Greater Greater Washington

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History


Downtown DC could have been more like L'Enfant Plaza

Poking through the archives of the Washington Post, Tom at Ghosts of DC found a plan to sink several roads in downtown DC into trenches, build tunnels, and create a large underground parking structure beneath a big plaza where Freedom Plaza now stands.


Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

Tom writes that, "The motivation for this was the push to make Pennsylvania the 'grand axis of the Nation,' removing unnecessary bottlenecks and messy intersections."

From the Post article:

Between 6th and 13th sts., E st. would be simply a "depressed street"a road sunk beneath ground level and roofed over at intersections, but mostly open to direct sunlight.

At 13th, however, it would become a tunnel, dipping under the proposed National Square and continuing beneath the southern fringe of the White House grounds, emerging at a point just west of 17th st.

Under the plan, E st. would be widened to six moving lanes and two access lanes and would have separate underground levels for traffic, parking and pedestrians. ...

Pennsylvania ave. itself would be kept at its present 8-lane width but would be repaved with a tinted, decorative material, such as hard brick laid over concrete.

Because of the distinctive materials used, one architect commented, "it will not only look different but sound different" to motorists.

This would have turned E Street into something close to a freeway downtown, continuing the existing freeway west of the White House. Downtown would have felt a lot more like another product of that era's transportation mindset, L'Enfant Plaza, with its multiple levels of roadways that go under and over in an effort to speed cars while forgetting about what's best for the pedestrian experience.

A "depressed street" creates a big barrier, psychological as well as physical. Even if people only cross at the corners, a street with stores on each side but a huge trench of traffic in between feels much more like two disconnected places than one with a solid street in between.

Harriet Tregoning has stated a belief that after the Connecticut Avenue underpass near Dupont Circle cut one side of the street off from the other, it hastened the decline of retail along that stretch. Besides, this plan would have demolished most of the buildings along E at the time and made it far wider, curb to curb.


Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

What's now Freedom Plaza (and large Pennsylvania Avenue roadways on each side) would have instead become a square with special pavement to create perhaps a sort of shared space not solely for cars. The picture from the Post doesn't seem to depict any cars nor any people, so it's hard to know how it might have worked.

It perhaps couldn't have been much worse than the complete failure of a plaza we have today; a fountain would have been far more appealing to people than a giant marble dead zone only appealing to the skateboarders Park Police constantly chase off.

Maybe this could have been a bustling European-style square. Or, given what we know of the federal design mindset of the time (and sometimes of the present day), perhaps it would just have looked very stately, monumental, and devoid of life.

Public Spaces


Federal board wants "dignified," dull Southwest Waterfront

The Wharf development has the potential to create an exciting pedestrian-oriented, human-scale space along DC's Southwest Waterfront. But a federal board of artists and architects, most of whom don't live in the Washington region, is trying to make it much more boring.


Is all this human activity too "carnivalesque" for CFA board members? They might prefer a dead yet monumental space. Images from PN Hoffman/Madison Marquette.

On March 27, the US Commission on Fine Arts issued preliminary comments on the proposed development that were as predictable as they were disappointing. While strongly supporting the project and noting that its design has "improved substantially," commission members continue resisting some key elements at the heart of the plan.

The commission's letter to the DC Deputy Mayor for Economic Development argues that:

[T]he design continues to present unnecessary emphasis on specific moments or events within this linear urban spaceusing too many materials, too many elements, and too many unrelated formswhich may result in a carnivalesque character, and they suggested editing the vocabulary of design elements to create a calmer, more dignified effect. ...

The commission members recommended that the design of the esplanade be continuousnot interrupted by new paving patterns from incidental features such as piers, pavilions and streetsto reinforce this central organizing element within the project.

These suggestions, like others in the past from CFA, undermine opportunities to build pleasing, lively gathering places in favor of an austere architectural monument. Such input is one explanation for Washington's many underwhelming and little-used public spaces.

This fascination with "continuous" features is precisely what has created dead zones throughout the city, from the expanse of M Street SE leading to Nationals Stadium, to Massachusetts Ave. from Union Station to the Convention Centerdubbed the "mediocre mile"as well as the existing design of the Southwest Waterfront that this project aims to replace.


Diagram showing how different materials emphasize varying spaces.

Stretches of new development that are indifferent to pedestrians and provide little or no animation produce unappealing public spaces. At best, they are devoid of activity until a special event is superimposed; at worst they become havens for crime for lack of "eyes on the street." The best new development needs the very design features that the commission's members dismiss.

