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What would taller buildings mean for DC's architecture?

Would lifting the height limit lead to better architecture? It's not that simple, say architects. There are many people and forces, both cultural and economic, that shape the built environment, not just height.

The Cairo Apartments. Photo by David on Flickr.

Proponents of relaxing the height limit say that it would improve the quality of architecture, but they usually mean that new buildings will be less boxy if there's less pressure to maximize floor area. Yes, this might encourage more setbacks, deeper walls, more varied patterns, and richer textures. It might also lead to buildings that are just taller versions of the same boxes.

We asked several experienced architects to weigh in on the topic. Some oppose revisions and others support them. But they all note how aesthetics, human comfort, and building performance get trapped in between money and the law, and offer tangible ways to improve the urban environment with or without relaxed height restrictions.

Form follows finance

It may be helpful to think of a speculative office building as a machine for making money. In order to provide a very high level of service to a large amount of floor space, modern office buildings are packed with mechanical equipment and consist of highly engineered assemblies from structure to skin. We can see when money has been spent on high-quality finishes and beautiful details, but the real luxury is empty space.

Given the demand for space downtown, developers want to maximize revenue. The high rents enable them to finance the construction of multistory buildings to multiply the rentable floor area. In any location, physics, human needs, and legal restrictions constrain the design of buildings. Since you can't go beyond a certain height, there's a perverse incentive to use every square inch of the zoning envelope, an effect noted by several of the architects we asked.

Marshall Purnell notes that this pressure encourages facades with no depth. A four-inch-thick glass curtainwall assembly opens up a lot more space than a foot-thick cavity wall with insulation. Large windows can make smaller perimeter offices feel bigger. Flat and glassy looks modern, maximizes space, and carries a dubious aura of sustainability. It works well enough for owners, but produces a thin public realm.

Matt Bell of Perkins Eastman notes that the worst offenders in terms of boxiness suffer from bad proportioning and composition. Relatively modest setbacks and architectural texture, combining patterns, recesses, and different materials, can make a world of difference. The Investment Building and 1999 K Street both show how minor massing details can significantly diminish bulkiness.

Left: Photo of 1999 K Street NW from Jahn Architects. Right: Investment Building by NCinDC on Flickr.

In order for greater height to enable better architecture, it would have to change the value proposition of those architectural features. Niches reduce revenue and flexibility, so there is a disincentive to use even little recesses for office buildings. With less of a need to maximize every square inch, developers might agree to increase the facade depth and reduce setbacks. The equation for finishes and detail, which cost the same amount for each floor, would remain unchanged.

Revised limits could make for more sustainable interiors

Robert Peck, who works on office design at Gensler, notes that the height limit contributes to "unusually low ceilings" in Washington. Buildings, he argues might be more efficient with higher floors to let light penetrate deeper into the building. Light enters a window at an angle, so a ray entering higher up goes deeper, especially if it can be reflected with a light shelf.

Shalom Baranes argued a related point a few months back: greater floor-to-floor heights allow ducts to be more efficiently shaped and routed. The efficiency of ducts depends on the directness of the route and the ratio of duct surface to volume. A circular or square cross section is best. But in cramped ceilings, flattened ducts and circuitous routes require air to move at faster speeds. Not only does this waste energy, it's noisier.

Section through One Bryant Park, showing floor heights from CookFox Architects.

I'd also add that higher floor heights allow heat to move away from human bodies. Designers can further this by distributing air through the floor and returning it through the ceiling. Because the fresh air does not mix with the stale air, lower volumes of air can flow at slower speeds and warmer temperatures and still achieve the same level of thermal comfort. And there are still further techniques that can be used when ceilings are less congested.

Interestingly, these requirements suggest that building height might be better regulated by the number of floors, rather than by absolute height. The cost of higher floor heights would remove the incentive for outrageous floor heights in most cases, while reducing the pressure on building systems. Traditionalist architect Léon Krier has argued that this produces building heights that vary within certain limits, with extreme differences uncommon.

We could shape the height and density

None of the architects support unfettered height increases. Cities are more than just economic engines. Land use is deeply intertwined with transportation, community, and aesthetics, and the purpose of planning is to balance those interests to produce a thriving city. It's in the city's interest to promote a public realm that benefits citizens.

