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Giving people a picture of what they can actually do

Cost estimator Joanna Trago recently received our “Best Supporting Actor” award. And no wonder! Since 2010, she’s advised dozens of storeowners on five commercial corridors about how to their renovate façades on a tight budget and mapped out budget strategies for a neighborhood playground. Now she’s volunteering to rejuvenate a city high school. 

Joanna says, “Construction runs in my family. My granddad was a carpenter, furniture maker and teacher. My dad, who was also a carpenter, is chief estimator at Gardner/Fox Associates.” Her own path to the construction industry took a significant detour.

Joanna had just begun her freshman year at Temple University when the World Trade Center was attacked. “I walked into the Marine Corps Recruitment office on September 12, 2001,” she recalls. When she finished her military service in 2005, her father suggested that she join the Gardner/Fox cost estimating team. “The work is very diverse. There are lots of different things to delve into.”

“My experience in the military has refined my attention to detail, and taught me how to work effectively under pressure.  I also learned how to be a team player, how to be a leader, and the appropriate time to step into either role.”

At Gardner/Fox, Joanna specializes in estimates for all types of commercial projects including health care, retail, educational, and religious institutions. She has also worked on large-scale residential projects, including an estimate for an 18,000 square foot home in Doylestown.

She relishes the more off-beat projects in her portfolio too, like the feasibility estimate she worked on a few years ago for the Hale Building. “There was literally moss growing on the walls, some of the [structural terra cotta] floors were not stable, and there was a waterfall sound of leaking water. Everything but the exterior needed to be gutted. It was really interesting to work on.”

Joanna’s first Collaborative project was a 2010 conceptual master plan for Weccacoe Playground. Built over an historic African American cemetery, the proposed improvements for the playground were adjusted and only recently approved. 

“It was neat to see what the current uses were and what they could be.” She was particularly struck by the passionate community meetings: “Everyone wanted something different… like a big shade trellis or a tent. The design team came in, heard everyone’s ideas, and incorporated everything that could work. The design started as mostly asphalt with a few plantings but ended up really green. Beautiful.”

She continues, “The project had a lot of add alternates!” Add alternates are line items in a cost estimate for construction elements that can be added or subtracted from the project depending on budget constraints and funding opportunities. She started the project with one cohesive estimate and ended with 20 different add alternates.


A facade improvement study for Tree of Life, located on the Wyoming Avenue Commercial Corridor.

Five of Joanna’s seven projects with the Collaborative have focused on renovations to storefront façades. She accompanies architects giving advice to small businesses before they apply for the grants from the City of Philadelphia’s Storefront Improvement Program. There are usually six storeowners at each session, recruited by the community development corporation revitalizing their commercial corridor. “Designers have questions about what would be cost appropriate,” she says. “It’s important to have an idea of the cost implications of different finishes.”

One of the common issues she encounters is uncertainty over the condition of original building materials. “We see lots of wood details wrapped in aluminum... painted plywood with water infiltration… Sometimes the cornice is covered, and the designers are envisioning beautiful woodwork behind it,” she says. “It’s a pricing challenge because you don’t know the extent of the damage.”

“Adding new materials can be done with sensitivity. Sometimes, you have to step outside your comfort zone and understand what materials will keep the historic feel.”

Joanna collaborates with the architects and businesses on back-up strategies, like replacing rotted wood framing with a new aluminum storefront. “Adding new materials can be done with sensitivity,” she says. “Sometimes, you have to step outside your comfort zone and understand what materials will keep the historic feel.”

She is currently on the volunteer team for a conceptual master plan for Neumann Goretti High School. “We just had a client meeting and a walk-through at the site,” she says. “They’re hoping to attract more students by making the spaces more appealing… adding a robotics lab and communal space in the library. They want to half the size of their cafeteria and create a place for students to gather. There’s also lots of opportunity to enliven the main entry.”

Joanna decided to volunteer on behalf of Gardner/Fox because, “we wanted to give back our skills to benefit someone beyond our company. She adds, “I like seeing some of these areas, seeing the streets come to life, and seeing business owners taking pride in themselves and their community. The Collaborative gives people a picture of what they can actually do… with the help of professionals whose services would otherwise be cost-prohibitive.” 

"The Collaborative gives people a picture of what they can actually do… with the help of professionals whose services would otherwise be cost-prohibitive.” 




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