As the councilmember for Ward 6, home to the Southwest Waterfront, I challenged Monte Hoffman, president of the site's major development company, to:

  • Design buildings with variation and architectural interest at the ground levelthe opposite of suburban buildings that are appreciated from the window of a car;
  • Create surprises and interactive features like those on the banks of rivers and waterfronts in European cities with romantic, signature public realms;
  • And most importantly, reject the failed architecture around Nationals Stadium that has created cavernous, blank, uniform design for blocks on end.


Top: Oslo, Norway. Bottom: Pike Place, Seattle, Washington.

Large areas become more interesting when changes in pavement and vertical elements create recognizable "neighborhoods" by varying the built environment. As architecture experts at Gallaudet University have told me, such features are exactly what it takes to signal that you are moving into a new room or area.

This delineation and animation recognizes the failure of the soulless, uniform development across the countrythe "Applebee's effect." Yet commission members oppose features such as an arch to announce the entrance to Jazz Alley, calling this and other structures "both formally and tectonically extraneous to the project."

It's time to end the drumbeat of new developments in the nation's capital, from the convention center to TechWorld, that provide the type of architectural simplicity the commission favors but establish mammoth dead zones which inhibit activity and entertainment and ultimately compromise safety.

We must resist federal reviewers' impulse to stamp out street-level interest and animation, especially when projects like the Southwest Waterfront development offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right.

Update: The original version of this post said that many CFA members do not live in DC, but it is even more descriptive to point out that they don't live in the Washington region at all. We have changed this to better reflect Wells' original intent. Intro paragraphs are often significantly reworked in the editing process for clarity, length, and to get main points up top, including in this case, so any blame for this phrase should go to the editors and not Wells.

History


How politics sank a radical monument 105 years ago

The simple Commodore Barry monument in Franklin Square gets lost among the many dead generals of Washington. The original design was very different, but was scuttled amid battles over how much a memorial in Washington, and immigrants in American society, should maintain a clear identity or assimilate into the conventional.


A plaster model of Andrew O'Connor's winning design.

In 1906, an alliance of Irish-American groups decided they wanted a monument that would assert their participation in the founding myth of the United States. This had been denied; before 1700, the principal means of Irish immigration was through indentured servitude. The Irish, upwardly mobile and increasingly tired of their second-class ethnic status, were arguably making a bid to become fully a part of white culture.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, a friendly society, saw the Revolutionary War naval hero John Barry as precisely the man to plug into the American foundation myth. The French had done it with Rochambeau and Lafayette. The Poles would do the same with Kościuszko, and the Germans with von Steuben.

The Hibernians wanted the best, so they courted the judgement of stars like Daniel Burnham, Frank Millet, and Herbert Adams. They had no idea what they were getting.


Andrew O'Connor in Paris.

The jury's eyes smiled upon an Irish-American devotee of Rodin, Andrew O'Connor. From Paris, he contrasted a naturalistic portrait of Barry with impressionistic depictions of Irish history. A freestanding personification of Ireland blends into a low relief depicting Irish history. After St. Patrick, the frieze turns quickly toward English oppression, until it terminates in tormented nudes looking west across the ocean to a new life. (R-L)

Situating Barry in a narrative of British violence was wildly unconventional, but completely accurate. Protestant landowners expropriated the Barry family farm when John was a child, casting him into even more abject poverty. He was at sea by 14.

The statue of Barry is tough, if not butch. He's leaning into the deck of a rocking of a ship, staring at a threat unseen. O'Connor exaggerated his hands and face to realize a psychological intensity that is present in only a few monumental sculptures in DC, Henry Schrady's Grant, and the Adams Memorial.


Left: Detail of the Emigrants. Right: Detail of the John Barry portrait.

As far as I know, only the Eisenhower Memorial combines freestanding portraiture in front of bas-relief sculptures in a way that comes close to O'Connor's layering. The flickering of a radical direction for traditional sculpture appealed to artists steeped in psychology and modern philosophy but made enemies of Washington elites and populist conservatives.

The Hibernians balked at what they saw as a reification of hot-tempered Papist carnality. It's an altar behind a rail, for God's sake! And all that affliction was just so terribly 1545. It wasn't hard for the groups to push the stereotype further and see the statue of Barry as little more than a Bowery thug in Colonial duds. And those eagles...