The official statement of the DC chapter of the AIA calls for "A thorough, in-depth study," of the city's height limit, arguing that "well-designed, taller structures will provide an interesting counterpoint and add visual interest and variety to the skyline." The authors, David Haresign, Mary Fitch, and Bill Bonstra, have been working with the Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission to discuss ways of managing the height limit.

They argue that the rationale behind the 1910 law is outdated, so new regulations that reflect modern building standards and aesthetic needs should be the beginning of any conversation. Outside of areas with federal interest, they point out that the DC government should be the organization to determine those needs.

Even if Congress were to change the height law, it would require revising DC's Comprehensive Plan, last changed in 2006. Roger Lewis, architecture columnist for the Washington Post, echoes the DC AIA's call for detailed planning. An insistence on transparent planning, he argues, is the best way to ensure equitable outcomes for a growing city. Analysis of geographical information could enable an approach that replaces a one-size-fits-all approach with one that carefully tunes height for livability.

The city might also look for more specific ways to shape the city's architecture. David Varner of SmithGroup points out that the comparative devaluation of existing buildings could lead to premature teardowns. To prevent this, he suggests a transfer of development rights system, where property owners could sell the windfall development rights to other landowners to offset the costs.

One Franklin Square, with setbacks and towers, by BeyondDC on Flickr.

The District could offer height in exchange for design review or mandate a set of design codes in exchange for greater height. Architect Travis Price looks to incentive zoning, allowing buildings to reach higher in exchange for architectural features. Combined with setbacks, buildings in his imagining would reach into the sky with sculptural features most analogous to the towers and setbacks of One Franklin Square, although he'd prefer to do without symmetry.

Even without a formal system of incentive zoning, the regulations could be better tailored to architectural content. The NCPC's modest revisions allow people to occupy penthouses, currently used mainly to store mechanical equipment, and at best hidden by a setback. This might encourage more exciting roof structures, adding interest to DC's skyline.

Architecture isn't determined by economics alone

Residential blocks, the other major kind of multistory building, face slightly different restrictions. Zoning is more restrictive than the height limit in most places. Revising the height limit wouldn't have an effect on the sense of the city for many years. Before any changes actually happen, there will be time to fine-tune plans and settle on an effective regulatory method. DC will never look like Manhattan.

Defenders of the Height Act accurately say that the current law has benefits, such as encouraging developers to build to the lot line. We are fortunate that the height limit discourages the shattered streetscapes of some cities. But it's a side effect of a rule that has many negative side effects, namely increased cost of living. If the city needs strong streetwalls, then those should be required. If a low roofline gets more sun to the streets, then regulation based on solar exposure would be more precise.

The height limit, as it is currently structured, is too crude of a tool to encourage the built environment most people want. Horizontally, the building regulations may permit too much, but vertically there's no flexibility. A careful revision of the height limit could resolve much of the blockishness of DC's architecture, but absent more effective guidelines, there's no guarantee the public realm will reach a higher quality with more height.

One thing the architects reiterated is that good design requires clients to desire it. As Marshall Purnell notes, his ability to realize good design depended on having the good fortune to find clients who want it. No matter how talented an architect is or how much design review there is, the quality of the environment depends ultimately on an owner's desire to contribute to the public realm.

To read the full comments of the architects, click here.

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He really likes walking around and looking at stuff.  


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I appreciate viewing this issue from an architectural standpoint, and I agree the area desperately craves architectural diversity. However, it is naive and ignorant to ignore that increasing height limits leads to further gentrification, and richer real estate developers (e.g. Downtown Brooklyn Plan). I believe until a plan to increase height restrictions can benefit the DC residents who continue to be marginalized, GGW contributors and readers must consider if such development is this generation's Urban Renewal/Highway Construction.

by Alex on Dec 23, 2013 2:14 pm • linkreport

it is naive and ignorant to ignore that increasing height limits leads to further gentrification, and richer real estate developers

I don't see how it leads to further gentrification. And what's wrong with real estate developers making money? Who else do you think should not be allowed to make more money?

