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Architecture


Tetris on the side of a skyscraper? Why not, it's the future

What does it look like when one of Philadelphia's most prominent skyscrapers becomes a giant Tetris game board?

It looks awesome, that's what.


Photo by Bradley Maule for PhillySkyline.com.

Last Saturday, organizers for Philly Tech Week temporarily turned the 29-story Cira Centre into a huge game of Tetris. And it wasn't just for looks. Actual people played actual games, with the whole city looking on.

Meanwhile, construction is wrapping up on the DC region's new tallest skyscraper. Just sayin'.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Architecture


How much will the Eisenhower memorial cost?

How much would Frank Gehry's design for the Eisenhower Memorial cost? A lot, but not more than other similar memorials if you adjust for the rising cost of construction.


The Eisenhower Memorial. Image from NCPC.

At the recent National Capital Planning Commission meeting, the memorial's executive architect, Daniel Feil, stated that the hard costs, including parts and labor, of their design, include the metal tapestries which NCPC disapproved, would be $65-75 million.

Including "soft costs" for items such as construction overhead, insurance, and payments to DDOT for lost parking meter revenue, the budget will likely be about just shy of $100 million, according to the memorial's 2015 Budget Justification document.

There is no evidence for wild cost escalation. The competition announcement expected $55-75M in hard costs, and the announcement of the finalists listed $100M in total cost. The $144M figure that pops up is the expected expenditure of the entire Memorial Commission, 2009-2017.

How does that stack up against other memorials?

Critics have highlighted the cost and size of the memorial relative to comparable projects. Certainly the size can be debated. In fact, the most frequent criticism from the Commission of Fine Arts is that the site is too large, irrespective of the architect.

However, many critics use the wrong price index and don't account for the decreasing availability of highly skilled craftsmen over the years.

Most people know the Consumer Price Index (CPI) as a tool to calculate inflation. CPI follows the prices in a "basket" of consumer goods, but doesn't reflect construction materials. Construction, like all industries where labor can't be outsourced or automated, has seen inflation rise much faster than CPI.

There are, however, construction-specific price indices that calculate costs using a basket of construction goods. The most well-regarded is the Construction Costs Index, published by Engineering News-Record. If we use CCI to compare total cost of construction for major memorials nearby, the results are surprising.

Hist. CostYearIndexCCI estimateCPI estimate
Grant$250,0001922174$13,900,000$3,480,000
Lincoln$3,000,0001922174$167,300,000$40,500,000
Jefferson$3,000,0001943290$100,400,000$39,900,000
T. Roosevelt$1,400,00019671,074$12,600,000$9,800,000
Vietnam$8,400,00019823,825$21,300,000$19,500,000
Korea$18,000,00019955,432$32,100,000$24,900,000
FDR$52,000,00019975,860$86,000,000$74,500,000
WWII$182,000,00020047,109$248,400,000$221,400,000
Pentagon$22,000,00020088,185$26,100,000$23,900,000
MLK$120,000,00020119,053$128,600,000$122,600,000
Eisenhower$99,000,00020179,702$99,000,000$99,000,000
Click on a column header to sort.

In this light, the memorial is within the cost range of similar memorials. These costs don't even take into account major changes in financing, liability, or code requirements. Furthermore, the basket of goods in the CCI reflects material and labor costs for basics like wood, concrete, and steel. It does not include the high-grade finishes and highly-specialized skills required for stonework and bronze.

Where's the money going?

The Memorial Commission declined to provide a detailed cost breakdown, but Daniel Feil said at the meeting that one-third of the memorial's cost is reconstructing the ground. The site currently has a few grass patches and a plaza split by a road. The soils are compacted and a number of utilities run through the site.

In order to bring the soil up to National Park Service's standards for the National Mall, the design relocates utility lines and replaces the first five feet of soil.


Memorial site conditions and utilities. Eisenhower Memorial Commission / Gensler

Often, the most mundane elements of a design are the most costly. As seen in the cost of underground parking, excavation is very expensive and landscaping isn't much cheaper. Any memorial that occupies the right-of-way also requires relocating utilities to construct foundations or avoid ripping up the ground to repair utilities.

