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Crime Rates Countered by Urban Design Measures

November 22nd, 2017 by

If you walk through Baltimore City and you compare how the building environment looks with the City crime map you would notice patterns. The good news is there are good patterns to be copied, and it is up to us: architects, urban designers and neighbors to put them into motion. What can we do as designers to aid in the reduction of crime?

1. Good landscaping provides residents with the opportunity of having their own area to take care of, or to plant a small garden; and that means they will spend more time outdoors, interact with their neighbors, and have more eyes on the street. All of this will improve the community’s ‘social capital’. Social capital is the interpersonal relationships, institutions, and other social assets of a society or group that can be used to gain advantage. For example, the district of Suginami in Tokyo, was plagued with frequent burglaries in 2002. With the implementation of “Operation Flower”, a street-facing flower-planting campaign, the district saw an 80% decrease in burglaries by 2008. The more a neighborhood looks like it is cared for, the less it is burglarized. A study in Baltimore City on the relationship between residential yard management and neighborhood crime concludes crime is positively associated with litter, desiccated or uncut lawns, and negatively associated with yard trees, garden hoses/ sprinklers, lawns, and pervious area.

The Residences at Stadium Place is an affordable and senior housing project in Govans. The site retains the footprint of Baltimore’s original football stadium as a public space. Residents enjoy plenty of landscaped green space.

2. Reduce heat island effect: higher temperatures make the crime rates increase. Trees and vegetation or elements help lower temperatures in summer, including cooler concrete/ pavements, green or cooler roofs. At the same time, this would lower building heating and cooling needs. Double win.

A. Trees and vegetation lowers ground surface and air temperatures by providing cooling through evotranspiration and shading.

B. Cool roofs & pavements reflect sunlight and heat away from a building or neighborhood reducing temperatures, increasing comfort and lowering energy demand.

3. Positive stimulation: humans have a vital need for stimulation. Therefore, tons of new urban infilled spaces like parks, skate parks, or climbing walls are popping up all over the world to keep both kids and adults positively entertained. The first east coast skate park was built in our own state, Maryland, and it is open year-round (Ocean Bowl Skate Park). Protected bike-lanes might also mean more people of all ages biking, and interacting with their neighbors.

4. Mental health and wellbeing: Encounters with nature or biophilic design help alleviate mental fatigue, stress and illness. Less stressed people commit less crimes. Contact with nature helps children to develop emotional, cognitive and behavioral connections to their social and biophysical surroundings.

Giving some positive stimulation to inhabitants like gardening or community rooms with games is key to avoid the negative stimulations and to increase the serendipitous encounters between neighbors that shape the sense of community.

5. Playground or places of community interaction: the best way to start rejuvenating social values in a community is to focus on the interaction of children. The rest follows. Once the community knows one another, they also know what is and isn’t normal and they put more attention on patterns of behavior.

6. Mixed Use Buildings and Communities: Urban residents can work, shop and play within the same block to increase the relationships within the community, and to have informal surveillance all day. It is important in Baltimore City to eliminate the defensive architecture and urban design that cropped up after the 1968 riots, where mixed-use was eliminated from residential neighborhoods to prevent protesters’ access to buying food or drinks in these areas, causing these areas empty during workdays, decrease the community’s social capital.

Thankfully the Mayor’s office recognizes the detriment of those laws passed 60 years ago. Life is slowly returning to neighborhoods like Barclay/Greentmount/Old Goucher North Barclay Green Phase 3 which is an affordable housing project that is helping revitalize the neighborhood. The project recently won a Wavemaker award for standing out in criteria like: completeness, sense of place and quality, sustainability, visionary and emulation and responding to the unique needs of the area. All three buildings have commercial space on the ground level. Fearless Dance Empire just moved into Building One, and an art gallery of local artists and makers occupies Building Two.

 North Barclay Green buildings let people participate in and observe activities going on inside and outside of the building with a big percentage of opening to façade ratio and placing all the community areas as well as the new public uses in the ground floor.

