Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Payton Chung

Payton Chung, LEED AP ND, CNUa, sees the promises and perils of planning every day as a resident of Southwest Washington. He first addressed a city council about smart growth in 1996, accidentally authored Chicago's inclusionary housing law, blogs at west north, and contributes to Streetsblog

Think the rent's too high? Try your hand at managing a landlord's budget

The rents in the brand-new apartment buildings all around town have caused some serious sticker shock. If you've wondered just how the rent got to be so damn high, you might find a few minutes with a new online game to be instructive.


Image from the author. And yes, he lost on his first try at the game.

"Inside the Rent," created by New York City's Citizens Housing & Planning Council, lets you examine the construction and operating budget for a new-build apartment building—and translates those up-front costs into average monthly rents.

Players get to choose between various factors like location, construction type, and how much to pay construction crews and maintenance staff. Then they watch the costs add up. In the likely scenario that the costs exceed the player's "market price," the player can also apply for various government subsidies, like tax breaks or free land.

Although construction costs and land prices in the Washington region aren't quite at New York City levels, many factors apply nationwide. For instance, federal law requires that subsidized housing pay "prevailing wages" to construction workers, which raises costs.

One quirk that I noticed in the game: the game shows that construction of high-rise buildings costs 25% more than mid-rise buildings. (Here in DC, the same 25% cost differential exists between mid-rise and low-rise buildings.) However, the game doesn't acknowledge that high-rise buildings can fit more units onto the same piece of land, and thus reduce the land cost per unit. Another cost that isn't part of CHPC's game, but which can very substantially raise rents, is the high cost of building parking.

Interestingly, one of the few "costs" that is fixed in all game scenarios is the developer's minimum profit, which is 5% in all cases. That might seem generous at a time of near-zero interest rates, but consider that for investors, a whole lot more can go wrong with a construction project than with with long-term bonds, which are often considered a comparable (but less risky) asset. Indeed, as the prices to buy or build apartments have risen, the profit margins that investors make on operating those apartments have fallen to new lows.

If you're the type of geek who prefers to examine Excel spreadsheets rather than constantly reload your phone's browser, CHPC has also made the spreadsheet underlying the game available.

Have you noticed anything different about DC's traffic signals?

Over the past two years, and especially over the past few months, the District Department of Transportation has re-timed hundreds of traffic signals throughout DC. Most recently, many stoplights downtown have been reprogrammed, which means that the street network now works very differently.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Some of our contributors have noticed, and have had divergent reactions. Ned Russell says his ride on Madison and then onto 15th is longer since the light at 15th and Maine no longer synchronizes with the previous light at Independence, especially considering it's a downhill ride.

Jeff Lemieux thinks that there are longer cycles overall, which make things easier for rush hour commuters from Maryland and Virginia since there's more time to clear intersections and also less box blocking.

Personally, I've noticed that I can now bike across the Mall at 4th or 7th streets without hitting a red light in the middle.

Regardless of whether you walk, bike, or drive to get around DC's streets, have you noticed a change in the traffic signal timing along your route? If so, what have you noticed—are cycles generally longer or shorter, better or worse? Have these changes affected your travel patterns at all? Are there small changes to signal timing that could improve safety?

It's about to get easier to build mid-rises in DC

Soon, it might be a lot easier and less expensive to build mid-rise buildings along transit corridors in DC. This is thanks to a 2015 update to the International Building Code.


The View at Waterfront, new buildings

The View at Waterfront, a proposed 85' tall wood-framed building. Rendering by SK+I Architecture.

The code now permits light-framed buildings of wood or steel, which are often faster and less expensive to build than equivalent heavy-framed structures, to reach eight stories and up to 85' high—just shy of the 90' limit the Height Act imposes outside of downtown.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

How much less expensive? The blocks above illustrate three potential scenarios for a light frame apartment building built with wood or steel studs, and with sprinklers.

