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Sara Nordstrom and Jason Chmura of KSS.
Michael Persico

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At KSS Architects, a philanthropic mindset informs sustainable design

From industrial vertical farms and co-working complexes to mixed-use developments for low-income communities

Princeton and Philadelphia-based firm KSS Architects works on a wide range of projects, from industrial vertical farms and co-working complexes for entrepreneurs to mixed-use developments for low-income communities and arts centers for universities.

But whatever the project, KSS puts the focus on human relationships and building community— a mindset that merges seamlessly with the firm’s philanthropic work, creating a culture where helping the community isn’t required, but it’s basically automatic.

Two of KSS’s leaders here are Jason Chmura and Sara Nordstrom, both 34. “It was one of the reasons I came to the firm,” says Chmura of KSS’s spirit of giving back. “Most of the people in the firm do something that is philanthropic or volunteer.”

Sara Nordstrom.
Michael Persico
Jason Chmura.
Michael Persico

“It’s part of our thinking,” adds Nordstrom, whose heroes include architects famous for their humanitarian buildings, like Cameron Sinclair and Shigeru Ban. She readily calls herself “earnest,” and says she applies a “human rights framework” to all of her projects. It’s a sentiment echoed by principal Ed Klimek: “There’s so much more we can do in the design professions.”

Nordstrom, who designed a 15,000-square-foot sustainable elementary school for an under-resourced community in Guatemala before joining the firm, recently worked with the Community Design Collaborative, a group that provides design consulting to local non-profits, to program The Attic Youth Center, a new LGBTQ community center in Philadelphia. She’s a former board member of Historic Green, which transforms under-resourced communities through heritage conservation and sustainable design.

Chmura studied architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (as did Nordstrom), and won the AIA-NJ Young Architect of the Year award in 2014. He volunteered with the Asbury Park Arts Coalition, helping shepherd public murals, organize arts crawls, and identify potential artist live/work developments. He’s also worked on low-income apartment renovations, charter schools, and several other community-related projects with KSS.

Klimek, 52, says the firm “brings an understanding of how to create healthy, human design for any type of environment.” KSS combines its varied expertise with its background in urban planning, revitalizing troubled areas, and creating innovative changes.

Eden Autism Services.
Photo courtesy KSS Architects

A few examples: In Newark, KSS is helping design several buildings for Teachers Village, a Richard Meier-planned, mixed-use development transforming 12 city blocks with new charter schools, retail, and housing for teachers who had formerly been strapped with long commutes and limited residential options. In Princeton, they developed a new campus for Eden Autism Services, bringing the nonprofit away from a busy, faceless setting into Princeton Forrestal Village, a mixed-use development with shops, restaurants, offices, and housing. And they partnered with the Chester (PA) Community Grocery Coop (CCGC) to integrate its renovated building and site into the local retail fabric through new signage, facade repair, a new roof canopy, and a large south window that connects the selling of fresh produce with the growing of that produce on an adjacent site.

Escuela-Kemna’Oj, an elementary school in Guatemala designed by Nordstrom.
Photo courtesy KSS Architects

Sustainability is integral to many of these projects, and Chmura and Nordstrom are leaders of the firm’s Sustainable Design Practice Group, which keeps KSS’s staff up to date on advances in sustainability through literature, seminars, and LEED consulting. “Things move fast, and we try to keep everyone on top of what’s happening,” says Nordstrom, whose school in Guatemala includes a rainwater collection and greywater recycling system that will meet over 85 percent of the school’s water demand.

Rendering of AeroFarms’s under construction indoor vertical farm.
Photo courtesy KSS Architects

In Newark, (where KSS has more work than anywhere), Chmura is part of the team working on the world’s largest indoor vertical farm for AeroFarms, and in Burlington, New Jersey, Nordstrom helped design a new headquarters for Burlington Stores that features high-efficiency mechanical systems and lighting in order to perform at least 15 percent better than the energy code requires. The site merges a modern corporate campus and lively, open upstairs workspaces with a retail-like ground floor where vendors and buyers can come together in a sort of open-air market, with exposed trusses and a huge glass curtain wall.

Michael Persico

KSS’s diverse portfolio gives the firm, and its architects, an ability to innovate by creating intersections between various industries and building types. “The lines have blurred,” says Klimek. “You can bridge the divides between different types of clients and produce projects that make sense to both.”

Typologies merge with each other, and buildings become self-contained cities while also merging with neighborhoods and landscapes—a reality that fits perfectly within KSS’s drive to “reimagine what places can be.”

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