Is the cost fair?

As a number of critics have noted, recent memorials have become larger and more landscaped. Kirk Savage, author of Monument Wars, ties this to a greater emphasis on personal experience in a memorial, beginning with the McMillan Plan and escalating with Vietnam and FDR.

At the same time, the construction industry faces very serious problems with its costs. It is one of the few industries to become less efficient since 1970. How they'll reverse this trend is a billion-dollar question.

Both of these issues will remain big problems for our memorial landscape, and continue to dog the Eisenhower Memorial, however it gets built.

Architecture


NCPC sends Eisenhower Memorial design back for changes

After a five-hour hearing yesterday, the National Capital Planning Commission decided not to approve the current design for the Eisenhower Memorial. Although the commissioners praised various elements of the design, they found that the size and location of the 80-foot metal tapestries unacceptably disrupted key viewsheds and divided the site too starkly.


Sightlines through the model. All images from Gehry Partners/AECOM.

The "disapproval" does not mean a restart. Congressman Darrell Issa, who holds a seat on the commission as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, made a rare personal appearance. (NCPC formally includes multiple Congressional chairmen and Cabinet secretaries, but most of the time, staff from those committees and agencies actually go to the meeting.)

Issa pushed for NCPC to have the design team back every other month until they get the memorial approved, a motion which passed 7 to 3. Issa explicitly emphasized that the decision today was not a rejection.

NCPC voted to accept the staff's recommendations, meaning their interpretations of the design principles are no longer up for debate. The memorial cannot visually disrupt the 160-foot Maryland Avenue right of way. Any structures must be 50 feet or more from Independence Avenue. And the design can't divide the space into multiple precincts.

On the other hand, NCPC rejected calls from the Committee of 100 to retain the vehicular roadway on Maryland Avenue as a twin of Pennsylvania Avenue. The memorial will cut off one block of Maryland Avenue. It's not clear if the staff's strict interpretation of the L'Enfant Plan viewshed applies to other projects, such as the DC streetcar.


Partial view of the memorial core. "Presidency" tablet at left, Young Eisenhower at right.

Public and commissioners had many objections

Just over half of the public comments disapproved of some aspect of the design, for different reasons. Robert Miller, a mayoral appointee One of the commissioners said he didn't care about the intrusion to Independence Avenue, but cared a great deal about how the memorial intruded into the Maryland Avenue viewshed.

John Hart, the presidential appointee from Maryland, said he admired the tapestries, but found the size of the columns unacceptable. Issa felt that without representations of Eisenhower's life, the tapestries lost their original appeal. He and Department of Defense representative Bradley Provancha asked for more content about Eisenhower's domestic achievements.

The commissioners that have already worked on the project, the National Park Service's Peter May and Mina Wright from the General Services Administration, were its principal defenders. They challenged the process, the interpretation of the design principles, and political involvement. NPS is set to own the memorial, while GSA will manage the construction.

May and Wright both spoke out about the many erroneous claims made during testimony, for and against. Wright specifically asked the EMC staff architect to correct some facts. Peter May said that if the accusations of flimsiness about the tapestries were true, the Park Service would not have approved the memorial.

In the strangest moment of the day, Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock eloquently condemned a version of the memorial that has been obsolete since at least May 2013.

What happens next?

There is no doubt that the tapestries, as we've seen them so far, will not reappear. They may shrink, or they may disappear, leaving the memorial core as the most prominent element. I think that the core tableau has become the strongest element of the design, and can survive the loss of the tapestries.

There is also a strong possibility that architect Frank Gehry will walk off the project. That does not necessarily mean that the current scheme will leave with him. Under the contract, the Memorial Commission owns the design, which is 95% complete. Given the political climate at the NCPC meeting, if the architect left, it's likely they would continue to alter the design without Gehry Partners.

Taking control of the design away from the designer has a long history in Washington. The most notable example is right across the street. The National Museum of the American Indian fired architect Douglas Cardinal in a financial dispute, but the final design is clearly his.

The final possibility is that the memorial commission will scrap the design. Longtime critics of the memorial have proposed selecting a new designer in a competition. Given the repeated insistence that the design process end soon, it seems unlikely enough people would be willing to risk another extended design process.