On the left, the building has five floors of light wood framing (yellow) over a one-floor "podium" of heavy concrete framing. On the right, the building has eight floors, all of heavy concrete framing. Switching from the left to the right increases the building area by 33%, but because concrete is more expensive, costs increase by 60%.

When I wrote about this topic last year, seven- and eight-story buildings had to be built from heavy-duty concrete or steel, welded or poured on-site, for fire reasons. This "Type I" construction process is time-consuming, material-intensive, and expensive.

Eight-story buildings made economic sense on 14th Street NW, where land values are high. But the high cost of construction stymied development in less pricey neighborhoods.

What the 2015 building code permits is a compromise, with a taller "podium" of concrete framing. That's the middle example. This building has 23% more area than the building on the left, but costs only 26% more.

DC currently operates under the the 2012 version of the IBC, but will soon start reviewing the 2015 code for formal adoption. DC law requires that the Council consider adopting the updated IBC by July. Maryland is on a faster track, having adopted the new code in January, and Virginia is about one year behind.

The new code in practice

One site where this compromise is being applied is adjacent to the Waterfront metro station. In 2007, a developer first proposed building apartments on two parking lots between Arena Stage and the Metro.

Since Southwest DC is considered part of downtown, it has a 130-foot height limit, and the developer got zoning approval for a pair of 11-story, 112-foot tall reinforced-concrete high-rises.

Mill Creek Residential, which developed the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station's parking lot into the Avenir mixed-use complex, recently bought what they're now calling The View at Waterfront. SK+I Architecture redesigned the proposed buildings with wooden frames.

Under the new building code, the concrete podium can have multiple stories.

To take advantage of the change, the new plans for the View include a two-story concrete podium with five and a half stories of wood frame above, according to drawings within the zoning filing. The podium will contain a retail space (probably a restaurant) facing Arena Stage, resident common areas, and apartments.

Builders have a new material at their disposal, too

Another building code change that took effect in 2015 officially allows cross-laminated timber, a "mega-plywood" that mimics the heavy timber beams of yesteryear. The code limits CLT buildings to the same heights as conventional, light frame buildings, even though some countries' codes allow its use for taller buildings: 10-story buildings have been built from it in London and Melbourne.

T3 in Minneapolis
T3 in Minneapolis. Rendering by Michael Green Architecture.

For now, CLT may find a niche in commercial buildings due to its unique appearance, and ability to span wide-open spaces. The first mid-rise CLT building in the United States, a seven-story office building, will break ground this summer in a Minneapolis neighborhood known for its brick lofts.

Bob Pfefferle from developer Hines (which also built CityCenterDC) told Kristen Leigh Painter of the Star-Tribune, "it provides an authentic building that is respectful of the neighborhood. This will have the ambience of the old warehouses with timber beams that everyone wants, but solves all the problems of energy efficiency and light."

CLT could be an intriguing new technology to watch for in new commercial buildings in areas with an industrial heritage, like Union Market or Ivy City.

Tomorrow's special election candidates talk streetcar, bus lanes, and more

The DC chapter of the Sierra Club asked candidates in tomorrow's Ward 4 and Ward 8 special elections about their stances on transportation issues. The Club heard back from Brandon Todd in Ward 4 and from Eugene Kinlow and LaRuby May in Ward 8.


Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.

The questionnaire, which covered bus lanes, streetcars, parking, and bike trails, was part of the Sierra Club's endorsement process. In total, the Club reached out to one candidate in Ward 4, Todd, and to three in Ward 8—of all the candidates in the mix, that's how many it deemed to be running viable campaigns.

In the Ward 4 race, Brandon Todd's campaign answered "Yes" (but didn't elaborate) to all four of the Club's questions. That means he's in favor of endorsing "parking cash-out" so that employees can choose not to drive to work, creating transit-only travel lanes on key corridors downtown, fully funding DC's 37-mile streetcar plan, and reallocating District resources to complete major off-street trails.

