February 18, 2016

Consolidation of Social Services into One-Stop Center Closer for Camden Residents

SOMERVILLE, NJ: One of Camden’s largest projects undertaken in recent history is about to transform the way social services has traditionally been delivered ─ through a single office center that houses all of the social, medical and economic programs of Camden County. A dynamic concept design developed by the team of USA Architects + IEI Group consolidates numerous off site social services user groups into one common facility. The design, imbued with core values such as Respect, Compassion and Community, won over the Camden County Improvement Authority and Board of Chosen Freeholders and ultimately landed them the project.

The existing beleaguered system, creates enormous challenges for the City’s most vulnerable. Alignment of these groups into a centralized location will begin to clear a path for individuals and families in need to more readily access vital social programs. The proposed 180,000 sf facility, located on Mount Ephraim Avenue, will be the new home of the Board of Social Services, Affiliated State Agencies, and county agencies yet to be determined.

The design not only respects the County’s need for increased efficiencies and long-term economic value, moreover, it is intended to lead people on a path toward self sufficiency, connecting them with other members of the community in a daylight filled, welcoming environment, that is easily navigable with large community areas, classrooms, conference rooms, along with open outdoor green spaces. A one-stop services center is a highly efficient and effective way to bolster existing social, medical and economic programs, saving recipients both time and money, as well as contributing to the overall health of the region.

May 1, 2015

If you Build It…


After a nearly nine-year hiatus, softball has officially returned to the North Brunswick Township High School grounds.

The Lady Raiders commemorated the opening of their new softball fields this week with a ribbon cutting followed by a game vs. the Ramblers of Carteret High School.

Due to soil conditions, the team had been using a neighboring township park field and endured daily commutes by bus.

The two new softball fields complete with 200 foot fenced outfields were part of a larger athletics design project,  which included two new multi-purpose, four-sport turf fields and a newly renovated stadium designed  by USA architects, planners + interior designers of  Somerville, along with Matrix Consulting Engineers of Eatontown.

Superintendent Dr. Brian Zychowski presided over the ceremony along with Board President Rich Liguori, former Board Member Gail DiPane and Athletic Director Lou Emanuel, who were all instrumental in getting the project completed.

April 7, 2014

Center for Lifelong Learning – A look back after five years of service to children with autism

CLL-Ext-1-web CLL Pool-2 (Copy)

In the fall of 2009 a new school for special children opened in Sayreville, New Jersey. Constructed by the Middlesex Regional Educational Services Commission and funded by the Middlesex County Improvement Authority along with the vision of the County Freeholders, the school was a “first of its kind” on several levels.

The school was awarded “LEED Platinum,” the first public school in the country to receive such a designation from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). It was also designed with a new type of educational philosophy, or design consideration for educating children with autism. The physical environment was centered on a “community” thesis. To prove the community based theory we relied on our past success stories. The most important part of any good planning for buildings, especially school facilities is evaluating what we have done as architects in the past and measure their success from the educational results.

Now, five years later, I wanted to reaffirm our original design philosophy and recently visited the school and met with the building’s only principal, Ms. Debbie Nappi. I wanted to see what design ideas have flourished in an effort to gain more knowledge as we continue to explore better ways to design facilities for children with autism.

Over the past ten to fifteen years we have designed more special needs schools than any other firm in the State and perhaps the Country, each design with its own unique style and support structure for the school’s curriculum. The great variety of design considerations all coming from the philosophy of education taught within the various school districts and the differing perspectives from administrators, educators, and teachers. With that said, and after every school project, after every school we have designed for special children I have always looked back at what has worked and the areas that we could improve upon based on our “lessons learned.” For try as we may, we simply are not perfect.

The Center for Lifelong Learning was no exception and presented its own unique challenges during the design phase. The coupling of a LEED Platinum building and the specific obstacles brought on by this tremendous goal with the continued development of an educational language of the built environment in an effort to construct a facility for students whose very nature does not lend itself to readily perceiving and surmising the physical environment around them yet at the same time are very susceptible to it, in terms of light, heat and cold, fresh air and circulation and color. No small feat indeed…and on top of it all, the Center for Lifelong Learning was going to be, by far, our largest school for children with autism with a projected capacity of approximately two hundred students.