7. Lighting: Increased visibility of the offenders encourages residents and other people to spend more time outdoors and therefore increases the informal surveillance of the area. Increased visual connections between the inside and the outside of a building makes everyone feel safer.

Café Fili is an example of the inside-outside relationship that can improve the area’s sense of community and informal surveillance by being open for different purposes at different hours of the day. The space is a café by day, and a wine bar at night.

8. Defensible space and movement control: defined, cared for spaces also show attentiveness to the area and reduce crime; while having clear and well-defined routes means people can easily and safely enter and leave. The sense of ownership over the environment makes the residents become more involved in staying vigilant against crime.

Another example of a project that starts including some of these intentions within their plans is newly opened Sojourner Place at Argile. A small group of units gives housings and a sense of community to a small group of previously homeless people. At the same time, it includes green elements that will act as a filter between public and private space, and in turn will help reduce the area’s crime rate.

In conclusion, the more mixed, green and community oriented a neighborhood is, the better it is for both the environment and the crime rates. Being sustainable and taking care of interest in the community side of our buildings and developments benefits all involved.


The Importance of Volunteerism and Pro-Bono Work in Architecture

November 2nd, 2017 by

Over the course of my career, I have found great satisfaction in the profession of architecture. As Bob Borson notes in his blog ‘Life of an Architect‘, “the practice of architecture is a lifestyle, not a job, and the results of our work can positively impact people’s lives”. I have found the intersection of volunteering and practice particularly satisfying. My passion is the design of affordable housing and the community based work I have done over the years has helped me to understand and treasure the results of my work.Magda giving an AIA tour of Baltimore City, circa 1990.

As an architecture student in the 70’s, I spent a lot of time at bus stops on the way to work. When I told the people waiting for the bus I was studying architecture, many of them had strong opinions about the profession. They said architects only worked for the rich, that it was a profession that didn’t care about the people using the buildings. If you think about architecture of the 70’s, they had a point – it was the era of schools without windows, for example. That early experience informed the type of work I wanted to do and my desire to spread the word about the importance of the built environment and the positive impact communities can have.

I moved to Baltimore in 1981 and found it a great place to volunteer. I led tours of downtown Baltimore for AIA Baltimore, volunteered with Kids In Design and got involved with the Neighborhood Design Center. These opportunities allowed me to talk about the importance of architecture to a diverse group.  While talking to the school groups, I emphasized that as an active member of your community you can influence policy and design choices. While leading tours, I spoke with adults about the incredible historic fabric of Baltimore. As a volunteer with the Neighborhood Design Center, I had the opportunity as a young architect to run my own design by providing pro bono services to non-profits that were investing in the community. All of these experiences allowed me to talk about architecture to non-architects in a community based forum. I learned a lot and built relationships that continue today. One of my co-volunteers in Kids In Design was Marshall Snively. He is now President of the Lancaster City Alliance and Executive Director of the Lancaster Downtown Investment District, and has been a friend and colleague for 35 years. He worked for the Downtown Partnership and helped me get involved with the organization in its early years. One of the Neighborhood Design projects led to a commission with Bon Secours, with whom we still work.

Over the years, I have had the honor to be involved with numerous volunteer activities. I continued my work with AIA Baltimore, and have found that volunteering and mentoring is one of the best ways to communicate my passion about architecture. If we engage as citizens, and as architects, we have a greater impact on the community we live in. It also benefits us as individuals. According to Forbes in an article published on March 2015, volunteering has unexpected benefits. They include career advancement, better health, and greater personal happiness. The London School of Economics found the more people volunteered, the happier they were.

I served on the boards of community organizations such as C.O.I.L. (Communities Organized to Improve Life) in southwest Baltimore and CDC in east Baltimore. I continued to volunteer in the schools and as my children grew up became an active member of the PTSA at Baltimore City College.

