Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Construction


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
T. Roosevelt$1,400,00019671,074$12,600,000$9,800,000
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.


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.


See where building construction is happening in DC

DC is growing by 1100 people every month, and to accommodate them, the city will need more buildings. A new map shows where new construction in the city is taking place.

The Map Attacks blog made this heat map of every active building permit in DC using the District's GIS data. Red areas have the most building permits, followed by orange, yellow, and green areas. The map includes all kinds of permits, from high-rise apartment towers to kitchen renovations.

Not surprisingly, there's a lot of construction occurring in downtown DC, though there's also a significant amount of building taking place near U Street. H Street and Columbia Heights are no slouch, as well as Fort Totten, where a new Walmart is under construction.

It's interesting that those areas all seem to be busier than NoMa or Navy Yard, where entire neighborhoods have risen in the past few years. And it's notable that the bulk of new construction is occurring east of Rock Creek Park.

That's a good thing after decades of disinvestment, but it also illustrates how resistance to new development west of the park has pushed demand further east. Meanwhile, areas east of the Anacostia River still aren't seeing much of the city's new construction.

What do you see in the map?


Van Ness construction could close sidewalk for 2 years

The last time the sidewalk by the Van Ness Square demolition site was closed to pedestrians, it was a temporary measure. But the latest closure could last much longer.

Photo by Pat Davies.

Developer Saul Centers will tear down the shopping center and replace it with a new apartment building. At a pre-construction meeting last week, representatives from Saul told the community that the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk alongside the construction zone will be closed for two years. DDOT regulations won't allow a covered walkway because of underground construction that was too close to the street.

Instead, pedestrians would have to cross to the west side of Connecticut at Albemarle and Windom. By last Saturday, Saul had already closed off the sidewalk, and it was clear how dangerous this situation was going to be.

I saw a blind man walking north in the street and a man with a toddler on his shoulders coming toward him. Of course, the blind man could not see the large sign announcing the closed sidewalk, but the father definitely could.

ANC commissioner Sally Gresham was also out on Saturday afternoon and spent an hour monitoring "how folks were dealing with" the sidewalk closure. "The results are very scary!" she wrote. Gresham counted 102 people walking on Connecticut Avenue itself, including 6 young teenagers on skate boards, 22 strollers with 1, 2, or 3 adults, 35 people carrying bags of groceries or small children, 26 elderly people, and 13 people using canes, walkers, or leg braces.

Luckily, this was the weekend, and parked cars did provide something of a buffer between traffic and pedestrians. But I wondered about the march of pedestrians on automatic pilot during the Monday morning rush hour.

When asked if there will be a police presence to monitor the situation, Commander Reese of the 2nd Police District said the agency would pay attention to it, but did not have enough officers to have them out on the street.

On Monday morning between 8:30 and 9 a.m., I decided to take a look. Most pedestrians were crossing where they should:

All photos by the author unless noted.

But there were quite a number crossing mid-block and walking in the street.

People crossing mid-block on Connecticut Avenue.

People walking in the street.

And with no police in sight. I forgot they were only monitoring the situation.

I emailed the photos to DDOT, and Director Terry Bellamy replied, "I am alerting our Public Space Team to investigate and make recommendations." According to Saul Centers' Kimberly Miller, construction superintendent "Jason" met with DDOT inspectors, who noted that pedestrians weren't following the posted signs, but that the project still complied with DDOT requirements.

This is not a satisfactory outcome. After pondering the issue, and thinking of the places I have traveled that control pedestrian crossings a lot better than we do, the solution came to me on my afternoon walk. I went home and dashed off another email proposing that pedestrian path be controlled through fencing that allows people to enter stores but prevents pedestrians from crossing the street mid-block.

New legislation may also improve pedestrian safety around construction sites as well. The Bicycle Safety Amendment Act of 2013, which will take effect December 20, requires anyone seeking permits from DDOT to block a sidewalk or bike lane to also provide a "safe accommodation" for pedestrians and bicyclists to use instead.