In breaking down the design components, the most basic of which stems from one small simple concept, “Community,” we believed we could provide a support structure or language of the physical environment embraced by the teaching staff, supported by the parents and understood by the students.

Originally known as “pods of education,” Ms Nappi pointed out to me that after the opening of the school in 2009 the word “pod” was quickly replaced by the word “community” and rightly so. The four classroom communities or neighborhoods are centered on a courtyard that supports the schools growing gardening curriculum. Each one contains its own supporting centers of education, including six classrooms, a central multi-purpose gathering area, small group areas, toilet facilities and enough storage to accommodate the many accessories required for the specialized and age appropriate curriculum. The communities fully address the unique needs of the multiply disabled, autistic and preschool disabled students as well as having their own distinct color theme. A way finding mechanism we have used in the past with much success. This time we were close, but not 100%, one-hundred percent right. The red community color scheme was simply too strong of a color and not the right hue – it should have been softer or perhaps a different shade altogether. The other three colors; orange, blue and green, were spot on. It is truly amazing how important color plays a part in the disposition of students.

As far as the size of the facility, that posed additional challenges as many of the students have limited mobility and other physical limitations. The community based design allows for a multitude of learning activities without the need for movement of students to different places throughout the school. Conversely, the corridors around the courtyard that connect the four communities are all interconnected and used for physical activity. Students use the corridors for exercise and can “take-a-lap,” as the teachers fondly refer to it, all within the safe confines of the school, independent of weather and without distracting other classes.

The concept of creating fully supported learning communities by designing multi-purpose areas that serve to bond the six classrooms within each section to each other has proven very affective and has fostered the development of a true sense of community, just as envisioned. It was wonderful to witness students of common ages eat, learn, play and even take art together within their own individual and secure world within the school. There is an underlying and subconscious level of support provided by the built environment which as an architect gave me a feeling of complete satisfaction.

In looking back at the original design concept and now witnessing firsthand the reality that is the Center for Lifelong Learning, I have come to the realization that “community based design” and the design elements which buttress it within the school offer a subconscious support methodology where the students have gained a sense of security and a sense of belonging. Equally important is the embrace of the parents of the students who have witnessed first hand this discovery and through their own participation in events at the school create a synergy that clearly transforms the school into the “least restrictive environment for the student.”

The only comparison I can give is the feeling one has of their “old neighborhood.” The fondness and warmth one shares with someone from a similar background. There is a kinship fostered simply from a sense of community and that is the same feeling the students, parents and teachers feel at the school. This level of support, this sense of belonging and security has created an environment where students are flourishing.

All in all, I discovered that we got it right. The acoustics, daylighting and natural light, and circulation were working well and clearly as designed. Even the drop off and pick up of students is a positive experience, but that was a large consideration years before a shovel ever went into the ground. As an architect we must envision the moments, the events that comprise the school day, to the smallest detail. The parents as well completely support the drop off and pick up areas and procedures because they provide an optimum level of safety beyond the original design parameters for their children who sometimes spend upwards of an hour each way on a school bus, an added benefit not particularly known to me previously.

In looking towards the future and future consideration of design for schools for children with autism we must always remember that a “sense of community” is one of the most important underlying factors of which everything else should evolve from and revolve around.

Lesson learned…

Peter C. Campisano, AIA CID
Partner for the Firm

January 24, 2013

Do Accessibility Regulations Actually Give Accessibility?

Today, USA Architects held an in-house seminar and hands-on demonstration of the accessibility regulations. Several of us spent time in a wheelchair, attempting to navigate around our office. The results were both awkward and eye opening.

Let me say that none of us here at the office have spent time in a wheelchair, but that does not mean that someday we might not have to, either temporarily or permanently. While we were focusing on being wheelchair bound, the regulations are in place to also address others that may be disabled in other terms. It could mean you are on crutches, have an arm in a sling or have other physical disabilities that limit your mobility and functioning.