by David C on Dec 23, 2013 2:23 pm • linkreport

Obviously it is a complicated question and I agree simply raising the height limit alone would not produce stunning buildings. Generally my though is that floor area ratios could be used to help accomplish this. Instead of having a 12 story building with an FAR of 10.0 you might allow a 20 story building with an FAR of 15.0 giving architects more leeway while maximizing allowable space. Based on everything I've ever heard and read, there will always be a premium on top floor space so there should be sufficient incentive to build up to the story limit which would preclude being too boxy at a lower FAR.

by BTA on Dec 23, 2013 2:23 pm • linkreport

Quite the opposite, it seems much more likely to me that current height limits deflect more and more gentrification away from the core to places like H St, Petworth and Brookland. It could be argued that on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, certain areas might be gentrified more quickly (such as NOMA) due to redevelopment efforts, but it is misguided to ignore that the latent demand would likely be met elsewhere. There is no saving Shaw from gentrificaiton if that is your goal, but if your goal is saving Trinidad that might be possible for much longer by building up downtown and proximate to metro stations.

by BTA on Dec 23, 2013 2:28 pm • linkreport

It's also not entirely clear that gentrification is bad or, at least, so bad that the city should act to stop it.

by David C on Dec 23, 2013 2:45 pm • linkreport

Just when you thought the height quesiton was played out, at least for a while...Great piece Neil, even though at times you seem to be arguing both sides of the debate.

The first thing that should be pointed out is there's no agreement on what constitutes great architecture. Some prefer radically new building aesthetics while others prefer a building that's balanced and works well with its neighbors. Like in any art, someone's trash is another's treasure. But if there's one way to determine what most people find appealing, it's in how much people are willing to pay for it, ie, real estate prices. In this regard residential differs from commercial buildings in that owners have more say in what they are willing to pay for. One reason you don't see many all glass houses, allthough they still can be boxy and boring.

Regardless of what style or neighborhood one prefers, the post concludes with a pretty important criteria for good architecture, "good design requires clients to desire it". Location not withstanding, this assumes you will have a developer who sees the value of branding their building to be more prestigious than the next, enabling them to maximize profit while sacrificing (a little) square footage.

It should be pointed out that the 'dull and boxy" critique tends to come from Washington's Post war building boom best illustrated in the balality of K street. Why does this "modern" aesthetic contimue to make up the majority of new work even though the public tends to view them negatively ?The first is it wraps the maximum rentable volume with-in the skin. Secondly, it's cheap to build, usually requiring one curtain wall detail and one repetative element for the skin. Three, most architects are trained to do object buildings, not good urban buildings, so their skill set aligns with the first two. Lastly, since our culture values newness above all. The glass aesthetic, like an i-phone, looks best on the day of purchase, so developers continue to brand them as state of the art even though the style now qualifies as "historic." If "more setbacks, deeper walls, more varied patterns, and richer textures" are important to aesthetics, and I think they are, the minimalism inherent in modernism works against producing a good urban building becasue they tend to have only one facade with which to communicate with the public.

The best suggestion I read to encourage architectural quality was determining height by the number of floors rather than a maximum height. This would allow developers to take advantage of all the good things Neil pointed out without worrying as much about maximizing short term profits. And while we still need to determine what the final height and/or amount of floors might be, I agree with my fellow architects that "Cities are more than just economic engines." That, "Land use is deeply intertwined with transportation, community, and aesthetics, and the purpose of planning is to balance those interests to produce a thriving city." And that "it's in the city's interest to promote a public realm that benefits (all of its) citizens."

by Thayer-D on Dec 23, 2013 3:53 pm • linkreport

Beautiful architecture in DC is best shown IMHO by the new public libraries and the new NPR headquarters. (NPR is a perfectly square 12 story and beautiful). Organizations and businesses who have headquarters buildings have an interest in trophy buildings.

I've dealt with developers for a long time and know their business is making as much money as possible for their business. That's absolutely the way it should be. And that means not spending extra money on some architectural artwork for public benefit. And bland gets through review much better anyway speeding up the process.

by Tom Coumaris on Dec 23, 2013 6:50 pm • linkreport

Absolutely, and it's good to hear architects speak up and out about the issues they face and what the constraints are that lead to the decisions they make. These things don't happen in a vacuum.

