Why Isn’t DC’s Residential Architecture More Adventurous?

by Shilpi Paul

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Rendering of Atlantic Plumbing project. Morris Adjmi Architects.

While DC is populated by stately historic buildings and charming Victorian rowhouses, many of the new residential buildings tend to take a similar form: boxy, unsculpted and squat. Multifamily buildings sprouting up all over the District are rarely inspiring. UrbanTurf investigates why the city’s new residential architecture isn’t more adventurous.

DC’s Height Restriction: The Box Effect

One of the more popular arguments to explain the lack of award-winning architecture in the nation’s capital is DC’s height restriction.

“When you don’t have the height issue, it’s much easier to make a building that has different forms,” architect Eric Colbert, who has designed dozens of multifamily buildings throughout the District, told UrbanTurf.

The problem, explained Colbert, is related not just to the height restriction, but also the floor area ratio (FAR). Because the cost of the land is based on the amount of square footage that one is allowed to build, developers feel compelled to build to the full FAR, which often means building out to the property line and up to the maximum height. This creates the box effect that is so common in new DC buildings.

“There is an incredible amount of pressure on the architect to design something that maximizes the salable or leasable square footage,” shared Colbert. “If you were to raise the height but not change FAR, it would allow more sculpting in the facade.”

Would loosening the height restriction allow buildings to take more original forms? Perhaps, though it’s not a guarantee, said Steve Calcott, a senior preservation planner at the Historic Preservation Office (HPO). “If 50-story buildings were allowed, would there be more opportunity for sculpting, or would the land prices simply reflect the fact that you can build a 50-story building?,” wondered Calcott.

The Historic Preservation Office, Board of Zoning Adjustment and ANCs around the city are sometimes blamed for DC’s lack of exciting architecture. When a developer has to gain approvals from these entities, they are subject to a good deal of public scrutiny, which can lead to a differently designed building than what was originally planned. Some believe that the compromising process takes the steam out of potentially inspiring designs.

Calcott refutes that claim, noting that buildings going up outside of Historic Districts or being built as a matter-of-right (i.e. those not subject to review) are not markedly more adventurous.

And sometimes, the review process results in an improved design. As an example, Calcott recalls a project currently under construction at 1919 14th Street NW, developed by level2 Development and designed, coincidentally, by Eric Colbert.

“When the project was proposed, there was a lot of concern within the community about the design and its relationship to Wallach Street, which is an intimate, small-scale block,” remembers Calcott. “By lowering the height at the corner and stepping back the tallest portion of the building by 10 or 15 feet, the building was sculpted to a point that it won widespread support. I think that resulted in a 5 percent loss of square footage, but clearly it’s a viable building and it’s very handsome.”

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The Lacey

Good Design Costs More. Is DC Willing to Pay?

In 2009, Division1 Architects designed The Lacey, a glassy, Mondrian-inspired 26-unit condo building on 11th Street NW that went on to win several design awards. However, developers had trouble selling the units and a number of price reductions were necessary before the building sold out.

Granted, the state of the real estate market in 2009 and 2010 made life difficult for many in the new construction business. But Division1 feels that their unusual, higher-end units appealed to a smaller proportion of the buying public.

“People don’t want to pay the difference for that quality and design,” said Debi Fox of Division1. “It’s a niche market.”

The Lacey cost more to build than neighboring condos. The higher-quality materials and the architect’s increased time investment resulted in a higher price per square foot. There were no comps in the neighborhood at the time, Fox told us.

But in addition to the price, not everyone was open to a living in a steel, glass and concrete structure with such a modern vibe.

“Buyers will come to me and say they want a contemporary, loft-style home, but when you take them out, what they mean by contemporary is just new,” noted Fox. “They don’t want ultra-modern.”

As Division1 learned, going outside the box, so to speak, can be risky. “When a developer is thinking about multifamily, they are trying to cast the widest possible net and appeal to the maximum number of people,” believes Calcott.

More often, observed Calcott, you will see experimentation in the single-family home arena. Forest Hills, with its plots of land tucked near Rock Creek Park, has become a showcase of modern, adventurous architecture.

In the multifamily world, ambitious design tends to exist at the very high end and, surprisingly, at the very low end. “There was a lot of experimentation in the mid-20th century in assisted living and public housing projects,” believes Calcott. He points to Langston Terrace on Benning Road NE. The first public housing project in DC, Calcott admires the modern, Bauhaus style of the building, which is now a designated landmark.