The Kennedy Street Development Association also polled Ward 4 candidates on transportation and smart growth. KSDA's Myles Smith noted:

No candidate supports a Streetcar on Georgia Avenue, though they do support other transit investments: all back $2 billion in funding for the Metro Forward plan. Andrews, Todd, and Toliver support 16th Street bus lanes, adding new bike lanes even at the cost of parking, while Bowser opposed.
Oddly, on the Sierra Club questionnaire, Brandon Todd endorsed the full streetcar network—including… a streetcar on Georgia.

In the Ward 8 race, Eugene Kinlow's campaign answered "Yes" to three of the Club's questions, but "No" regarding the streetcar. "I still have doubts about the benefits of this investment and believe that other transit opportunities such as small area circulators and increased access to affordable biking options may prove more worthwhile for the ward," he said.

LaRuby May's campaign answered "Yes" to the Club's questions about parking cash-out and about bicycle trails. In response to the question about the streetcar, the campaign wrote that May "supports the creation of alternative transportation methods to better address the connectivity issues faced by Ward 8 residents. Whichever method most efficiently gets the people I serve to where they need to go is the one I will support." The campaign also wrote a similar response about bus lanes.

The Club contacted Marion C. Barry's campaign several times but got no response.

Full text of the questionnaire's transportation-related questions:

Subsidies for Parking and Driving: Subsidized employee parking favors commuters from the suburbs who disproportionately drive to work, as compared to DC residents. Employers would retain the authority as to whether, to what degree, and to which employees they provide a parking subsidy, sometimes called parking cash out.

Q: Will you support legislation requiring DC employers that choose to subsidize employee parking to offer an equivalently-valued subsidy to non-driving commuters?

Reallocation of Road Space: The District has limited right-of-way for travel and access. A disproportionate amount of this right-of-way is taken up by lone travelers driving on unrestricted travel lanes and on-street parking, with the result being poorer air quality in the District and less attractive transportation options than if such right-of-way were to be rebalanced.

Q: Will you support DC Department of Transportation creating bus-only travel lanes on 16th, H, and I Streets NW, and placing further streetcar lines in transit-only lanes?

Streetcars: The District has planned for a 37-mile streetcar system, including lines along Georgia Avenue NW and Martin Luther King Avenue SE and Wheeler Road SE, which would put nearly half of DC's population within walking distance of rail transit. Last year, the Council cut funding levels for the streetcar, and the reduced eight-mile network that DDOT has now proposed to put out to bid, as a single construction contract, would serve neither Wards 4 nor 8.

Q: Do you support raising taxes or reallocating funding to restore full funding for the 37-mile streetcar plan?"

Bicycle Trails: The Capital Crescent, mainstream Rock Creek, Oxon Run, and Suitland Parkway bicycle trails are all in need of major repair and maintenance. The Metropolitan Branch and Anacostia Riverwalk are left at various stages of completion.

Q: Will you demand that the DC Department of Transportation allocate the resources and energy to complete the rehabilitation and construction of those trail segments and reallocate resources, even at the expense of other projects, to complete?

The author is a board member of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Jobs are clustering in parts of the region, but the east is falling behind

There's a growing economic gap in the region, with jobs concentrating in the west while poverty is growing in the east. This from a new Brookings Institute report on how close people were to jobs in 2000 and 2012.


A map showing areas that saw an increase (or decrease) in nearby jobs. Image from Brookings.

Most poor residents can only afford to live in the east, which leaves them stranded far away from job opportunities.

DC has a "favored quarter," and if you don't live in it, it's hard to find work

Jobs in the DC region are heavily concentrated in a "favored quarter" that starts downtown and stretches west-northwest. Residents in the ten-mile-wide circle that covers the northwest quadrant of DC, Arlington, and neighboring parts of Montgomery and Fairfax counties, can easily commute to about a million jobs.

For people in that area, chances are pretty good that one of those jobs will suit them. City Observatory recently noted based on Brookings' data, core-area residents in the DC region have, on average, three times as many jobs within commuting distance as residents of more distant areas.