Long processes are not uncommon to the history of memorial designs. The FDR memorial went through four years of design review, just to wait 17 years for funding. The challenge will be trying to find conceptual clarity and design integrity amid the increasingly complex pressure.

Correction: Robert Miller has posted a comment saying he was not the one who worried about the Maryland Avenue viewshed; his main objection is with the columns. We have removed Miller's name from that comment in the article.

Public Spaces


The Eisenhower Memorial is moving forward, but metal tapestries might get in the way of the view

A proposed memorial to President Eisenhower in Southwest DC keeps trudging through the federal approvals process, even as it's surrounded by controversy. But federal planners want some changes, especially to the way the memorial affects views of the Capitol.


The Eisenhower Memorial from Independence Avenue, SW. All images from Gehry Partners/AECOM.

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) will review the project at its meeting Thursday. NCPC doesn't decide whether the memorial is aesthetically good enough; that job lies with the Commission on Fine Arts. But it will consider whether the design meets various technical requirements, complies with federal laws on memorials, and most of all how it fits into the commission's interpretation of the L'Enfant Plan.

The NCPC staff recommendation carries a lot of weight with the commission board, which will make the decision. The big news in the report was that repeated tests found that the 80-foot-tall stainless steel tapestries, which are a major (and very controversial) part of the design, dramatically exceeded durability requirements.

The National Park Service also found that the memorial's maintenance costs would be about the same as those of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and less than half of the World War II Memorial's.


A 2014 plan drawing of the memorial square.

The report says that the current design meets 4 of the 7 principles NCPC set down for the memorial in 2006: It creates a green space, respects the surrounding architecture, helps to restore Maryland Avenue, and creates a unique commemorative space.

However, the staff had some objections about how the tapestries affect the monumental openness the NCPC sees in the L'Enfant Plan. Other concerns revolved around lighting and pedestrian circulation.

The design of the memorial has changed considerably over the past four years. Critics have portrayed Frank Gehry's attitude as inflexible, but the NCPC submission package shows a dizzying number of alternatives and tweaks. Documents given to the CFA show even more.

In the wake of a bitter conflict with President Eisenhower's grandchildren, Gehry added larger-than-life statues in front of the bas reliefs, adjacent to a life-size statue of teenaged Eisenhower. These changes rightly put more emphasis on Eisenhower's accomplishments.

Officials wanted to be sure the tapestries would survive exposure to the elements over a long period of time. Independent studies tested tapestry elements' resistance to corrosion, impact, and fatigue. The corrosion tests subjected the tapestry to water, salt, soot, and sulfur dioxide, simulating acidic pollution that causes damage to the stone and bronze typical of DC's monuments.


The side tapestries serve as gateways to the memorial complex.

Using the stainless steel alloy that the fabricator has chosen, 317L, there was almost no corrosion, and welds held 5 times the expected load even after a thousand-hour salt water shower. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the Department of Defense, and the Smithsonian Institution concluded that the tests met their standards.

The Park Service also dismissed concerns from opponents that trash would accumulate; the largest concern seems to be that the designers did not pay enough attention to the effects of bird poop.

Viewsheds strike again

However sturdy, the tapestries infringe on the Maryland and Independence Avenue rights-of-way, the NCPC staff report argues, and diminish the significance of the surrounding buildings in making an urban space.


A model shot of sightlines through the 2013 version.

The report finds that the tapestries and columns change the view towards the Capitol significantly, specifically narrowing it from the full 160-foot right-of-way to a 95-foot gap. The Gehry team argues that the rules permit artworks like the tapestries to occupy the right-of-way, but not a 50' gap at the center called the cartway. The designers say that the tapestries frame the view of the Capitol Dome, bringing more attention to it.

NCPC staff agree in principle, but say the 10' diameter, 80' tall columns and semi-opaque screens impact the view enough to violate this rule. Moreover, they say this approach contradicts L'Enfant's vision for wide-open monumental avenues.


A comparison of setbacks and the outboard column.