First, the five foot turning radius (which I am dubbing the “circle of death”) is virtually impossible to navigate. Many attempted to achieve this and found that keeping within the radius a difficult task. Most of us truly formed more of an ‘oval’ when attempting this maneuver. Remember, this is the minimum recommended turning radius floor space.

Maneuvering hallways and turns was a little less challenging, but some had a hard time running a straight line, bumping into walls and other obstructions along the way. It reminded me of the bumper car rides at amusement parks. Moving through the doorways (with the doors open) even presented challenges with a standard width wheelchair (27” +/-). With the minimum clearances at doorways of 32” this only leaves a 2-1/2” clearance on each side for fingers, elbows and arms. I know that the oversized units would be impossible to use under these circumstances.

Our office entrance from the elevator lobby is a double door with levers on the lobby side, closers and panic hardware on the inside. The ability to manipulate the lever, open the door far enough, all while keeping the wheelchair stable gave most of us a problem. From the inside, using the panic hardware, again while maintaining the wheelchair still, and getting through the door was difficult. These were all attempted while positioning the minimum side clearances.
While our kitchen is fairly spacious, no one could access the sink (not designed for accessibility). With a table and chairs, getting to the refrigerator and opening it was a challenge. And, the wall cabinets were just out of reach.

One person in our group attempted to move into a cubicle to simulate working. The computer keyboard, located on an articulating arm below the work surface, did not allow clearance underneath. This also did not allow close enough access the telephone and much of the working surface. Turning the computer on and off was impossible.

I was the one to access the bathrooms. I found that pulling up to the urinal, just would not be close enough to take care of business. I also realized that to access the accessible toilet stall, required backing in, a real challenge while opening the stall door (I think back-up mirrors are necessary for this). Once inside the stall I realized that I probably would not be able to make the transfer, let alone ‘drop my drawers’ in the process. I think that you may need to plan ahead due the extra time involved in getting into “position”.

The elevator in our building was easy to access, however, once inside, I found myself having to make the turn-around through a series of maneuvers. I cannot imagine what it would have been like with more than one person accompanying me.

One last item to note is doorway thresholds. They became a real challenge, especially into the bathroom, where a transition from carpet to ceramic tile had a marble threshold. Opening a door with a closer, while overcoming the threshold, and maneuvering the chair through the doorway, gave me a greater appreciation of the challenges people confined to a wheelchair have to overcome.

I think the wheelchair we were using needed some mechanical work, as it pulled slightly to the left. A full alignment and brake check is probably in order as well as a replacement of the wheel bearings. Is there a wheelchair repair garage out there? Do they offer loaners? I can say this was exhausting and truly limits mobility as we (mostly) normal people participated in this event.

Remember, the regulations are minimums! So, next time your client asks about accessibility perhaps you should have them do this exercise. I truly believe their questions would be answered.

Republished with permission by M2architek’s Blog

July 23, 2012

Feed Your Mind, Fight Hunger

September is “Hunger Action Month” – a smart time to learn that nearly 49 million people in America face hunger.  With the help of Canstruction® − a charity that holds annual design-build competitions worldwide, resulting in fantastic, giant sized, structures made entirely out of canned food, millions of cans are donated to community food banks.  This can-do attitude in the fight against hunger is a perfect fit for this year’s design theme of “Back to School.

USA Architects will be making its sixth appearance in this year’s local 14th annual Canstruction® event.  This year’s assignment will be to design and construct a 6-foot tall Apple with a Worm and 8-foot tall A-B-C letters, which will be judged for awards.

In previous competitions, Team USA, with the help from many donors, collected and donated over 12,836 cans of food, and has taken top honors in the Structural Ingenuity, Best Use of Labels, Best Meal and Overall Honorable Mention award categories since their involvement.

All canned creations will be built and prominently displayed as giant art exhibits at the Livingston Mall in Livingston, NJ beginning Thursday, September 20th and continuing through the weekend. At the conclusion, the Community Food Bank of New Jersey will distribute the cans to community emergency feeding banks who serve over 500,000 New Jerseyans seeking hunger relief programs.

