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Getting People Excited About Their Spaces

Abby Sandherr is a cost estimator with TORCON, which provides construction management and general contracting services to leading corporations and institutions. She recently sat down with us to talk about her work day-to-day and as a volunteer with the Collaborative.

Abby was part of the volunteer team charged with creating a conceptual design for East Passyunk Community Center to enhance the outdoor space at this busy public recreational facility. Located at 10th and Dickinson Streets, the center serves a growing constituency and some of the most diverse blocks in South Philly.

What was your first brush with design?
I used to help my dad when he’d do renovations to the house, and there’d be a new kitchen, or a deck at the end of our efforts. I loved being hands-on.  

As a cost estimator, what do you find fascinating about your work?
The best part is starting work on a job when it’s a napkin sketch, staying involved all the way throughout design development, and then actually building it. I love seeing a new building that started out on a napkin. I also like being able to assist in determining what’s achievable and getting a client what they want within the budget that they gave.

At what point did you get interested in community design?
The opportunity to work with the Collaborative came to me through Anthony Armento (preconstruction manager at TORCON). He’s been involved in many Collaborative projects.

Anthony had gotten a volunteer recruitment notice from the Collaborative and forwarded it along to me, saying, “Let’s try to get involved in this one.” It was during my first few months of working for Torcon, so we did that one together. And then I was able to work on East Passyunk Community Center more on my own.

The center is right in my neighborhood. At the time, I lived right on 13th and Snyder and it was like a two-minute walk [to the center]. It was an awesome opportunity to help out and be a part of that design.

"The center is right in my neighborhood. It was an awesome opportunity to help out."

As a resident, how would you have described the center’s outdoor space?
It was not very inviting. I remember my first time there I was, like, “Where’s the entrance gate?”

How did the volunteer design team engage the community in the design process?
We had meetings periodically with the community where we presented our progress and got their feedback on design options. Those meetings were really exciting to me. They got the community so excited too.

The community wanted the outdoor space at the center to be accessible to all age groups. In the final design, we had turf and a playground for the kids. But then we also had all-age swings and bocce ball. So, really it is going to be for everyone, the upgrade, it wasn’t just for the kids.

The design team kept the design within reach, you know, achievable. One thing that we had to factor into the design was a bocce court that the center had just built. So, we added some new lights and seating around it.

"The community wanted the outdoor space at the center to be accessible to all age groups."

What would you say was the most rewarding aspect of the project?
It was definitely the community, seeing their excitement about what could be there.

How did your work on East Passyunk project differ from your day-to-day work?
The East Passyunk project gave me a new type of experience. It was more of a revitalization of the landscaping and more exterior work versus a new or renovated building. I had to look into some new ideas or do work that we don’t do every day.

How was the Collaborative helpful to the team?
The Collaborative’s design reviews [peer reviews by design professionals at the midpoint and end of the project] were full of feedback for us and pointed out things that we would have missed on our own.  And you know, it was helpful being able to do like a test trial before presenting our work to the community.

What role do you see for design in revitalizing communities?
 I think the process that we went through and having those community meetings [helped] people get excited about what their space could actually be. It inspired them to want to raise money and go forward with the work because they could see how much it would benefit the community. 

"The process that we went through helped people get excited about what their space could actually be... and how much it would benefit the community."

The goal is to make the center's outdoor space more inclusive and interactive


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