Similarly, the NCPC report found that one column along Independence Avenue extends past a 50-foot setback line matching the adjacent Wilbur Wright (FAA) and Wilbur Cohen (SSA) buildings. The design team argues that since setbacks on Independence Avenue range from 24' to 133', NCPC's choice to use directly adjacent buildings is arbitrary.


Streetwalls along Independence and Constitution.

Finally, the report finds that the way the tapestries create a semi-transparent precinct within the existing building fabric overshadows the existing buildings, particularly the LBJ Department of Education building. The bottom third of the tapestries would be almost solid, the middle section would be around half solid, and the top, around 20%. The report deems this level of density to be too high to respect the architecture of the building behind it.


Rendering from Reservation 113, showing the impact of the tapestries.

I understand the concerns of the NCPC staff. The L'Enfant Plan is a landmark that deserves respect. However, compared to the rigor of the technical analysis, the justifications for the principles are a little thin.

Unoccupiable columns are not buildings. Semi-transparent screens are not simply walls. The reciprocal views aren't ruined on Maryland Avenue. Screening a background isn't the same as blacking it out. Using the unremarkable, objectlike Wilbur Wright Building to establish a 50' setback needs more justification than what's in the report, particularly since NCPC violated its own height rules to approve the MLK memorial.

Conceptually, treating the 160-foot corridor as the total viewshed turns it into a beautiful abstraction unmoored from the experience of people actually there. It defers too much to the beautiful emptiness that's great for looking at but not so good for daily life.

There's already a stately, monumental avenue across the Mall. The Eisenhower Memorial offers a future for Maryland Avenue that preserves the key view while putting pedestrians first.


The LBJ Promenade, showing potential uses.

The memorial's most underappreciated aspect is the proposed LBJ Promenade, a street-sized walkway framed by the Education building and the tapestries. Meant to make more of pedestrian connection than is currently there, that kind of dense space is what a live-work Southwest needs. The NCPC may still find fault with the position of the tapestries, but I'd be more persuaded by their reasoning if they emphasized the tidiness and monumental emptiness less for this site.

The Eisenhower Memorial still has a long way to go before a shovel hits the ground. The agencies with power to approve or halt the memorial have very different opinions. The Commission of Fine Arts likes how the tapestries frame the view to the Capitol, but a few members question their ability to enclose the space. A Congressional committee has proposed stripping funding from the memorial for the year, but that might change if NCPC approves the design. There is a lot of uncertainty at this time.

At the same time, the team has met many of the objections from the Eisenhower grandchildren. The technical evaluations of the memorial have been promising. The doubt in my mind has been eroding. It's too early to count the memorial out.


A tapestry, the east path, and the presidential tableau.

Links


Breakfast links: Is the bar tender here?


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.
This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Termites: the new face of gentrification?: Angry neighbors in Woodley Park argued with zoo keepers at a public meeting last night, saying that the African Termite mound at the zoo's new insect exhibit is taller than what existing zoning allows.

Silver line encounters another setback: Officials have discovered that the Silver Line does not meet the current Virginia fire code and construction will have to start over from scratch. A MWAA spokesperson says the estimated opening is now the year 2525, "if man is still alive."

A religious need for speed?: One motorist sect seeks a religious exemption from traffic laws. The Supreme Court will hear a case that followers of the Futurist Manifesto, who must "sing the beauty of danger" and exalt the "roaring motor-car which seems to run on machine-gun fire," are unfairly burdened.

If this bus is rockin' then it's probably full of passengers: The DC Commission on Human Rights has officially ruled in favor of recommending changing the name of WMATA's H8 bus line to something more friendly like L0V.

Streetcar opponents agree: Skeptics of the Columbia Pike streetcar had asked for a new study comparing the return on investment of streetcars versus enhanced bus on Columbia Pike. When the study, tailored to their specific requests, showed huge benefits to streetcars, at least two skeptics admitted they were wrong.

Takoma Park residents discover station: Some in Takoma Park were surprised to find out that adjacent to the Takoma Green, a park mostly made up of asphalt with some trees around the edge, there is also a Metrorail station. One surprised resident said, "Now I can tell my neighbors they can take the train when I see them walking on the sidewalk while I'm driving to my job near Union Station."