The Hibernians wanted a statue that would include one of their own into the genteel pedigree of the memorial landscape. Looking around, that seemed to be mostly men in Classical repose with bald assertions of greatness. All this emphasis on misfortune and victimization was effete nonsense.

Controversy over the design went on for three years. A number of Beaux-arts sculptors and architects spoke out in favor of the design. In the end, the Hibernians reminded President Taft of their voting power, and he rejected the design on June 1st, 1909. The replacement is a competent statue by John Boyle, with an aristocratic commodore and a vacant female allegorical figure.

Like so many competitions, the winner judged by peers was brushed aside by the actual power behind it. After having a contest to make it look open and democratic, they put up whatever they actually wanted.

As one might expect, the appeal to respectability didn't work. At the dedication in 1914, Woodrow Wilson sniped at "Americans with hyphens" who wanted respect without shedding their identities.

Franklin Square, which seemed so promising at the time, never became a memorial ground like Lafayette Park. It never worked as a city park, either. Attention shifted elsewhere, leaving Barry adrift and alone.


John Boyle's completed Commodore Barry Memorial after completion.

Images: O'Connor design from Kirk Savage and the National Archives. Boyle design from the Commission on Fine Arts. A version of this post appeared on цarьchitect.

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.

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.

Architecture


Design could make or break the 11th Street Bridge Park

Washington has long turned its back on the Anacostia River, and in turn the neighborhoods east of the river. The 11th Street Bridge Park could become one of the city's most distinctive places, turning disused bridge structures into a connector and destination. With a design competition now underway, all that's left to do is design and build it.


An early park rendering by Ed Estes.

That's a tall order, but the project was born out of ingenuity. The proposed park takes advantage of foundations left over from one of the 1960s highway bridges. Rather than connect Capitol Hill to Anacostia, the highways isolated both.

Originally intended to feed the inner loop freeway, the old bridges were great for driving through the riverfront neighborhoods on the way to something else. When the city rebuilt the bridges in 2012, the city was left with an obsolete, but not totally useless, bridge next to the new local span.


The Bridge Park site. Image by the author using base from Google Maps.

The possibility of doing something with the remnants stuck in the mind of Scott Kratz, who at the time worked at the National Building Museum. At a meeting with then-Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning, he brought up the concept of reusing the bridge. To his surprise, she immediately thought it was a great idea.

Since then, Kratz has been figuring out the details and building support for the Bridge Park, now working full-time on this project at THEARC in Congress Heights. That organization has held 195 meetings on both sides of the river to find out what the bridge would need to be, with a focus on reaching out to residents who often feel ignored in efforts to improve the city.

Now, THEARC and its appropriately named parent organization, Building Bridges Across the River, are looking to open the dialogue to everyone who benefits from the Anacostia. Since the park will likely be privately funded but publicly owned, raising the $35 million required to build and endow the bridge park will be a major goal. The other key part will be a design competition.

The Bridge Park must be more than a park

Given the precarious site and high cost, this project is risky. Getting the design right can make all of the difference between a world-class park and a white elephant, as Dan Malouff has previously noted.

Rather than stage an ostentatious open competition where flashy, iconic images predominate, Kratz went to the communities first. Some of those 195 meetings were charrettes, design meetings where stakeholders identified what was missing from their neighborhoods and how the bridge could fix them. When professionals do get involved later this month, they'll be screened based on their experience working with communities as much as design skill.


An early park rendering by Ed Estes.

Participants in the outreach meetings have focused on a few ideas for the park again and again. Because the East of the River neighborhoods face high obesity and hypertension rates, active recreation figures prominently in visions for the park. This includes playgrounds, as well as conventional sports areas, since there isn't one in Anacostia proper. In a similar vein, the Bridge Park staff are interested in introducing urban agriculture to the bridge, possibly fruit trees.

Encouraging residents to interact with the river is another goal. This might mean a dock as much as a environmental education center. Artistic output forms the final side: an outdoor performance space, or even a facility for an arts nonprofit could be part of the project. In general, Kratz sees art as crucial to letting the community take ownership of the park when it opens.

Turning the site's challenges into opportunities

I would like to see programs that take advantage of the elevated site. Since it's not an automobile bridge, the Bridge Park doesn't need to be flat, symmetrical, or even the same width all the way across. A skate park might suit the site perfectly. It's a loud activity that needs uneven terrain to play up its acrobatic elements.