The team is currently seeking charitable donations on behalf of any firm or individual to help purchase the cans to build our Back to School … Apple, Worm and A-B-C letters. For your generous contribution, your company logo / name will be on display within the exhibit.


To make a donation and for more information, please email Keith at kwlosek@usaarchitects.com.

Feed your mind and donate to a great cause.




CANstruction 2011– Won Best Meal and Overall Honorable Mention  from USA Architects on Vimeo.

June 25, 2012

Thank You Morris Pesin

Situated along the Hudson River, with panoramic views of New York City, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty, is one of New Jersey’s national treasures – Liberty State Park.  This wondrous park celebrates its 36th anniversary this year, having been dedicated on Flag Day, June 14, 1976.

This date always surprises me. As a transplant to New Jersey, I made the assumption that Liberty State Park was an historic site.  What a surprise to find out how young the park actually is, a mere 36 years old.  With the State of New Jersey being one of the original Colonies it would seem more fitting to refer to the “historic Jersey City Park, opened in 1886”. It still feels awkward to refer to the park opening in 1976.

The evolution of the park is rooted in transportation. Accessibility of the shoreline made the area a natural arena for major transportation. During the boom of the Industrial Revolution, Central Railroad of New Jersey developed the site into a bustling transportation hub. “At its peak, the area of the park was crisscrossed by nearly 100 miles of railroad tracks and surrounded by a web of docks and piers. The site was a virtual beehive of activity with hundreds of trains, ferries, barges and tugboats, and a variety of other water and land crafts arriving and departing daily.”1 Jersey City was one of the first stops for immigrants arriving from Ellis Island.  But, as the era of train transportation declined the CRRNJ eventually declared bankruptcy in the late 1960’s, leaving behind vacated structures, miles of metal tracks and soiled land.

This is where the story begins.

Upon the arrival of the Statue of Liberty, New Jerseyans spent years and years traveling through the Lincoln or Holland tunnels to New York City, then down the West Side Highway to Battery Park, to then catch a ferry to go back towards New Jersey to Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty. Total travel time would generally exceed two hours, one way.  This of course would have been completely reasonable except for the logistical fact that the Jersey City shoreline, (now the official park) is only half a mile from Liberty Island!  Today, Commuters and travelers alike would find a two hour trip to an historic location that you can see from your kitchen window not only unreasonable but I feel certain a social media firestorm would be ignited for change.

Morris Pesin is the Father of Liberty State Park and the original social networker.  In 1957, Mr. Pesin and his family took the arduous journey from Jersey City to Manhattan to see Lady Liberty.  The three plus hour trip not only sparked outrage in Mr. Pesin but ignited in him the fight that would last 19 years that would eventually become a reality.  He began a public crusade to re-develop the old CRRNJ abandoned shoreline into a public park with water access to Liberty Island. His first public relations strategy was an actual canoe ride from Jersey City through the New York Harbor to Liberty Island.  The much publicized ride took all of 8 minutes.  Citizens took notice and began to follow Pesin’s activities and joined in the cause to take back the “New Jersey Gold Coast”.  Mr. Pesin’s crusade – to turn a blighted, polluted heap of metal into rolling, beautiful green space – is one of New Jersey’s best kept secrets.

Today, Liberty State Park is 1,212 acres of hiking, biking and nature trails; picnic areas; playgrounds; concessions stands; with fishing and crabbing.  Visitors can enjoy Ferry service to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from the Park’s boat launches.  Sweeping views of the New York Harbor can be enjoyed from a kayak or canoe ride along the Hudson Bay.  The Park also boasts the Liberty Science Center, Liberty National Golf Course, and Interpretative Center.

The views of the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan provide the New Picnic Area at Liberty State Park with one of the most dramatic backdrops of any park in New Jersey. From this vision, USA designed and sited the picnic area pavilions to best showcase these iconic views.