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JBG’s Florida Avenue project. Rendering courtesy of Miller Hull architects

Some Developers Are Pushing the Boundaries

Despite current constraints, there are developers and architects working to create unique residential projects in DC.

Both Calcott and Colbert mentioned JBG as a company that is trying to champion residential buildings that are contemporary and adventurous. Calcott spoke admiringly of JBG’s project on Florida Avenue between 7th Street and 9th Street, which was designed by Seattle-based Miller Hull Architects.

He also pointed to the Cityline project in Tenleytown and the residential buildings coming to CityMarket at O, both designed by Shalom Baranes. And though her designs are sometimes hotly debated with neighborhood community groups, Calcott applauds Suzane Reatig for bringing unquestionably modern-looking buildings to historic districts.

DC architecture fans have a couple reasons to be hopeful: the market for more adventurous architecture seems to be expanding a bit, and the city is currently in the midst of a Height Master Plan study, where the National Capitol Planning Commission and the Office of Planning have been taking a serious look at changing the current height restrictions through modeling studies and comparative city studies.

Of course, DC’s current development boom means that many neighborhoods are already being built out. By the time the market catches up, will there be anywhere for adventurous multifamily buildings to go?

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/why_isnt_dcs_residential_architecture_more_adventurous/7466

15 Comments

  1. TJ said at 9:43 am on Friday August 16, 2013:

    I constantly wonder about this so it is nice to hear some reasoning. I love what Morris Adjmi has planned for 9th street. Hopefully more like that on the way

  1. tim said at 10:18 am on Friday August 16, 2013:

    IMO, DC’s layout play a role.  The prime areas are made of up row houses where innovative architecture would look out of place.  Don’t see much cutting edge going up in NYC areas like Park Slope/Brooklyn Heights.

    What we are missing is an area like around the High Line in NYC.  It’s a mixed use, high density area so more innovative stuff doesn’t look out of place.  Our downtown is basically a sea of office boxes, so that doesn’t work.  NOMA and the riverfront don’t yet command “innovative architecture” prices.  14th street (south of W or so) is basically are only area that combines high prices and buildable lots. 

    Plus, in NYC most of the good new architecture is mega $$$ condos for the global elite.  DC’s large scale buildings are primary apartments for lawyers and upper-level gov employees.  The condo market is comparatively underdeveloped with the target market being local professional in small buildings with prices usually under a million.  In NYC the star-chitecture buildings start in the low millions and rise to the $20 million plus range.

  1. Gumpper said at 11:16 am on Friday August 16, 2013:

    Don’t forget the impact of NIMBYs who pressure developers to go with safe, boring designs.  14th Street from Thomas Circle north is a great example of how resistance to anything out of the ordinary unnecessarily results in boring architecture.  What could have been a very diverse, interesting street is now going to have one indistinguishable building next to another, all because a few squeaky wheels demand the grease.

  1. charlie said at 11:58 am on Friday August 16, 2013:

    The issue is that people in DC don’t want cutting edge.

    The unit at the Lacey is now 3+ weeks on the market.  It is niche.

  1. Adam L said at 12:16 pm on Friday August 16, 2013:

    The Height Act actually allows for architectural features to rise above the limit. The problem is that to do so requires the builder to spend money on purely architectural embellishments. Since the FAR would remain the same that seems incredibly unlikely.

  1. Meh said at 12:35 pm on Friday August 16, 2013:

    It’s not hard to see why developers had a hard time selling the Lacey. I looked at the only available listing and the interior looks meh. It is cramped and bland. sorry but modern doesnt need to meAn bland. The building is beautiful on the outside but on the inside, I wouldn’t consider this design any better than ikea. The unit even with the $50K price reduction is listed at $699k. In my opinion it is overpriced still by $200k.

  1. agree said at 1:23 pm on Friday August 16, 2013:

    I agree with Meh about the Lacey.  The outside architecture isn’t the problem.  The cool outside is ruined by the cheap inside.  Nobody wants to pay premium $ to live in something that looks so cheap and cramped inside, no matter how cool the outside is.  They should’ve put some high end s%#@ inside if they wanted to get high end $.

  1. ZoomZoom said at 1:26 pm on Friday August 16, 2013:

    I agree with Charlie.  DC is a conservative town. When we rebuilt our home with a modern aesthetic, our neighbors (and boy, do neighbors voice their opinions, esp from their cramped dark rowhouse spaces) thought we were crazy or thought it was “ugly.” People here want to keep that consistent rowhouse look.  And also, bottom line, good “think out of the box” design means $$$$.