DC's favored quarter is also adding more jobs. Between 2000 and 2012, about 100,000 new jobs became available within a reasonable commuting distance of north Arlington, Bethesda, Wards 2 and 3 in DC, Herndon, and Sterling.

In the years the study looks at, the average resident of the "core jurisdictions" inside the original DC diamond (the District, Arlington, and Alexandria) saw their proximity to jobs improve by 8.6%. That's far better than the region-wide 2% average.

For a practical look at these findings' implications, consider Tysons Corner and Largo Town Center, two areas opposite one another on the Capital Beltway. Tysons residents have four times as many jobs within commuting distance. Largo residents, on the other hand, have to commute across the entire region in search of work.

The difference between being inside and outside of the core is even starker for areas with non-white majorities. Census tracts within the diamond where most residents are not white saw 7.5% more jobs within commuting distance in 2012 than in 2000.

While most of the region's jobs didn't shift far from the favored quarter,
the Dulles Airport/Route 28 area did emerge as a big new job center. Unfortunately, that area is far from transit, and very far from where most of the region's residents live.

And most areas in the favored quarter are doing a pitiful job of adding new housing units, meaning they're missing out on opportunities for people to live near where they work. Policy makers in these areas seem content to let housing prices rise, while rejecting new transit lines that would improve connections to their job centers.

Job locations have a huge impact on home values

When it comes to housing costs, proximity to jobs has a whole lot to do with why housing prices within the diamond have increased relative to farther-out areas.

That difference in home values is growing as job opportunities keep expanding in the west and shrinking in the east, causing poverty to shift farther into eastern areas that are sometimes ill-equipped to deal with service needs.

Outside of the Beltway, the lack of job opportunity in Prince George's and eastern Montgomery counties has depressed property values and ruined many families' finances.

All of this leads to what social scientists call a "spatial mismatch" between jobs and affordable housing. Over time, a spatial mismatch can widen into what sociologist Robert Putnam calls an opportunity equality gap, disadvantaging families for multiple generations.

Despite all this, smart transit and planning are reasons to be optimistic

Encouragingly, some job location trends in recent years are chipping away at the problem, particularly for residents who live within Metro's reach and especially within the diamond. Jobs are shifting away from distant locations, towards transit accessible areas like downtown DC. This shift should make it easier for residents who live outside the favored quarter to reach job opportunities.

New transit links to existing job centers, like Maryland's Purple Line, will also literally bridge the east-west divide. More infill residential development within the favored quarter, both at job centers like Tysons and within neighborhoods, will also improve access to opportunity and cut long commute times.

One caveat about the report: due to data limitations, the study assumes that people travel a "typical commute distance" in an as-the-crow-flies radius around their homes. It doesn't take into account whether transportation routes, like bridges or transit lines, are available between those points.

What else do you notice from the report? How can we cut down the spatial mismatch between jobs and housing in the DC region?

Think you know Metro's neighborhoods? This quiz might surprise you

Yesterday, PlanItMetro posted maps showing what's within walking distance of each Metro station. Check them out (and maybe read up on what walk sheds are and how they differ across the region), then take our quiz to test what you know.


A map of the area around the Columbia Heights Metro station that's easily walkable. Images from WMATA.

1. Which of these stations has the most jobs within walking distance?

McLean
U Street
Pentagon City
Rockville

2. Which of these stations has the fewest jobs within walking distance?

Bethesda
Medical Center
Ballston
Federal Triangle

3. Which of these stations has the most jobs that are nearby, but not within walking distance?

Van Ness
Glenmont
West Falls Church
Franconia-Springfield

4. Which of these stations has the most households within walking distance?

Dupont Circle
Silver Spring
Columbia Heights
Court House

5. Which of these stations has the fewest households within walking distance?

Friendship Heights
Pentagon City
Crystal City
Georgia Avenue-Petworth

6. How many households live within walking distance of Metro?

95,322
190,631
321,240
458,273

7. Which of these stations has the lowest Walk Score?

Morgan Boulevard
Fort Totten
Arlington Cemetery
Van Dorn Street

8. Which of these areas has the smallest area within walking distance?

West Hyattsville
Southern Avenue
National Airport
Landover

Answers

1. U Street might not have many high-rise office buildings, but the medium-density neighborhood does have 9,034 jobs within walking distance. Logan Circle's density isn't just for residents: its lack of parking lots and high street connectivity mean that it also has plenty of economic opportunities nearby.