As of today, the sidewalk is open again, but it's unclear for how long. Will the council's new legislation make a difference for pedestrians on Connecticut Avenue over the next two years? We will keep you posted.

A version of this post appeared on Forest Hills Connection.


First streetcar wires go up on H Street

As of this morning, the first streetcar wires are up on H Street.

Span wire on H Street. Photo by BeyondDC.

DDOT began stringing head span wires this morning around 7:00 am. Head span wires run perpendicular to the tracks. They're different than the contact wires, which run parallel to the tracks and directly power trains. The contact wires will go up next, in the coming weeks.

Streetcar in Seattle, showing both span wires and contact wires. Photo by BeyondDC.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


WMATA shows off vintage Metrorail construction pictures

WMATA's Metro Forward Facebook page has a fun set of Metrorail construction pictures, dating from the mid-1970s. They're a fascinating look back at a wholly different Washington.

Archives in 1975. Photo from WMATA.

The most interesting may be a 1974 picture of Gallery Place under construction. What's now the Verizon Center is a dirt patch and a collection of holes.

But my favorite is probably the one of Archives station in June, 1975, pictured above. In the picture, workers have yet to add the tracks, platforms, or mezzanines, so the vaulted ceiling runs uninterrupted for the entire length of the station. It looks so much more voluminous!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


No answers, no accountability for Silver Spring Transit Center

Neither Montgomery County nor construction company Foulger-Pratt will take responsibility for ongoing delays at the Silver Spring Transit Center. And until outside consultants release their findings, which were supposed to come out last month, it's unclear what's wrong with it in the first place.

Silver Spring Transit Center in 2012. Photo by the author.

Last month, Foulger-Pratt filed a claim against Montgomery County, saying the county was responsible for delays in the Silver Spring Transit Center, a 3-story building which will have bus bays for Metrobuses, Ride On, commuter buses, UMD shuttles, intercity buses and more, along with space for a future Purple Line station.

The project has now been stalled for over a year because concrete was poured too thin or too thick in certain areas, raising concerns about its structural integrity.

"This transit center could have and should have been open months ago for the good of this community," said Bryant Foulger, managing principal at Foulger-Pratt, in a brief phone conversation. "We're not the only ones who're frustrated. We're all waiting."

The transit center was first proposed 20 years ago. Costs for the project have more than tripled since money was first set aside in 1999, to $112 million. Originally scheduled to open in 2009, the transit center should open this fall, according to Patrick Lacefield, spokesperson for County Executive Ike Leggett.

Montgomery County has hired KCE Structural Engineers to prepare a report on the status of the transit center, which was supposed to be delivered at the end of January. "They know we want to get started, but we asked them to give it a very good look," Lacefield said in another phone conversation.

Foulger says they offered to help fix the problem, but haven't received a response. The county hasn't allowed their engineers to meet with Foulger-Pratt's engineers.

In the meantime, Foulger-Pratt has filed 35 separate delay claims, some of which the county has acknowledged and paid for, said Judah Lifschitz, a lawyer representing Foulger-Pratt. He claims that the county has yet to pay for "millions of dollars" in changes they've requested to the transit center. According to the Washington Post, Foulger-Pratt says they're entitled to over $7,500 a day in payments if work is delayed past February 26.

Lacefield wasn't able to immediately confirm how much the county owed Foulger-Pratt, though Leggett recently proposed setting aside $7.5 million to pay for needed improvements.

"What we'd really like to do is sit down and let's discuss this," said Foulger. "We get the right people in the room, we get the right experts, and we move forward. That's how we do it in the private sector."

The county is waiting until the report is released to make any further statements. "We're not going to respond to that until we get the final report," said Lacefield. "Depending on those findings, we may be advancing claims of our own on the behalf of taxpayers."

Whenever the report does come out, Lacefield said there are no plans for a public forum on the transit center, as requested last month by Action Committee for Transit, a Montgomery County advocacy group. (Full disclosure: I sit on ACT's board.) "Great, let's have a forum, but let's have something to talk about" first, Lacefield said.

Until then, Foulger stands by the quality of their work. "The building's safe," said Foulger. "It's not a matter of safety. The only thing that's left is what you want done and you won't tell us what to do."