Drawing inspiration from the historic Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal (located elsewhere in the park), as well as the designs of noted architect E. Fay Jones, the pavilions’ motif creates a light, elegant shelter that frames the view of the Statue. The design seats 150 occupants with the flexibility of being segregated and used for private functions.

Additionally, the paths around the site bring the occupants up onto the existing berm located to the east of the site. From there they can access the paths that crisscross the park or stop at one of the two pavilions that provide further views of the Statue.

USA Architects is very proud to be a part of the continuing evolution of this beautiful landmark.

1 http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/liberty_state_park/liberty_history.html



May 24, 2012

Code Communicator – New Requirements for Insulation

New Requirements for Insulation in Commercial Buildings

The 2009 IECC, International Energy Conservation Code includes requirements for minimum insulation in commercial construction that have changed significantly from those requirements we have used in the past.

For a commercial building, select the appropriate climate zone from Table 301.1, “Climate Zones, Moisture Regimes, and Warm-Humid Designations by State, County and Territory.”

Refer to Table 502.2 (1), “Building Envelope Requirements – Opaque Assemblies” for minimum R-values depending on the climate zone and the type of construction.

For example;  A metal framed building in climate zone 5A would require:

  • Roofs, Insulation above deck                    R-20 minimum, ci (continuous insulation)
  • Walls, Above Grade                                       R-13 + R-7.5 ci
  • Walls Below Grade                                          R-7.5 ci
  • Slab-on-Grade Floors                                    R-15 for 24” below

The minimum roof insulation is a significant change from the average roof insulation we are familiar with using.  Basically, 4” of insulation is required, with the only exception at roof drains.  At roof drains, the 4” of insulation can taper down to 3” within the area of the drain sump.

In metal stud walls, the requirement for continuous insulation in addition to the insulation within the stud space is new.  Provisions for continuous insulation also occur in masonry walls.

Traditionally, we have designed 2” rigid insulation below slab-on-grade at the perimeter of a building for 24” below the slab and down the inside face of the foundation wall. The requirement for R-15 requires we now use 3” insulation as our minimum standard.

In summary, refer to the minimum insulation requirements for the building’s climate zone and type of construction for current code.

USA Architects Code  Specialists, Tara Dohoney, HHS and Joy Cohen, AIA are happy to answer questions you have regarding the new code.  They can be contacted via email at info@usaarchitects.com

November 10, 2011

Local Architect Mentors Members of the Lehigh Valley Heritage Patrol

USA Architects Joy Cohen, AIA has been an active volunteer with the Heritage Patrol of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania for the past 5 years.  Led by the Girl Scouts of Eastern PA., and by Cadette and Senior Girl Scouts, the Heritage Patrol’s main goal is to engage participants in exploring its local community’s heritage, which includes developing opportunities to share local culture and history with the general public, and provide service to organizations charged with the task of heritage preservation.  The Heritage Patrol is a “girl-run” program based on the Guild System. Girls begin as apprentices and develop leadership skills as they earn their journeywoman, master and trainer levels.  The middle school and high school girls teach younger girls (grades K-5) historic crafts as well as Moravian and Bethlehem, PA history.

In addition to her volunteer efforts at the “Krafts for Kids” program at Musikfest (the annual music festival held in the City of Bethlehem); Ms. Cohen is the Heritage Patrol’s Architectural Advisor.  Recently, she was instrumental in the girl’s earning their Architectural and Environmental Design Badge.  She spent a week teaching the girls about architectural drawings and specifications, building materials, and green building design.  In practical application, the group performed a handicapped accessibility review of the Historic Bethlehem Mill building in North Bethlehem and finished the week with an Architectural Awareness walk through historic downtown Bethlehem, PA.

As the architectural professional continues to evolve, especially for women, mentoring is an important step to diversifying the field, creating more female licensed architects and women who are starting their own successful practices.   Ms. Cohen is certainly a stepping stone for these young women.