Urban agriculture, on the other hand, seems counterintuitive. Planting beds would require importing large volumes of dirt and building a heavy-duty structure to support it. There are sites in Anacostia on actual land that seem more obvious for a farm.


The site boasts incredible views. How can the park make them even better? Photo by the author.

The main challenge the site faces is its isolation from busy streets. The first piers of the Bridge Park are ¼ mile from Good Hope Road on one side. On the other side, M Street SE is a long walk along the Navy Yard's fences and a highway viaduct.

Kratz realizes this problem, so he worked with students from Virginia Tech to find every possible connection, especially to the Anacostia Riverfront Trail. They proposed lighting and community art to enliven the sidewalks to M Street and Good Hope Road. Arriving with a gym bag might still present an obstacle, so Kratz is working with DDOT to install a stop for the Anacostia streetcar, which will run over the new bridge.

Streetcar access will be the most important factor in drawing residents to the active recreation sites. For casual recreation, how the designers locate activity areas could make those walks easier. With major attractions at either abutment of the bridge, visitors would come to pick up their kid from an event and kill time by talking a walk down to see the great view downriver.

Bridge Park needs to feel like a place to succeed

These designers will face a site pretty much unlike any other. Journalists frequently compare the Bridge Park to New York's High Line, but there are several crucial differences. For one, the High Line runs for 1.45 miles through dense neighborhoods, well connected to the streets below.

Reusing the entire structure of an old railroad viaduct, the High Line was stuck with relatively tight dimensions, ranging from 30 to 88 feet. That's about size of a tennis court. The 11th Street Bridge Park has the potential to stand 160 feet wide and 800 feet long, around the size of three professional football fields end-to-end.

And pedestrian bridges sometimes have places to rest, but they rarely are destinations by themselves. There are a few unbuilt parallels, like Thomas Heatherwick's Garden Bridge in London, or OMA's Jean-Jacques Bosc bridge in Bordeaux, but those still function primarily as transportation infrastructure.

There is one project that has actually gets beyond the transportation deck: a pedestrian bridge in Providence. Reusing the piers of what had been a highway bridge right through the center of town, the new bridge connects two sections of a greenway.


Providence Bridge Park, a glimpse of our possible future. Image from PVD Planning.

Architect inForm and engineer Buro Happold created a structure that varies width and height: In one place, a delicate bridge, while on the other, it's grassy steps down to the river. With all of this three-dimensional variation, the designers were able to put a café in the middle.


The Providence Bridge Park is landscaped, not flat. Section drawings from PVD Planning.

What's nice about the Providence project is that it looks a lot like a street: it has the multi-layered activity that happens when people are passing by, relaxing, working, and working out. To be successful, the Anacostia Bridge Park needs to sustain this kind of activity. The design of the project, from how the activities are arranged to the way it interprets the river artistically is what will do that.

The designers' test will be to take the communities' desires and layer them within architecture that connects the mundane to something bigger in the context. In other words, the park should make a basketball game feel as connected to MLK Boulevard as to the flow of water underneath. The players should sense that they're playing 20 feet in the air and a mile from the Capitol.

The bridge park can't solve that many problems. But it can create a place of confluence between the city's different constituencies. If everyone feels they own this park, it can be part of a more inclusive revitalization of Washington.

To find out more about the Bridge Park, please visit bridgepark.org. The design competition will be announced on March 20th.

Architecture


Wheaton's Youth Center represented the future in 1963. Could it do that again in 2014?

50 years ago, the Wheaton Youth Center brought local teens together around rock-and-roll and symbolized the idealism of the young, fast-growing suburb. As pressure grows to replace it with a new recreation center, can this building adapt to become a part of Wheaton's future?


All photos by the author.

To some, the 1960s-era building at Georgia and Arcola avenues is a local landmark with a storied musical history, but to others, it's an eyesore and an exercise in nostalgia. They can't even agree on what to call it: preservation supporters use its original name, the Youth Center, while opponents call it the Rec Center.

Whatever the name, county officials have been planning to demolish it and the adjacent library and put them in one new, $36 million building on the site of the library. The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Board both recommended the building become a historic landmark, but it doesn't seem to have many friends on the County Council, which will make the final decision.

"Where rock-and-roll was invented"

When the Wheaton Youth Center opened in 1963, it won awards for its Japanese-style architecture. But it was better known for hosting famous musical acts, like Iggy Pop, Rod Stewart, and Led Zeppelin, who may have played their first US show there in 1969.