Today in our office, we have several team members who have started and continue to be involved in exciting projects which take the message even further. Chelsea Thomas founded the Baltimore chapter within the organization, Doors Open, which is a citywide celebration of architecture that invites the public to explore Baltimore’s diverse buildings and neighborhoods and meet the people who design, build, preserve and carry out remarkable work within the city. This event, now in its fourth year, generated over 2500 visits to Baltimore sites. Martina D. Reilly founded the AIA Disaster Assistance Committee which became the Committee on Environment and Resiliency. She sits on the AIA National Resilient Education working group. Through her work she assists architects and communities to evaluate and prepare for disaster relief.  

Magda and Martina, one of Marks Thomas’ associates heavily involved with architecture-related volunteerism.


Intergenerational Housing: A Millennial’s Perspective

July 27th, 2017 by

My grandson has a summer “job” working for our architecture and interior design firm and has never really thought about housing issues, let alone housing for the elderly. I was curious about how a seventeen year old would see the issue of intergenerational housing and so asked him to tell me. Here is what he had to say.

            I’m Jonathan Dulin and I am going to be a high school senior this year. This summer I am working as an intern for Marks Thomas. It has been a great experience finding out about the housing projects they do here and I was curious about the shift to intergenerational housing that I hear the architects talking about. So, I did some research and talked with the housing experts here at Marks Thomas.

 As the generation of the “baby-boomers” get older, there will be, and is, a change in the housing composition. The baby-boomers, those born between 1949 and 1964, are the generation of the seniors who are known to be the go-getters and work to better the community. Seniors are shifting away from the traditional retirement community/senior-living and seniors have obvious options that they can consider: downsize to a smaller home, move to a retirement community, or live with their children. According to an article in the Washington Post, 80% of seniors would prefer to stay in their home, but not many can afford the costs of care and maintenance.

Intergenerational housing has become increasingly popular for seniors over the past 20 years. For example, the Florida Times Union said, “The trend in 55-plus communities is away from the golf courses, the former clubhouses, and cookie-cutter homes.” Due to the shift of housing, intergenerational housing is the future of affordable housing for families, adults, children, seniors, and housing in general for people.

            Intergenerational housing can range from single-family homes in close-knit communities to roommates sharing a multi-room apartment in a building. Intergenerational housing can also be university-based. For example, New York University (NYU) offers students a discounted price on room and board if they stay in a room with seniors. The Chicago Tribune wrote about a college student’s experience, “‘you give a lot, but you also get a lot back, we have a lot more in common than you think’ said Bieg, a 19-year-old art student who lives in a room with seniors.”    

Intergenerational housing can also be seen in cooperative housing. Rather than owning actual real estate, you own a part of a corporation that owns the building. Cooperative housing usually includes an apartment building or a community of separate buildings. For example, artists housing was opened for providing affordable housing for artists in a supportive environment. There are a mix of all ages in the cooperative housing community, which also makes it intergenerational. This becomes beneficial because the older artists who have more experience can share their knowledge of arts, finances while the younger residents share their technology expertise.

            Shared housing of different generations is a complete possibility for the future of affordable housing. Intergenerational housing is more affordable for students and recent grads since it provides a way to share costs and it is less expensive for seniors due to the younger individual helping to care for the older residents.

Seniors have the same desires in a community that millennials value, like access to parks, transportation, education, fitness, restaurants, common areas, and most importantly a meaningful sense of community. Seniors still want to be a part of the community in any way that they are able. It is very likely for a senior to experience loneliness and millennials do a great job of suppressing the feelings of loneliness the senior may have. In intergenerational housing, every individual plays a role, which makes it a community. Also, the sense of community for seniors in intergenerational housing can eliminate loneliness.

            I believe intergenerational housing is a wonderful shift in the future of housing. It benefits every age of people in a variety of different ways. Intergenerational housing provides unique opportunities for people who need a cheaper housing option, and especially seniors who need a sense of community in their lives. A young resident in an intergenerational house said, “It’s rewarding beyond just the affordability of it. You can’t quite put a price on the experience of being able to volunteer to help other people while you live in the building.”

