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A conversation with: Vern McKissick III

Vern McKissick, 56, has been involved in midstate architecture and planning for more than 30 years. His specialty is educational buildings and historic preservation. His firm, McKissick Associates, is currently renovating of the former Central Junior High School in Chambersburg, turning it into living and future commercial space. 

McKissick received his bachelor’s degree in architecture and his master’s degree in construction management from Penn State University. He is LEED and AIA certified.

He and his wife, along with their 170 lb. mastiff, live in Harrisburg.

Q: What is the latest on the Rose Rent Lofts project in Chambersburg?

A: We’re entering the home stretch. It’s been a long road since the first time we looked at the building in the mid-aughts, for a developer who was looking to convert it into low-income housing units. It took us a while to get control of the property, but once we did, we started a three-phase process. The first phase was the removal of 48,000 square feet of the building, stabilizing the site, environmental cleanup and so on that happens with old buildings. The second phase, which is what we’re finishing now, is the lofts, which will have 28 living units. We’re expecting to be moving folks in in April. With IceFest, we have 200 slots for tours and we have 104 signed up already, so that will be the first chance we’ve had to bring a lot of folks in to see what’s happening. 

It has a very strong historic bent but with a bit of modern, it will have all the amenities, from dog washes to Wi-Fi, all the things people expect. Then we’ll be flipping over later in the spring to get moving on the third phase, which is the old front portion, the gym and auditorium, which we’ll be giving different upgrades to make commercial space, retail areas and probably some more living units. Hopefully that will wrap up about a year from now. For my wife and I, we’re owning the project ourselves, not only designing and developing it, so we’re pretty excited.

Q: Why is educational facilities planning a specialty of yours?

A: My father was a school superintendent and my mother was an art teacher. I grew up with education in my veins. We’d sit around the breakfast table and talk about school board politics and the legalities of running school districts. Somehow I ended up at Penn State, working for an architect who was starting to do school projects, and one thing just led to another. That’s been the major thrust for me over the years, and I’ve gotten certified as an educational planner. We do a lot of the upfront stuff, when you’re trying to decide what a school wants to be and how it can be configured and take it over to the reality of the building. But schools, they’re just something that runs in the blood.

Q: As a LEED accredited professional, how do you determine just how much “green” works in a project?

A: We’ll sometimes call it shades of green, how dark a green is your project going to be? One of the first LEED projects we did was one of the first in the city of Harrisburg. St. Stephen’s School had a 1921 parking garage with a vehicle elevator. They were trying to grow the school and they were very interested in green, so we ended up taking that to a LEED silver building. Not a square foot of new construction, it was all repurposing. You don’t have to build new to be green, in fact, some of the greenest buildings are the ones already standing because of the embodied energy that goes into cutting down the trees that made the building and baking the bricks or making the concrete, and then the energy it took for the people to make their breakfast to go to work to build that building. If you turn around and demolish it, then you have to spend the energy again to make the products to make a new building. It just comes back to what makes sense for a particular project.

Q: What are you most looking forward to in the coming year?

A: Besides bringing Rose Rent online, we’re currently in the planning stages on an 1880s roller mill in central Virginia and bringing it back to life. We’ve found another community with another building that’s connected to its heart. That’s what’s got me juiced up for 2020.