Eileen McGuckian of Montgomery Preservation, Inc. and the guys who hung out at the Youth Center as teens.

Local musicians played the youth center's stage as well, including a 13-year-old Tori Amos, then living in Rockville, who gave her first public performance there at a talent show in 1977. In December, the kids who once hung out at the Wheaton Youth Center came back to celebrate the building's 50th birthday with cake and a screening of filmmaker Jeff Krulik's documentary "Led Zeppelin Played Here."

Krulik, who lives in Silver Spring, says the building helped nurture a music scene in Wheaton. "Places like this are where the rock-and-roll concert industry was virtually invented," he says. "The building speaks to me. The walls talk."

"This was the cool place to be," says Olney resident Rick, who grew up in Wheaton and hung out at the Youth Center every weekend. "It kept us off the streets, gave us focus...all the things that young people should learn." Rick only recently learned about the building's architectural history, but says "that alone" makes it worth saving.

Is preservation a "fanciful plan"?

To current users, however, the recreation center is too small and falling apart. December's party happened in a crowded hallway between the gym with the leaky roof and the computer lab with four machines.

The county didn't have to consider preserving the building because it wasn't on its survey of historic buildings, a prerequisite for historic designation. The last survey was done in 1976 and doesn't include any buildings from the 20th century, because nobody thought they were historic yet. Planner are working on a new survey to identify which buildings deserve further study, says historic preservation planner Clare Lise Kelly.

Naturally, residents anxious for a new recreation center fear that designation will add unnecessary delay and cost. Outside the party, opponents planted little yellow signs reading "NO DELAY" all around the building. Last fall, the Planning Board recommended keeping the old recreation center since the new one would be built next to it anyway, which wasn't received well.


How the new recreation center and library (right) could fit in with the old one. Image from Montgomery County Planning Department.

"If the Planning Board wanted to add another element to their fanciful plan, they might as well have added a zoo for unicorns," wrote Olney resident and library board member Art Brodsky in a letter to the Gazette.

Both sides disagree how much it would cost to rehabilitate the building, which has never been renovated. Architects Grimm + Parker, which is designing the new facility, estimates it could cost nearly $7.8 million to bring the building up to code and move in the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, currently housed in the library. Advocacy group Montgomery Preservation, Inc. hired a structural engineer to assess the building, who says it would cost just $1.3 million for more basic improvements.

Community leaders say neither price is worth it. Before a public hearing last night, Councilmember Nancy Navarro, who represents Wheaton, sent an email blast to her constituents asking them to testify against preservation. "We can - and should - find ways to honor the history of this facility in the new design, but not through historic designation," she wrote.

Could the Youth Center represent the future again?

The Wheaton Youth Center is young enough that people don't consider it truly historic, but old enough to be unfashionable and in disrepair. But for a community that grew up in the 1950s and 60s, buildings like the Youth Center are as much a part of Wheaton's heritage and Montgomery County's heritage as Victorian rowhouses are in DC, setting it apart as a product of its time.

Eileen McGuckian, president of Montgomery Preservation, Inc., was a student at Blair High School in Silver Spring when the youth center opened. "It's the period of hopes and dreams, of things happening...it was exciting," she said.


Inside the gym of the Wheaton Youth Center where bands used to play.

But Wheaton has changed a lot over the past 50 years, from a largely homogeneous, middle-class place to one that's much more socioeconomically and racially diverse. At the party, Rick said that many of his friends growing up have moved out to Olney or Damascus, taking their memories with them.

And it was hard not to notice the contrast between the older white guys standing on the stage, reminiscing about their days playing in rock-and-roll bands decades ago, and the young, mostly black and Hispanic kids playing pickup basketball on the floor. For kids growing up in Wheaton today, this building belongs to a past they can't relate to and people who don't live there anymore.

Preservationists have to prove that a building that reflected Wheaton's future in 1963 can still be a beacon today. One option is leasing it to a nonprofit group who would fix the building themselves, like the the Writer's Center, housed in the Bethesda Youth Center.

Kelly sent me a list of 13 organizations willing to take over the building, including arts groups, theatre companies, and the Ethiopian Cultural Center, which serves the region's quarter-million Ethiopian immigrants. These groups represent where Wheaton is today, and they might help this building become a valued part of the community again.