-Jonathan Dulin


Founded in 1967, Marks Thomas has an established background and a solid reputation for planning and crafting well designed environments for a diverse clientele and we are pleased to provide exceptional client service. Today, we are recognized as leaders in our profession and continue to set new standards for innovation, quality, and sustainability. For 50 years, Marks Thomas has proudly called Baltimore “home.” Over this time, our network of clients, colleagues, and friends has grown. 

Reflecting Back: Michael Blake

May 10th, 2017 by

Marks Thomas 50th Anniversary

If you read through my fellow partners’ posts over the past two months you’ll notice some common themes as they reflect on their experiences at Marks, Thomas…smart, creative and talented people to work with, exceptional projects, and doing great work for our clients; all of which are true in spades.  If I tried to cite all my experiences over the past 20+ years at Marks, Thomas I would diverge off into so many directions that I’d never be able to complete it.  I too have many stories about great people, great projects, and great friends during my time at Marks, Thomas, so if you want to hear about them please invite me to have a beer somewhere and I’ll be happy to share.

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to craft a long and successful career for a good portion of Marks, Thomas’ first fifty years.  So rather than recall specific memories, I’d like to share some of the prevailing characteristics I feel have allowed our firm to be in business for so long and why it’s a special firm to establish a career with.

Reviewing drawings, 2007. 

Find a mentor

Over the years I’ve found many individuals at Marks Thomas willing to provide guidance and council. All I had to do was ask.  Marks, Thomas has always, and continues to have, a culture of very helpful individuals who will go out of their way to provide whatever type of support is needed.  The range of talent, skill and perspective allows for mentor-protégé relationships of all types.   Finding someone that does something well and observe how they do it, allows one to learn a lot, and a lot more quickly. This has been key to the long term success of the firm and its employees.

If you show some initiative and look for opportunities they will be open to you

We believe that one’s career will be much more rewarding and eventful if you actively seek what you are looking for.  We have always been open to individuals taking initiative, challenging themselves to work beyond their comfort zone, and not wait for things to come to them.  I know from firsthand experience that those who do will have opportunities open up to them and be challenged with a diversity of responsibilities that will propel them further in their career. 

Marks, Thomas Holiday Party, 2012. 

Work hard play hard

We are a firm that takes our work seriously but allows for social outlets, whether formal or informal.  The interesting thing that has happened over the years is a unique balance of traditions as well as new activities.  The all-day, end of summer, sailing trip on the Chesapeake and holiday office party at the Warf Rat were the familiar traditions of the day in my early years with the firm.  When the office moved from Charles Village to Key Highway, Happy Hours at Little Havana became the norm on Fridays after work.  Spring outings to a day game at Camden Yards as well as our yearly Softball team which plays against the other architectural firms have also continued on as part of the Marks, Thomas tradition.  Throughout the year there are always volunteer opportunities organized by staff in support of something they are passionate about.  This nod to past traditions along with an openness to establish new ones has kept the firm grounded while fresh and exiting at the same time.

Marks, Thomas office outing to O’s game, 2007. 

A career in architecture can have many trajectories and numerous influences.  Working for a firm that genuinely allows its employees to craft their own career is a major contributor to the longevity of the firm and success of its people.

50 years in business is a long time…so let’s celebrate!

On-site at SEED School of MD, 2010. 

Reflecting Back: Mark Heckman

May 1st, 2017 by

Marks Thomas 50th Anniversary

I was driving east on I-70 towards the City and I noticed a sign several miles outside the beltway that read,  “Baltimore 16 miles; Washington 45 miles; New York City 240 miles”.   I was heading to the east coast for my first time in my new MG convertible, top down and fully loaded with 3 months of belongings (including my guitar) and the tools of my craft; mechanical pencils, LeRoy pens, a 45 degree, 30/60 degree and adjustable triangle, and templates of all sorts.  I was beginning an internship with a small Baltimore firm and recall feeling a bit anxious as I approached the big cities of the east.

Baltimore had quickly emerged from the 1974 oil crisis and with the beginning renaissance of the Inner Harbor, had become a national mecca for planners and architects alike.  I had perfected the skill of neat block lettering, a prerequisite to working in any architectural office at the time and I was ready to contribute.