  1. charlie said at 1:29 pm on Friday August 16, 2013:

    @Meh, so you want a new condo off U st for less than 400 a s/f?  Good luck.

    It isn’t the price holding the unit back, it is that people aren’t interested in living in a actual glass wall condo.

  1. Calvin H. Gurley said at 2:16 pm on Friday August 16, 2013:

    My humble Observation

    Height Restriction
    This excuse [height restriction] to offer less than artistic desirable architecture buildings in the District of Columbia is poppycock. Our 50 years old plus granite and marble Federal Buildings are majestic even to this day and they were built in observance of Congress’s height restriction on the District.

    Willing to Pay More?
    Are you crazy??? Architects, developers, construction companies all charge D.C. building projects 25% more than the same building being built in Virginia or Maryland.  I guess the same cost principle is used when gasoline prices are higher in D.C. than they are in Maryland and Virginia-  Greed.  The National’s Stadium costs approximately $1.5 billion to build (not including cost over-runs and extra funds to have the Stadium completed on the scheduled opening day) compared to Baltimore’s Camden Yards stadium building costs coming under $800 million dollars.  D.C. was ripped-off.

    The National Stadium has no architectural charm that can compare to the old Robert F. Kennedy Stadium even to this day.  The National Stadium is a concrete, metal and glass version of an elementary school student’s science project design. 

    Baltimore’s Camden Yards is a beautiful and gleaming structure of fine creativity and design; and the feel of the forces within the stadium walls is an experience. This is what I call a beautiful athletic stadium.

    City Administrator Lee needs to change his eye glass prescription and our council need a class in Arts 101 – after witnessing their approved designs for recently built projects in the District.

    Calvin H. Gurley

  1. Meh said at 4:21 pm on Friday August 16, 2013:

    Agree that $400/sf is a fantasy. However $583 asf for what appears to be a basement apartment is also fantasy.

    Also that 2 bedroom doesn’t look like it’s 1200 Sf. It barely looks like it’s 1000 it looks so cramped. My guess is that they’re counting the balcony and that stair area probably takes up 150 sf.

    Bottom line, it’s unimpressive. Doubtful it will sell for anywhere near the listing price.

  1. jj said at 4:37 pm on Friday August 16, 2013:

    I wish new design would try and bring old and new together. A nod to historic style with large windows, etc. Right now its just one big dumb glass box after another.  And the smaller townhouse to condo conversions all have the same bland interiors.  Sigh.

  1. Fabrisse said at 2:37 pm on Monday August 19, 2013:

    I have some experience with this in Southwest.  I’ve seen innovative designs gutted by the blandification imposed by US Commission of Fine Arts which included such things as taking useful balconies and turning them into Juliet balconies—increasing the box-like facade.  We have a zoning commission.  We have an office of planning.  The Commission of Fine Arts should not have any say about private or District land.

  1. PleasantPlainer said at 7:14 pm on Monday August 19, 2013:

    DC should experiment with dropping the height limit in an area around a Metro station. I always thought NOMA would have been perfect…maybe too close to the Capitol, I know…Columbia Heights where the mall is might have been good…they could have put movie theater and the mall on the first few floors, then maybe a couple of floors of offices, or a hotel, then progressively more expensive residential (with the commanding views at a premium). Then they could have avoided the blah condominiums all over the place in CH…and maybe put in a decent sitting/shade park without the silly (Silver Spring-esque) fountain. A pocket park with trees and shade something more along the Meridian Park theme, which DC seems to have forgotten in terms of design, but arguably one of the most unique and nicest spots in the city…

  1. Justin S said at 5:00 pm on Thursday February 20, 2014:

    As has been implied by the article & comments section, the height & zoning arguments fall apart even under casual scrutiny.

    It also doesn’t do fair justice to blame historic boards… after all, there are beautiful “box” row houses, multifamily mid-rises, and 10+ story historic residential buildings all over the city. They are all charming and wonderful.  People are obviously willing to pay more, else the units for sale in The Cairo and other similar buildings wouldn’t be selling at such premiums.

    The only reason that doesn’t quickly fall apart is that people are willing to buy/rent ugly & low-end properties at top dollar rather than look for something with more charm in a worse location.

    Probably confounding the problem is that most, if not all of the new construction going up in the budget neighborhoods is embarrassingly low-end, usually with a shamelessly baseless “luxury” prefix thrown into the sales pitch.

    To really see if people will pay for quality, someone needs to see if ACTUAL luxurious, interesting units would sell (or are selling)in Brookland, etc., at a FAIR MARKUP.

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