What rhymes with "No Parking"?: A new developer has joined the ongoing debate on the controversial parking lane on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, submitting a plan to redevelop the road into a 35-yard hopscotch course. Proponents who want to see the lane kept for parking are, naturally, hopping mad.

DC to hold election: The District of Columbia will select nominees for mayor, DC Council, and federal races today, over 7 months before the general election and 9 months before any new winners would take office. If Mayor Gray does not win renomination, the DC government may achieve absolutely nothing of note for ¾ of a year while staff have no idea who will run their agency come 2015.

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.

Preservation


To preserve or redevelop? One man will soon decide for a key Anacostia site

DC's housing agency wants to develop a long-vacant site in Anacostia with affordable housing and retail, but residents and the city's preservation officials say it is incompatible with the neighborhood. The choice between the two hangs on one last appeal.


Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

The city's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has owned the "Big K" site on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue since 2010. It includes the abandoned former "Big K" liquor store and two historic, yet blighted, houses next door.

DHCD has been working with the Chapman Development company to plan an affordable apartment building on the land. Chapman wants to demolish the liquor store, built in 1906 but just outside the Anacostia Historic District, and move the two houses to a nearby city lot where the former Unity Healthcare Clinic has sat vacant for nearly two years. Chapman would pay for the relocation, while DHCD would renovate the homes with a fund of $750,000.

Chapman also plans to acquire the adjacent Astro Motors to assemble the entire Big K site and build a building of 114 apartments over a retail ground floor. The apartments would be affordable housing for people making 60% of Area Median Income, or about $58,000 for a family of 3. The original proposal was 6 stories and 141 units, but Chapman shrank the project in response to community pushback.


Rendering of the original, larger proposal.

The revised version maxes out at 5 stories, but each of the upper two stories would be set back so they do not occupy the whole footprint of the parcel, forming an "E-shaped building" as seen from Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. DHCD would transfer its ownership of the Big K lot to Chapman for $1, while low-income tax credits and government transfer rent payments would help finance the building.


Top: Elevation of the original proposal. Bottom: The new proposal. Renderings from a community presentation by the development team.

However, at community meetings about the project, residents have opposed the plan. They do not want to see so much new affordable housing, saying that Anacostia already has more than its fair share. Others said that the building's scale is incompatible with the historic district, which mostly comprises lower and smaller buildings.

Residents also opposed the name Cedar Hill Flats. Cedar Hill is the name for the home of legendary civil rights activist Frederick Douglass, and community members wanted to keep that name linked solely with Douglass. Chapman has agreed not to use the name.

The Historic Preservation Review Board "denied the concept for new construction as incompatible with the character of the historic district because it is too large in height and extent relative to the historic buildings in the commercial corridor and out of scale with the historic district" in October. Then, at the end of February, Chapman brought its revised, shorter version to HPRB, which again denied the application:

It is too tall relative to the district's historic buildings and too extensive, to occupy half the square and crowd the narrow sidewalk. It would also destroy the unusual topography of the site. ... The Board recommended that a permit not be issued to move 2234 and 2252 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue because the move would diminish the buildings' integrity and harm the character of this corner of the historic district, and because the houses could be rehabilitated and reused in place.
The preservation staff and board were also skeptical that the $750,000 earmark would be enough to properly relocate the homes without damaging them.

Project goes to the Mayor's Agent

HPRB's charge is only to look at the historic preservation issues in an application. But when a property owner believes the "special merit" or public interest value of a project should outweigh historic concerns (or if there is a financial hardship involved), there is an appeals process to an officer known as the Mayor's Agent. Currently, that agent is J. Peter Byrne, a Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Chapman has appealed to the Mayor's Agent. At a hearing yet to be scheduled, Byrne will review the application to move and rehabilitate the two houses and, will consider the purposes and benefits of the entire Big K project. DHCD and Chapman Development will likely argue the "special merit" of different components of the project, its amenities, and talk about how they help achieve objectives in DC's Comprehensive Plan.

At February's HPRB hearing, staff from DHCD, including Director Michael Kelly, Chapman Development and a consultant from Streetsense, argued that economic development was a key component of the project. Although members of HPRB contended that economic development was not under their purview, it is possible that argument will meet the special merit standard for the Mayor's Agent to rule in favor of the project.