In any case, it might be too late for the Wheaton Youth Center. But I hope we'll give Montgomery County's other notable modern buildings a second chance. If you think this building deserves historic designation, you can email the County Council at mailto:county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov.

Architecture


Northeast Library reopens with just the right changes

On Monday, the Northeast Neighborhood Library in Capitol Hill reopened after a $10 million modernization. Bringing it up to date required only a few major alterations, but the real challenge was finding new life in the 82-year-old building.


Children's collection, second floor showing integral shelves and benches. All photos from DCPL.

The function of a library has shifted a few times since 1932, when the branch circulated its first book. This most recent renovation positions it as more of a "third place" for the public without abandoning its core purpose as a public resource. Whether residents come to hear a story, use a computer, or attend a community meeting, some of the branch's 45,000 books are always in the background on built-in shelves.

Those shelves are emblematic of the way DCPL conducted the renovation. They're original, designed for 1930s book sizes. Unfortunately books have become bigger, particularly picture books, so a big part of the collection no longer fit.

Rather than rip out the shelves, library officials chose to expand them 1.5 inches with matching walnut woodwork. They're still not big enough for everything in the collection, but this kind of shrewd modification keeps the historic character without getting in the way of modern life.

When the city commissioned Albert Harris, the municipal architect from 1923-1934, to design the building, he did so in the Colonial Revival style. Since at least 1911, the Commission of Fine Arts had favored that style as a common look for DC's public buildings. The modest materials used by far-flung Georgian architects like brick and painted wood meant the style could be built inexpensively. It was also in fashion, since the reconstruction of Williamsburg was prompting architects to search for their roots.


Northeast Neighborhood library when it opened in 1932. Photo Courtesy DCPL.

But the revival of Georgian architecture meant drawing inspiration from building types that don't fit so well in an dense environment. Harris styled his building after mansions and courthouses that stood alone in fields.

On the site at 7th Street and Maryland Avenue NE, Harris' tight composition left an empty lawn on the most prominent corner. In the renovation, the exterior architect, Bell Architects located a patio there, so that the library has a front porch. With WiFi, of course.

A path runs from the patio around the back to a glass-enclosed staircase in the rear. The previous staircase ran clumsily through the central room, creating awkward spaces on either side. The new staircase fits into the footprint of a disused garage. The stairway's sunniness provokes the opposite sensation of the MLK Library's windowless, dreary stairwells: you want to climb it and see what you can see from it.

The staircase solves two other problems the building had. One is that the original entry couldn't be made ADA-accessible. The accessible door is in the glass tower, opposite the front door on 7th Street. Coming from either way, visitors enter into the same foyer and then into the library. What is effectively a single entrance shields the reading rooms from the noise of coming and going, so children can rush up to their spaces on the upper level and community members can visit the meeting room without disturbing patrons.


The new foyer, looking towards the glass stairway and circulation desk.

The lack of a good meeting room was the other problem before the renovation. Vines Architecture, who designed the interior, converted two underused rooms through discreet structural changes. New girders to hold up the mezzanine and basement ceilings converted what were once claustrophobic spaces into three public meeting rooms. This saved the airy rooms on the first and second floors for reading.

Other changes follow this trend of discreet interventions. The librarians wanted a more open space, so they could more easily monitor the rooms. The architects responded by placing the reference desk at the center of the building and cutting passages through the walls around it.

The cuts are low compared to the original doors, and the architects integrated them into the wood paneling, so you barely notice them. The things we take for granted nowadays, like good lighting, central air, and plenty of outlets are present, but not at the cost of the library's coziness.


Downstairs meeting room, with columns removed.

Beyond these quiet changes, the restoration had a light touch. The flaxen paint scheme and cork floor tiles are historically appropriate details that also suit contemporary expectations. The reading tables are recreations with one minor tweak: power strips. It's striking how good design can serve radically different uses with only minor alterations.

Since the beginning of its capital campaign in 2006, library officials have rebuilt 10 of the 26 branches. With the opening of the Northeast Library, they will have renovated five historic buildings. Three planned projects remain: Woodridge, which is under construction, West End, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. central library.

As we consider how to renovate that building, the Northeast Neighborhood Library might offer guidance. Here, carefully chosen alterations have an impact that goes beyond their immediate function. An understanding of what was good about the historic fabric revealed what needed to change. It's worth considering how much alteration is required to make a work of architecture better. A few little changes can do a lot of good.

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