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One of the challenges in choosing an older house is predicting the future course of the neighborhood. It doesn't matter who lives there; what matters is having a committed community organization willing to tackle the issues, big and small.

One big issue is how the neighborhood will look. If it's an area that's regarded as ripe for development, will it be high-rise or low-rise? Who will determine what amenities are included? Will the needs of the existing population be taken into account?

If you live in Baltimore or two dozen other cities across the country, some of those decisions may be made in conjunction with an organization like the Neighborhood Design Center.

The center is a non-profit organization of engineers, architects, landscape architects, interior designers and other professionals who donate time and services so concerned community groups who don't have a lot of money can get design advice and project planning help.

"Our projects have to benefit low- and moderate-income people," says Ellen Casale, executive director of Baltimore's Neighborhood Design Center.

Occasionally, she says, the group will tackle a project that benefits the wider community; as an example she mentions the old propeller factory on Key Highway, a waterfront site where the neighborhood is "by no means low-income," but the site itself is considered important in the fabric of the city.

Suitability is a key issue, whatever the project. "We don't want a high-rise or a density that doesn't complement the neighborhood."

Another project involved design studies for the former American Can location in Canton. There the community's aspirations for an old factory site -- which include retail space, parking and senior housing, all while preserving a number of the old structures -- could be at odds with developers'.

The design center came up with three different plans; the community group, the Waterfront Coalition, is now working with a private firm to develop the site.

tTC "The whole point is to provide excellent design that is economically viable," Ms. Casale says.

Applicants for design center services come from community groups, nonprofit organizations or public agencies.

"Nearly all the work is done by people who donate their time. . . . What we do here is manage their services. We look at a project to see what kind of expertise is needed, identify people with that kind of expertise, and then we'll manage the project."

The center has one full-time and three part-time staff members, and a roster of about 280 active volunteers. Unlike virtually all the other centers, the Baltimore group is not affiliated with a school of architecture -- the whole volume of projects (35 currently under way) is handled with pro bono labor.

"Working for the design center lets them do things that they don't have an opportunity to do in the course of their work," Ms. Casale says. "It exposes them to neighborhoods and people they wouldn't have an opportunity to meet otherwise. It gives them a chance to apply their talent to something that is beneficial to the community."

Buying a house is a big investment that's better protected if you buy into the surrounding community.

Ms. Casale attributes the high level of volunteerism in Baltimore largely to neighborhood support. "That community involvement

is fabulous," she says.

Next: Answers to reader questions.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.

Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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