After four long years of debate, the long path for Anacostia's most infamous vacant property may finally be coming to an endor if this proposal fails, could continue for years more to come.

Government


In the planning process, social media talk is often cheap

People who testify at long public hearings or write letters aren't the only ones with opinions about important planning issues. A lot of conversation happens online, on Twitter and blogs, but commissions that make decisions often don't see or consider this kind of public opinion. How can the old, formal processes mesh with new ways of communicating?

Last summer, the National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning analyzed the District's height limits in a report requested by Congress. Residents joined in a spirited conversation, not only about the shape and form of the nation's capital, but also about the future of our city.

District residents, local stakeholders, and citizens across the nation voiced strong opinions on both sides of the issue. I was responsible for designing NCPC's process for engaging with residents and stakeholders, and reviewing their feedback. I found a big divide between those who participated online versus in person.

Those who attended public meetings, submitted letters, or delivered testimony generally opposed changes to the federal law. Meanwhile, those who spoke up on social media like Twitter and blogs such as this one were more open to exploring opportunities for strategic changes.

However, at the end of the day, only comments we received through the NCPC website or in person at hearings could shape our work as planners and be passed along to members of the Commission to inform their decisions. The people who spoke up online, other than through the project's website, weren't part of the formal process and didn't get the same weight.

Feedback on building height is just one example of how new methods of communication are revolutionizing how people engage with plans and projects. How can planners better respond to and incorporate all the public's opinions? What we can do to make it easier for you to get your opinions in the places where it will count?

Discuss this online or in person on April 9


Image from NCPC.
We will discuss this issue further at a panel on April 9, "Talk vs. Action: Making Your Opinion Count" at NCPC's offices, 401 9th Street NW, Suite 500. I will moderate a discussion about how new forms of communication and public engagement are trans­forming the public process and decision-making.

Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert is on the panel, as are Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Don Edwards of Justice and Sustainability Associates, and NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood.

We will talk about questions like:

  • How can public agencies and other organizations reach out to bridge the communication gap?
  • Should online commenters be encouraged to use traditional, tested approaches?
  • Should organizations formally consider feedback presented through informal channels?
  • Are there new or better ways to foster conversations amongst these different audiences?
I want this program to reflect you. Send in your thoughts, opinions, and questions by posting them to the comment section below. I will keep an eye on this post and incorporate what you have to say into the program. Also, you can tweet your thoughts to me @NCPCgov, using hashtag #SpeakerSeries.

And, I hope that you will show up to the program. The NCPC Speaker Series is free and open to the public - just let us know you are coming with an RSVP.

We have also created a short promo video:

History


Here's where they cleaned the streets in 1898

In 1898, streets in downtown DC got cleaned by hand every day, while many streets in Logan Circle, Capitol Hill, and what's now NoMA got cleaned 3 times a week.

Georgetown BID head Joe Sternlieb has this old map hanging in his office. It shows the street cleaning system for the "City of Washington," which at the time was distinct from though by 1898, there wasn't still a formal distinction between the city and the surrounding Washington County that had made up the rest of the District.

The city did "daily hand cleaning" of roads for a few blocks around the White House, while downtown roads got "daily hand cleaning under contract." Other streets got "machine cleaning" 3, 2, or 1 time per week.

Today, many of the BIDs do have people doing some form of daily cleaning, such as picking up trash, while city cleaning is at most once a week. But probably the street sweeping trucks are more sophisticated today.

Oh, and there were public dumps ringing the city, along Rock Creek, in Columbia Heights, Near Northeast and along the Anacostia. Some of those sites seem to be on the grounds of schools today (such as Francis-Stevens and Meyer), while it looks like the one to the northeast of the city is where the NoMA Harris Teeter is today.

What do you notice?

Architecture


A hidden height limit holds back affordable mid-rise construction in DC

In "The Three Little Pigs," one pig builds a house from straw, a second from sticks, and a third from bricks, with very different consequences. Notably absent is any mention of each little pig's construction budget. For humans today, it's not protection from wolves, but out-of-control budgets that determine our choices of building materials.


New residential construction in Takoma. Photo by the author.