2. Federal Triangle, the very heart of the federal bureaucracy that built Metro to bring commuters into the city, has fewer jobs nearby than the three big edge cities it's grouped with. (That's partially because PlanItMetro's assessment is for non-overlapping walk sheds. This is why Federal Triangle has so few jobs: they're assigned to neighboring sheds.) Medical Center may not look like much from Wisconsin Avenue, but its 32,473 nearby jobs put it in a league with several Downtown DC stations.

3. At Franconia-Springfield, 92% of the nearby jobs aren't within walking distance. Springfield Town Center is beyond a half-mile walk, and the new FBI headquarters site even the site Virginia is promoting for the FBI is cut off from the station by a ravine. (At Branch Avenue, 96% of nearby jobs are outside the walk shed.)


Franconia-Springfield walk shed.

4. Columbia Heights just edges out Dupont Circle for this title, 10,842 to 10,636. Relatively low-rise Court House has the highest household concentration outside the District, with 8,100 within walking distance.

5. It's Friendship Heights, although all of these have between 4,071 and 4,623 households within walking distance. High rises don't always mean high residential density, especially if there are lots of offices and shops mixed in. Crystal City probably has a higher density, but its walk shed is also constrained by the George Washington Parkway.

6. 190,631. Contrary to what those ubiquitous "Steps to Metro!" real-estate listings might tell you, just 9% of the 2,091,301 households in the metro area live within a ten-minute walk of Metro.

7. Morgan Boulevard has a paltry Walk Score of 6. Even Arlington Cemetery's is somehow 15. Twenty five Metro stations are in locations with a Walk Score that's "car-dependent," and just 30 are in places deemed a "Walker's Paradise."

8. Landover. Hemmed in by a railroad and US 50 on one side and by its own parking lot and an industrial park on the other, its walk shed covers a mere 80 acres. That's not fair to the almost 1,000 households, mostly on the other side of 50, who are less than half a mile away but can't easily reach the station.


Landover walk shed.

How did you do?

0-3 correct: You're a Metro Newbie! While you're playing #WhichWMATA, step outside those stations and explore!
4-6 correct: You're a Metro Explorer! You've walked around many of Metro's stations, and always want to see more!
7-8 correct: You're a Metro Voyager! Are you sure you didn't download that 113-megabyte Atlas and take this quiz open-book?

Get your March Madness on with two games that test your city smarts

In the mood for yet another bracket? Or maybe after filling one out, you're looking for a guessing game where you've at least got some idea of what you're doing? These two games are fun ways to test what you know about cities.

Census bracketology

The first is the Census Bureau's Population Bracketology. You can play using either state or metropolitan area populations, choosing which of the paired "contestants" has the greater population.

Many of the choices are intuitive, but it's often surprising to see how large many younger, Sunbelt cities have grown. The difference would have been much more obvious if the Census pitted city populations head-to-head—municipalities in the east are usually much smaller than those in the west.

Jonathan Neeley, our staff editor, said "when cities I don't have a great gauge of came up, it got me thinking about density versus sprawl. I obviously know New York beats Jacksonville. But does Baltimore beat Riverside? Does Portland beat Orlando?"

You may know populations, but how about transit lines?