November 9, 2011

iPad vs. Text Book

A library with no books normally would be considered vacant, but for Elizabeth Public School District this is the way of the future.  At the John E. Dwyer High School students can expect to walk into a new Multi-Media center in the Spring of 2012 void of the traditional aisles of dusty texts.  Instead, they will find comfortable couches, study carrels, and technology covering every inch of the space.  The faculty at Dwyer is taking the leap into the 21st century and moving all of the books out of the library.  The faculty is already using iPads to track attendance and grades and soon the students will be able to check out a laptop or iPad instead of the old textbooks that used to line the shelves.  The cost savings in using technology over updating the texts is what has lead to this great push.  ‘Embrace technology’ is the new anthem at Dwyer – a high school dedicated to teaching students with technology about technology.

USA Architects has been hired to transform the current space from the currently dated 1970s chic and into the “Library of the Future”.  Through collaboration with the faculty and staff of Elizabeth Public Schools, the new interactive media center has emerged.  An important element of our collaborative effort involved the input from the very students who would be utilizing the new center.  The design team felt that the students’ approval was just as important as that of the faculty and staff, so we invited the “Students of the Month” to see what their new media center would look like and offer feedback; to our surprise their reaction was mixed.  The younger students were excited to see the upgrade and wanted to know all about the new technology that would be introduced into the space.  On the other hand, the seniors were more interested in keeping some books in the space.  The notion of sitting down with a good book and flipping through the pages still appeals to some, while others are just as happy sliding their finger over the glass screen of an iPad.

As the use of technology in the classroom becomes ever more prevalent, the “textbook” begins to look like a thing of the past.  Even as the faculty makes plans for the remaining books, there is no doubt that the transition to an all-technology school jettisons this district deep into the 21st Century.



November 9, 2011

What you THOUGHT you knew about real Slate

Originally posted as an internal e-mail to the USA Design Staff by Armand Christoper, AIA, Principal and Director of Technical Services

Allow me to describe to all of you what is currently occurring on several of our projects, regarding slate roofing, as food for thought on your next project if it has a place for slate.  When Shyam had to specify slate roofing on the Schaefer Auditorium @ Kutztown University he contacted the Evergreen Slate Co. in Granville New York.  They own and operate a huge slate quarry that straddles the New York /Vermont border and several smaller satellite quarries in the area.  The Sales Rep. gave us a Lunch & Learn on slate which piqued my interest, even though we have never used much of it in this office due to the high cost associated with it.

Last month, I went to the Slate Company and visited the Quarry for a Continuing Education program.  While I was there I learned a lot and found a way to take advantage of the huge stockpile of material on-site that can be bought for a fraction of the cost of what would have to be specifically quarried to fill a custom order.

Slate is normally specified by color and size and shape, so an Architect/Designer can get the full range of available products from Evergreen Slate Co.  However, the cost of going into a particular section of the quarry, removing the color and quantity required is grossly exaggerated by the need to remove tons and tons of overburden (worthless material) to get to the desired material.  Once into the desired material, the quarry doesn’t

just take what it needs to fill the current order.  They have to remove much more material to make the effort worthwhile.  This additional material is cut and hand split into standard thickness, standard weight and varying widths and then stockpiled in the yard.  When I saw what thirty or forty years of this practice has accumulated in the roughly 25 acre yard, the light came on for me.  If we specified what was already on-hand, and get it reserved for the job we were about to bid, we could buy it for a fraction of the price of an otherwise custom order placed later by the Contractor.

The quarry agreed that huge savings could be realized for material that was already on hand, and it was happy to work with USA this way.  The test case would be the Additions and Renovations of the William Penn School for the Allentown School District.  Jim Petro, AIA had already done a cost comparison between real slate (through normal procurement) and synthetic slate, and decided to go with the synthetic because it was MUCH less expensive and necessary to stay within budget.  I found a mountain of slate in Evergreen’s yard that was in the grey green color blend in thickness, length and random width to match what was originally on the building.  Evergreen took our drawings, did a take-off and submitted a quote.  When we compared this quote for real slate, that will last 80 years (compared to 40 for the synthetic) we were amazed to be getting it for 1/2 the price of the synthetic slate.

Andrew is already trying the same approach on the Warinanco Park Project which has historical significance and will greatly benefit from real rather than synthetic material.