The county, meanwhile, is willing to take its time to ensure a good product. "Nobody wants to get this done quicker than we do," Lacefield said, "but we also want to get it done right."


Car-centered traffic engineering ties Bethesda in knots

Construction-related street closings in downtown Bethesda have put pedestrians and cyclists at risk, while needlessly jamming up car traffic. The Montgomery County DOT, by treating a busy urban crossroads like a suburban highway, has made the streets less friendly to all.

Bethesda and Woodmont Avenues last Saturday. Photo by the author.

The intersection of Bethesda and Woodmont Avenues is the best-known place in downtown Bethesda. Located a few blocks from the Metro, it is surrounded by shops, offices, movie theaters and apartments. A complex mix of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians traverse it every day.

Faced with the problem of managing traffic while a large mixed-use development goes up, the county took a standard traffic engineering approach. It treated the crossroads as an intersection consisting of 3 roads that carry cars and sought to eliminate "conflicts" by removing obstacles to automobile movement.

But Bethesda & Woodmont is also a major travel node for bicyclesvehicles toowhich arrive on two other routes, the Capital Crescent and Georgetown Branch Trails. Suburban traffic engineering concepts, applied in this highly urban setting, have made a mess for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists alike.

A 20-month road closure began 3 weeks ago. Woodmont Avenue, which crosses the construction site, had one block shut completely. On Bethesda Avenue, MCDOT removed turn lanes and eliminated a section of sidewalk. It moved back stop lines for the traffic light, sending bicycles exiting the Capital Crescent Trail directly into the intersection.

Aerial view of Bethesda and Woodmont Avenues before construction. Photo from Google Earth.

Problems quickly emerged. Because motorists can no longer use Woodmont Avenue to reach Bethesda Row from the south, Bethesda Avenue carries more traffic than before. Traffic on that newly narrowed road regularly backs up.

Closing a section of Woodmont shut down an important pedestrian corridor, which connects a densely populated apartment district with downtown Bethesda and the Metro station. Pedestrians now detour through a drive-through bank.

In addition, Bethesda Avenue has foot traffic of its own. A 190-unit apartment building (where I live), stores, and restaurants adjacent to the closed sidewalk generate significant pedestrian activity. Yet the traffic plan did not replace the crosswalk lost to construction. Pedestrians now dodge cars as they cross the street.

One cause of these difficulties is that the county did not retime traffic lights. A longer green light could move through traffic faster on Bethesda Ave. But with this fix alone, turning cars would still back up at crosswalks. And faster-moving traffic would endanger pedestrians crossing Bethesda Avenue and bicyclists leaving the trails.

The traffic engineers, focused as usual on cars, made another, more fundamental mistake. They ignored the movement of bicycles between the trail and the roadways. The great majority of weekday cyclists go from the trail into the traffic lanes. The new traffic pattern endangers these cyclists with a signal that sends them into moving auto traffic.

On-street cyclists moving to and from bike trail during morning rush hour. Photo by the author.

Also, the construction traffic pattern continues the county's ongoing disregard for the safety and convenience of pedestrians. There may not be room for a temporary walkway next to the construction, but a crosswalk could have been marked where the sidewalk ends on Bethesda Avenue. Instead, the county erected a "Sidewalk Closed" sign a block away, needlessly driving away walk-in customers that the street's businesses depend on.

This construction project cries out for innovative traffic management. A two-phase traffic signal could fix many of the problems pedestrians and cyclists face during the construction. One phase would be green for all pedestrian crossings and for bicycles entering from the trails, making the intersection much safer and more convenient.

The other phase would be a flashing yellow that allows cars to move slowly through the intersection in all directions. The significant reduction of traffic on Woodmont Avenue since the closure of the block south of the intersection could make this feasible. Pedestrians and cyclists would be much better off, and auto traffic would back up less.

That might or might not be the best solution. What is certain is the need for more multimodal thinking. In this sort of urban setting, traditional traffic engineering fails pedestrians and cyclists, and hurts motorists too.

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