversity into the conversation. “We’ve been an industry that’s lagged behind other industries, across the board,” he said. “This goes to companies that are owned by minorities and women, and all the way to people who work on the project. [Philadelphia] is a minority-majority city … and we need to get more people of color and women into the trades.” For that to happen, Asnes added, “the industry needs to provide training for the trades, and to instill in the people working on jobsites the desire and skills to maintain craftsmanship … it makes a difference how somebody feels when they show up at work in the morning about the quality of the product they’re putting in place.” As Papageorge and Cohen pointed out, Philadelphia already has numerous training programs and mentorships, such as the ACE Mentorship Program, CHAD (Charter High School for Architecture and Design) and the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative. Now, they both pointed out, owners, as well as engineers and architects, should get more involved with these programs.
Finally, no discussion of AEC today would be complete without a nod toward technology: for some on the panel, such as Cohen, technology that filters and sorts census information provides great value to owners making decisions on where to buy and what to develop. For others, the most important technology handles logistics. Ultimately, any technology that finds or creates new efficiencies is a net gain for the entire team—and for the community at large.