The year was 1979 and the firm was Marks, Cooke, Schack & Thomas.  Besides the four name partners there was a receptionist, two other young architects and now me, a 4th year student intern. They had converted an old house a few blocks from “downtown” Towson into their office; a cool large Marimekko tapestry hung in one of the loftier parts of the studio. It was not the button down atmosphere of offices where I had previously interned, but rather a relaxed studio of some pretty talented folks.  For such a small office there was a diverse range of work; everything from individual houses, town houses for the new Columbia, master planning for Joppa Town, several warehouses, shopping centers, office buildings; even a 15 story apartment building for seniors was in the works.  The project type didn’t matter, they believed in doing great work for clients.

The Marimekko tapestry from the original office.

I began design work on a renovation and addition to a couple of small historic buildings located at the intersection of Falls and Green Spring Valley Road which I am pleased to say is still there today.  I worked with a young builder, Marty Azola, who 25 years later, would renovate the historic buildings where our offices are currently located.

While there was plenty of work to be done, there was also time for debate and relaxing.  One of the other young architects was Tom Levering, the “academic” in the group who went on to graduate school at Columbia and became a Senior Associate at Gwathmey Siegel in NYC.  We would discuss the latest architectural theory books and articles late into the night over ouzo at Souris’.  Twenty years later we would work together again as our firms collaborated on the Lutheran Center design and construction in Baltimore.

Tom Levering and other architects, circa 1979.

After work on Fridays, most of us would pile into Paul Marks’ VW Bus and head downtown to unwind at “No Fish Today” on Eutaw Street, a popular live music bohemian bar (which unfortunately burned down in 1981).   We would hang out many more times and Paul would become my mentor and friend for the next 35+ years.

No Fish Today, Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1979.

I sometimes reflect on the journey since those early days in our little office and what made those days special. While the tools of our craft, the name and size of the firm have evolved and changed, what makes 50 years possible is that there are shared beliefs amongst all of us who have been and who are currently here at Marks Thomas, and one of those beliefs is doing great work for our clients.



Reflecting Back: Magda Westerhout

April 20th, 2017 by

Marks Thomas 50th Anniversary

Glens at Guilford groundbreaking.

I came to Baltimore in 1982 for a year and fell in love with the city and stayed. In 1987, I decided I needed a job with a future. Times were good and there was a lot of opportunity for young architects.

I was very involved with AIA Baltimore and knew of Marks Thomas because the founder Paul Marks was the AIA Baltimore president in the early 80’s. I interviewed and told them I was looking for a job with people I liked. The office, then at 2300 North Charles Street, was under construction and the day of my first interview, all twelve members of the firm were drinking beer and wearing shorts. Paul invited me back for a second interview to convince me it was a great job, and invited me to go sailing with the office on the next Friday afternoon. How could I say no?

Charlestown gala, mid 90’s.

The sense of camaraderie I glimpsed that first day only deepened as the firm grew. Firm culture supported my volunteer passions, the Neighborhood Design Center and the local chapter of the AIA. On a personal level,Paul was certainly good at hiring people I liked; Mark Mobley, my future husband, was hired at Marks, Thomas in the same month as myself and we got married 14 months later. The first projects I worked on included our first building for Erickson Living Retirement Community, the Frederick House. We worked with Shelter to design affordable senior housing in Easton and Baltimore. The satisfaction of designing housing to improve people’s lives really resonated with me and I looked for more opportunities to do so.

AIA awards exhibition with Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

Over the years I have been incredibly fortunate to work with wonderful organizations such as Catholic Charities, GEDCO, Bon Secours and Telesis, all of which are committed to improving life for and supporting the residents of the many buildings we have designed for them. The long term relationships I built with friends, colleagues, clients and residents (not to mention my husband) at Marks Thomas, has profoundly impacted my personal and professional life.

Reflecting Back: Faith Nevins-Hawks

April 5th, 2017 by

Marks Thomas 50th Anniversary

AIA Awards Ceremony, 1995.

Why Marks Thomas?