The 1899 Height Act set a construction limit of 90 feet in much of DC, effectively 7 or 8 stories. This height poses a particularly vexing cost conundrum for developers seeking to build workforce housing in DC's neighborhoods. It's just beyond one of the key cost thresholds in development, between buildings supported with light frames versus heavy frames.

Fire safety codes require that buildings over 6 stories have heavy frames, but rents in most of the city don't quite justify the considerable added cost. Instead, valuable land near downtown sits empty, outlying areas that could support taller buildings instead get low­-rise buildings, and the city gets fewer new housing units. New construction techniques could offer a way out.

The difference between heavy and light frames

Heavy frames rely on fewer but stronger steel or reinforced concrete columns to hold up the building, and are better known as Type I fireproof structures. Light frames rely on many small columns (usually known as studs), and are usually referred to as Type II (if masonry or metal) or if wood, Type III (with fire resistive treatments), Type IV (if made from heavy beams), or Type V (if little fire-proofing has been applied) construction.


Left: Type I: 1100 1st St. NE in NoMa. Right: Type III: Apartments in Fort Totten. Photos by Mr.T in DC on Flickr.

These structural types are rated using the degree of fire protection that these structures offer, with lower numbers denoting more fire-resistant structures. In DC, they're defined in the city's building code, which is based on an international standardthe International Code Council (ICC) and its "I-Codes."

The ICC's Table 503 sets limits on how high different types of buildings can be. Thanks to technological improvements to wood and fire safety improvements to buildings, mid-rise buildings can be built up to five floors high using Type III construction. These five floors can, in turn, be placed atop a one-story concrete podium to build a six-story mixed-use building.

How much cheaper?

Light frame construction cuts costs in two principal ways. Light frames use fewer materials in the first place and thus have smaller ecological footprints, particularly since cement manufacturing is one of the most carbon-intensive industries.

They are also built from standardized parts that are usually finished off-site, rather than on-site, so materials are cheaper, on-site storage and staging (e.g., cement mixers) require less space, and construction is faster. That further reduces overall construction costs, since developers pay steep interest rates on construction loans.

These cost savings really add up throughout the entire building. The ICC's Building Value Data provides a comparison of national average per-square-foot construction costs for different kinds of multi-family building construction.

$104.74Type VLow-rise wood frame
$119.77Type IIIMid-rise wood frame, fire-resistant walls
$139.01Type IIMid-rise, light-gauge steel
$150.25Type IHigh-rise fireproof

Similarly, the RS Means construction cost-estimator database provides 2012 estimates (adjusted for local prices in DC) that show an even steeper premium for high-rise construction:

$136.70Type VLow-rise wood frame, 3 stories
$162.87Type IIMid-rise, light-gauge steel & block, 6 stories
$246.32Type IHigh-rise fireproof, 15 stories

As the ICC figures show, switching from Type III to Type I construction increases the cost of every square foot by 25.4%. Thus going from, say, a six-story building to seven stories only increases the available square footage by 16.7%, but increases construction costs by 46.3%. This results in a difficult choice: go higher for more square feet but at a higher price point, or take the opportunity cost, go lower, and get a cheaper, faster building?

In most other cities, the obvious solution is to go ever higher. Once a building crosses into high-rise construction, the sky's ostensibly the limit. In theory, density can be increased until the additional space brings in enough revenue to more than offset the higher costs. As Linsey Isaacs writes in Multifamily Executive: "Let's say you have a property on an urban infill site that costs $100 per square foot of land. Wood may cost 10 percent less than its counterpart materials, but by doing a high-rise on the site, you get double the density and the land cost is cut in half."

Yet here in DC, the 90-foot height limit on residential areas, and commercial streets outside the core, tightly caps the additional building area that could pay for the substantial cost premium of building a high-rise.

Within the twilight zone

For many areas in DC, land is expensive enough to fall into a Twilight Zone. These areas are expensive enough to require high-rise densities, but the local rents are too cheap to justify high rises' high per-foot construction prices.