If you've got a sharper memory for geography than for facts and figures, you might prefer Chicago-based CNT's "Guess the City," featuring transit stops color-coded by service frequency (drawn from GTFS data):

CNT guess the city

Not all of the choices are so obvious, though, especially in suburbs with sparse transit networks:

CNT guess the city

One hint: keep in mind that many eastern cities have radial street networks, whereas western cities almost always have gridded streets. Also, bigger cities almost always have denser transit networks. CNT's site also lets users generate a color-coded "Transit Access Score" that measures how accessible any given location is via transit.

2015 is going to be a great year for city planning

Experts say smart planning will keep gaining ground in 2015. Hear more in two new videos from Mobility Lab.

In "Energizing People to Reimagine Our Cities," the interviewees talk about broad changes in city operations. Harriet Tregoning, who used to be DC's planning director, says residents need to support projects even when their cities "fail fast and fail often."

"People don't always talk about the fact that [Capital Bikeshare] is our second system," she says. "SmartBike was an abysmal failure, [but] we were able to replace that dinky little bikeshare system with something that was much much better and immediately successful."

Erin Barnes from the crowdsourcing site Ioby urges cities to rethink public spaces: "People get really upset if you talk about taking away parking spaces. But if you close a street to car traffic and open it up for anything else, you give people an opportunity to reimagine how you would use all that public space."

In "Energizing People About the Future of Public Transportation," Gabe Klein, previously DC's transportation director, predicts a shift in how we talk about planning. He says we'll move from a narrow focus on transit versus cars versus biking and walking toward a broader look at how transportation as a whole helps a city work.

Tim Papandreou from San Francisco's transportation department cites a specific example: "We have smart phones, but really dumb wallets." Mobile apps could make it easy to combine different ways of getting across town both from home and while traveling.

Emily Badger, a transportation reporter at the Post, says new types of data that tell us more about how people connect to jobs are transforming our approach to transit.

"2015," Papandreou predicts, "is going to mean more, not less."

The interviews for both videos were filmed in January at Transportation Camp, an annual "unconference" that Mobility Lab sponsors to bring together and advance new ideas in transportation.

These maps show when and where riders use the Silver Line

Ridership is strong at the Silver Line's Wiehle-Reston East and Tysons Corner stations, and over time there should be more riders at the other three stops. You can see this and other facts about Silver Line ridership
from a new data visualization on PlanItMetro.


Silver Line ridership visualization by WMATA.

PlanItMetro's interactive maps and graphs show when and where Silver Line riders are going to and coming from, and allow users to look at riders' entry and destination stations along with the day of the week and the time, in quarter-hour increments.

Last year, Metro posted graphs showing one week of September ridership, but this dataset represent ridership from all of October 2014, including weekdays, weekends, and holidays.

Wiehle-Reston East and Tysons Corner see far more riders than the other three, but the others could catch up as land around the stations develops.

Wiehle-Reston East gets the most passengers overall

Wiehle-Reston East currently handles the lion's share of passengers at new Silver Line stations, partly because it's a hub for transit riders whose bus routes take them there or who use the station's large park-and-ride garage. Wiehle-Reston East's ridership base is a lot like other stations at the end of Metro lines: the overwhelming majority of its riders are inbound commuters who enter on weekday mornings and exit on weekday evenings.

Interestingly, Wiehle is also the largest single commuting destination on the Silver Line. On the average weekday during the morning peak, about 1,000 passengers exit at Wiehle, compared to about 5,000 entries. Even though Tysons Corner is a jobs hub, only about 900 people exit at that station during the same period. At the four stations in the Tysons area, there are about 2,100 combined exits during this period.

The Wiehle number is impressive because more people exit at Wiehle Avenue during the morning peak than exit from any other terminal station. Wiehle's 1,046 average exits trumps the next-best terminal, Shady Grove (with 977 average exits).

Also interestingly, Wiehle's ratio of entries to exits is the smallest of all the terminal stations (meaning it's the most tilted toward exits). At Wiehle Avenue, for every exit, there are 4.9 entries. That compares to 6.1 entries for every exit at New Carrollton, 7.3 at Greenbelt, and 7.5 at Largo.