Twenty Five years ago I was at one of those crossroads in life. Do I move to DC to work for a large architectural firm of separated experts in silos? Do I move to LA to find the boutique design firm that would hire me and pay me enough to live in LA? Or do I stay in Baltimore, my home town, and try to find a suitable opportunity?  I’ve always loved Baltimore, that town that knows it can only get better and where one can be in horse country 20 minutes from downtown.

One day driving north on 83, I noticed an office building of striking proportions. A building that stood out from its un-architectural surroundings. I had to find out who designed it, and since this was before Google, it meant asking architects. I was soon told that it may have been done by Marks Thomas, a firm that had been around for a while but no one seem to know much about the firm. I had to meet them.

Faith at the Northbay Education Center site, 2005.

Paul Marks had such a calm demeanor. He seemed to actually listen to what I had to say and believe in a contextual approach and straightforward style of design. Walking through the studio for the first time, I heard staff working together as well as taking charge. It didn’t take me long to think I could make a career out of such a place.

It was decision I am so glad I made. Marks Thomas gave me the opportunity to develop my design ability, realize my management skills and learn the business of architecture. Now Marks Thomas is a women business enterprise that has won both regional and national design awards, built a reputation for socially conscious work, is known for its adaptive use expertise, yet still maintains that relaxed atmosphere where everyone grows and finds their own path to follow. Today, when I wake in the morning, after walking to the barn to feed the horses and chickens, I head to my office with the Inner Harbor view to work with Marks Thomas Architects designing better communities for Baltimore, my home town.

Faith Nevins-Hawks, AIA, LEED AP

Reflecting Back: Tom Liebel

March 28th, 2017 by

Marks Thomas 50th Anniversary

Marks, Thomas Christmas Party, 2009.

So, I’m still the new guy.  I’ve been at Marks Thomas for over ten years now, and still remember clearly why I decided to join the firm.  The partners here are people of integrity and vision, and I wanted to make sure I was joining a firm where trust, respect, and an enthusiasm for design are the basic principles of how we do business.  I was also intrigued about a firm with a substantial history (40 years at that point) that also wanted to look forward and pioneer projects that focused on historic preservation and sustainable design to create better communities, while still maintaining a legacy of superior design and client service.

Tom’s AIA Fellowship celebration.

Looking at our work over the past decade, it is both a logical extension of the previous four decades of work and also an extraordinary expansion on that legacy – taking us into new sectors, new regions and new clients.  Reflecting on this, it really is remarkable to think about where we stand today, and what we are poised to become.

Today, we are building on this five-decade legacy by continuing to welcome into Marks, Thomas great projects, great clients, and great staff that are smart, creative and genuinely fun to work with.  So, every day I get to work with an outstanding group of individuals that are all trying to make the world a better place by improving the built environment. 

That, and free donuts on Wednesdays…

Tom’s AIA Fellowship celebration.

The Future of the Urban Environment

February 23rd, 2017 by

A little over a year ago, I was asked to speak at the Connected Car Expo in L.A. to give my take on what the urban environment of 2050 might look like. Carmakers and affiliated professionals were looking ahead to try to tailor their efforts toward future trends in the urban environment and architecture. It was a bit of a daunting challenge, but I agreed and dove into researching projected demographics, as well as cultural and architectural trends.

I decided to begin my “talk” with some background on environmental sustainability, focusing on two critical elements to the future of our planet: water consumption and CO2 production. I started with a joke: “Why do scuba divers always fall backward out of the boat? Because if they fell forward, they’d still be in the boat.” Seems obvious.

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2016 in Review: The Year’s Best Blog Posts

January 9th, 2017 by

2016 was an exciting time of growth here at Marks Thomas, building new communities in our hometown of Baltimore while opening a new office in Richmond, VA. And we are even more excited about the coming year, as we achieve a huge milestone for our company — celebrating our 50th anniversary!

Over the past half-century, we have cultivated relationships with some of the area’s most reputable builders, developers, and community leaders through collaboration and leadership. We are proud of the positive impact we’ve had on the lives of those that live and work in the buildings we’ve designed.

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