These areas are not super-trendy like 1st Street NE in NoMa or 14th Street NW in Logan Circle, which are seeing an explosion of Type I construction (and prices to match, with new apartment buildings selling for $900 per square foot). Nor are they outlying areas, where developers think the opportunity cost of forgoing a future high-rise is acceptable and thus proceed with Type III construction.

The recent apartment boom has given local residents a good, long look at Type III construction: in outlying city neighborhoods like Brookland, Fort Totten, Eckington, Petworth, off Bladensburg Road, and in town centers like Merrifield and White Flint.

In areas that are in-between, a lot of landowners are biding their time, waiting until the moment when land prices will justify a 90-foot high-risea situation which explains many of the vacant lots in what might seem like prime locations.

My own neighborhood of Southwest Waterfront is just one example. Within one block of the Metro station are nine vacant lots, all entitled for high-rise buildings, but their developers are waiting until the land prices jump high enough to make high-rises worthwhile amidst a neighborhood known for its relatively affordable prices.

While the developers wait, the heart of the neighborhood suffers from a lack of customers within walking distance; the resulting middling retail selection, vacant storefronts, and subpar bus service reinforces the perception that Southwest Waterfront is not worthy of investment. Nearby Nationals Park is similarly surrounded by vacant lots, with renderings of eight-story Type I buildings blowing in the breeze.

In NoMa (east of the tracks) and the western end of H Street NE, projects like 360 H and AVA H Street were redesigned after 2008's market crash so that they didn't require Type I construction. The redesigns reduced costs, reduced the developers' need for scarce financing, and made the projects possiblebut also reduced the number of units built. AVA was entitled for almost 170 units, but was built as 138 units: building 20% fewer units cut structural costs by over 40%, according to developer AvalonBay.

Elsewhere, some other development projects have similarly been redesigned with faster Type III construction, even as future phases assume Type I construction. Capitol Quarter, the redevelopment of Capper/Carrollsburg near Navy Yard, might win an award for the shortest time between announcement and groundbreaking for the mixed-income Lofts at Capitol Quarter.

Several blocks west, the first phase to deliver at the Wharf will be the last phase that was designed; in fact, the idea of redeveloping St. Augustine's Church as a new church with a Type III residential building above came years after design began on the high-rises to its west.

New technologies can break the logjam

If it weren't for the Height Act, developers wouldn't just sit and wait on sites like these. They'd probably just build Type III buildings, and if there's still demand, they could build Type I downtown towers with 20+ floors. But due to the Height Act, DC is one of the only cities in America where there's a substantial market for 7-8 story buildings.

To break this logjam without changing the Height Act, DC's building community can embrace new light-frame construction techniques that can cost-effectively build mid-rise buildings without the need for steel beams and reinforced concrete. Local architects, developers, and public officials could convene a working group to bring some of these innovations to market, and thus safely deliver more housing at less cost.

Cross laminated timber (CLT), a "mega-plywood" made of lumber boards laminated together, has sufficient strength and fire resistance for high-rise structures; it's been used to build a 95-foot residential building in London and a 105.5-foot building in Melbourne. The ICC has approved CLT for inclusion in its 2015 code update, but the city has leeway to approve such structures today under a provision that allows "alternate materials and methods."

Cities like Seattle have started to evaluate whether to specifically permit taller CLT buildings. The Bullitt Center, a zero-impact building in Seattle, uses CLT for most of its upper-story structure.


The Bullitt Center. Photo by the author.

Type II buildings, often built with light frames of cold formed (aka light gauge) steel, can achieve high-rise heights but the ICC limits them to the same heights as Type III. (For example, 360 H Street was re-engineered from Type I to Type II, and lost two stories in the process.) Prefabrication, hybrid systems that incorporate other materials, and new fasteners have made mid-rise Type II buildings stronger and most cost-effective.

However, as the RS Means chart above shows, Type II might be cheaper than Type I but remains more expensive than Type I. Similar prefabrication has been applied to Type I mid-rises on the West Coast to reduce their costs.

By embracing these advancements in structural engineering, as well as providing relief from onerous parking requirements, DC could more easily and affordably build the mid-rise buildings that will house much of the city in the future.

Thanks to Brian O'Looney, partner at Torti Gallas and Partners, for sharing his expertise. A version of this post appeared on West North.

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