Some of this ridership is likely due to people connecting to buses bound for Reston, Herndon, and Dulles Airport. But there are some office buildings around the station as well.

Ridership at Wiehle will likely change once Phase Two is complete: many passengers who currently arrive on buses, or take them to destinations like Reston Town Center or Dulles, will instead start boarding the Silver Line farther down the line.

Tysons corners the market on work, evening trips

Tysons Corner's ridership pattern exhibits some unusual features.

Weekday rush-hour exits at Tysons Corner outnumber boardings at the station by three to one, which shows that like stations in downtown DC, Tysons Corner is near where a lot of people work. But unlike downtown DC, PlanItMetro has pointed out that a lot of people travel to Tysons Corner during off-peak and on holidays, probably to use surrounding shopping centers. In the evenings (after 7:00 pm), Tysons Corner is the busiest Silver Line station.

In terms of the ratio of entries to exits, Tysons Corner is a lot like a station on the edge of downtown. At Tysons Corner, there are 1.8 exits for every entry. Next door at Greensboro, the ratio is 1.7 exits for every entry. That compares to Dupont Circle, with a ratio of 1.9 and Rosslyn with a ratio of 1.5.

Tysons Corner and Greensboro are the only stations outside of the Beltway where exits outnumber entries during the morning peak period.

McLean, Greensboro, and Spring Hill, the Silver Line's three other three Tysons stations, see fewer riders than Wiehle or Tysons Corner. That could be because these three have not yet been enveloped by transit-oriented development. McLean, for example, draws a lot of local residents, many of whom ride a bicycle or walk to the station.

Even though Silver Line passengers go all across the region, most of them aren't transferring to other lines, or going to destinations in the eastern half of the metro area. Over 60% of passengers boarding at Silver Line stations on weekdays travel to stations served by the Silver Line between Wiehle and L'Enfant Plaza.

What else do you find interesting from the data visualization?

The five best Brutalist buildings in DC

Perhaps Brutalist architecture never got a fair chance because of a false cognate. The public has long misunderstood this least lovable of architectural styles, but several local buildings show that even Brutalism can be beautiful.

CFPB wide
The CFPB building. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

In English, "brutal" architecture sounds harsh and cruel. Yet the term originated in French, where "brut" means wild, rough, or unfinished: "brut" Champagnes haven't been sweetened with added sugar.

Le Corbusier, the controversial Modernist architect, marveled at how reinforced concrete combined steel's flexibility with concrete's rigidity. Reinforced concrete could leap in organic curves and span vast distances without support; it could be cast into novel shapes and its surface raked with three-dimensional textures. Corbusier left his concrete structures "brut," thus inspiring "Brutalism."

"It does no good to pretend that Brutalist buildings are easy to like, or that everyone can be convinced to like them," writes New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger. "But ease and user-friendliness are not the only architectural virtues.... The earnestness of the best Brutalism—the belief in the power of architecture that it represents—continues to be inspiring."

Brutalism's brash idealism—its emphasis on big and bold shapes, honest use of mass-produced materials, and rejection of elitist finery—combined with its (yes) low costs to make an irresistible choice for its era's expanding government bureaucracies. Brutalism was "authoritatively civic in the time of Kennedy-era optimism and the Great Society, before US attitudes toward the public realm changed so dramatically that it has become hard to evaluate the aesthetics on their original terms," write Michael Kubo, Mark Pasnik, and Chris Grimley.

The results surround us here in Washington, where Brutalist buildings house Great Society legacies like HHS and HUD, plus the university libraries of Georgetown and George Washington. Few will mourn other infamous local examples of Brutalism, like the FBI headquarters or the now-demolished Third Church, particularly since they suffer from the clumsy and pedestrian-unfriendly streetscapes common during their era.

But Washington also boasts several buildings that showcase Brutalism's sculptural and textural possibilities, while also supporting the urban fabric around them.