I believe until a plan to increase height restrictions can benefit the DC residents who continue to be marginalized, GGW contributors and readers must consider if such development is this generation's Urban Renewal/Highway Construction.
Well, I'd say it depends on what you're proposing to be un-marginalized. Easing the height limit is mainly supposed to make the buildings taller, not make society fairer per se. There are probably better ways to do that.

Also, that's related to why I find the argument that equates the height limit (and usually, Smart Growth) with inner city hwy expansion/urban renewal specious. We have plenty of examples of very livable cities that are very tall and cities that are short and not as pleasant. DC will likely remain desireable one way or the other. The only way to look at this is by examining its marginal effects.

by drumz on Dec 23, 2013 7:34 pm • linkreport

I like money

by NE John on Dec 23, 2013 10:55 pm • linkreport

@ "However, it is naive and ignorant to ignore that increasing height limits leads to further gentrification"

In some places, the tallest residential buildings are public housing.

@ Beautiful architecture in DC is best shown IMHO by the new public libraries and the new NPR headquarters."

I think those examples are all ugly, too boxy, and will go out of style in 10 yrs or less. But buildings like One Franklin Square, will probably never go out of style.

@ "DC will likely remain desireable one way or the other."

Not everywhere in DC is so desirable. And when times get tough, so do big cities.

@ I like money

Me too.

by Burd on Dec 25, 2013 10:18 am • linkreport

"I've dealt with developers for a long time and know their business is making as much money as possible for their business. That's absolutely the way it should be. And that means not spending extra money on some architectural artwork for public benefit."

It's kind of crazy to think of all architecture in this reductive way. Big box architecture where the public realm consists of dashing through the parking lot, sure. On an urban street you'd be nuts not to give your building a competitive advantage, assuming all other things (creature comforts, location) being equal. Call it the Bilbao effect, but spending money for architectural "artwork" is a common way of getting higher rents. How well one does this is another question.

"And bland gets through review much better anyway speeding up the process."

This is a common mistake with many developers who think the less they show the less to criticize. Unfortunately for them people are paying a lot more attention and lacking character or having a character that's antagonistic to the site, especially if it's well loved does not a speedy process make.

The market has always been the primary force for most development, and that is as it should be, especially when so many lovely places can be credited to it. So why do many architects resist working with-in these places aesthetically? There are many reasons, some of which have already been mentioned, but a common refrain is a building must be "of it's time", which for many architects means all glass. At this point I think that's just as much developer driven as architect driven, but the resulting criticisms and delays at the approval's process can't be the most efficient use of one's recourses.

by Thayer-D on Dec 25, 2013 7:19 pm • linkreport

The most intersting piece of architecture that I have seen in the past few years is builiding at the NW corner of G and 10th Streets. Formerly a church, (they incorporated it into the new office buiding), it has style. Great window reflections, different building material textures and they planted rosemary in the tree planters. It's a welcome to our neighborhodd. One of the new buildings at City Center is interesting the other one is a big black ugly box.

by Christine on Dec 26, 2013 10:36 am • linkreport

Correction it's on the NE corner of G and 10th Streets.

by Christine on Dec 26, 2013 10:46 am • linkreport

Great write up. Thanks for doing the research and interviews. Might be interesting to do this as a series with the next article interviewing developers.

by Simcha Ward on Dec 26, 2013 8:47 pm • linkreport

Smicha, I love that suggestion. It would be interesting to hear from the city officials also and to do a final write-up to see how similar or divergent the various players in our built environment feel about the subject.

by Thayer-D on Dec 31, 2013 9:35 am • linkreport

I'd love to see something like that, but it's a bit tricky to figure out who to talk to. Perhaps real estate lawyers would be interesting.

If there's one thing I hope everyone takes away, it's that the height limit as currently written isn't flexible and also isn't very precise. I would be interested in seeing how it could be refined to better work with different contexts and uses.

Christine: I completely agree that that's a great building. Todd Williams Billie Tsien are a great firm. Have you been inside the church? It's very serene.

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 31, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

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