1. Washington Metro stations, completed in 1976 and onwards by Harry Weese & Associates.


Photo by camera_obscura [busy] on Flickr.

Last year, the American Institute of Architects bestowed its 25 Year Award, which goes to an architectural design that has stood the test of time, onto the Metro system.

The "Great Society Subway," as Zach Schrag's landmark book called it, shapes simple concrete into heroic vaults that impart a bit of the capital's majesty to commutes. The coffered vaults also serve practical purposes, distributing structural loads and keeping sightlines open.

The book District Comics includes a comic-strip retelling of Metro's design process by Jim Ottaviani and Nick Sousanis.

2. Federal Home Loan Bank Board and Liberty Plaza (now Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), completed in 1977 by Max O. Urbahn Associates (architect), and Sasaki Associates (landscape architect).

This structure shows that Brutalism can respectfully frame not only a variety of historic buildings but also human-scaled open spaces and the mixed-use street grid. The building shelters a small plaza that is one of the most popular paved plazas downtown.

The Commission of Fine Arts recently panned proposed renovations, saying they "would have the overall effect of transforming noteworthy modernist architecture into a more conventional, contemporary office building."

3. The American Institute of Architects, completed in 1973 by The Architects Collaborative.

AIA

The AIA's headquarters stand as an elegant, tiered rear scrim for the curious Octagon House, built in 1801 as one of Washington's grandest private houses. Although it's hardly visible from the street, the building's dynamic boomerang curve stands apart in a city filled with acute angles. The yard interposed between the two buildings, split between a hardscaped plaza on the headquarters side and a soft lawn on the house side, creates a quiet, shaded respite from the busy roads in front.

4. Sunderland Building, completed in 1969 by Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon.

Sunderland Building

Just south of Dupont Circle and behind the Heurich House, this office building is just a bit taller than it is wide, but the pattern of window and door openings lighten what could otherwise have been a plain concrete cube. The windows sit deep behind angled frames that score the facade with a grid of of shadows that subtly change depth from different perspectives, while the top floor's wide porches keep the façades off-center. The ground floor arcade lifts most of the ponderous concrete mass well above the sidewalk.

5. Brewood Office Building, completed 1974, Wilkes & Faulkner

Board formed concrete

This tiny townhouse-sized building, a leftover from before the Golden Triangle flowered with hulking office blocks in the 1980s, might inspire a double take. At first glance, the facade's irregular, flowing texture and drilled "nail holes" read as a wooden structure, but like its high-rise neighbors it's entirely concrete.

"Board-formed concrete" takes its texture from wood that disappeared years ago—the wooden "formwork" that encased the concrete when it was being poured left its mark, and here, in a hallmark of Brutalism's attention to process, the architects have celebrated this artifact.

Honorable mentions

In addition to these five buildings, two other buildings garner honorable mentions for being fine examples of Brutalism, although one's located outside the District and the other had to hide its concrete under limestone panels.

1. Dulles Airport, completed in 1962 by Eero Saarinen.


Photo by pinelife on Flickr.

Surely the most striking concrete form in this area is the suspended roofline of Dulles' soaring terminal. Its roof upends all conventions, dipping inwards with what looks like an unstable curve and inexplicably resting its massive weight upon airy glass walls. Yet this instability subtly reminds us that flight itself is no mean feat of physics. The recessed curtain wall appears like a solid Washingtonian wall of stone columns on the exterior, and on the interior it dissolves into a faceted lens that scatters light throughout the day.

2. Embassy of Canada, completed in 1989 by Arthur Erickson.


Photo by krossbow on Flickr.

Although this building is mostly clad in the federal precinct's requisite limestone and was completed decades after the others on this list, Erickson has a reputation in his native Canada for sculpting concrete into daring, angular geometries. Here, Erickson allowed unfinished concrete to peek out from underneath the limestone skin in key locations, like this rotunda of columns at the building's prow.

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