David Haresign, Mary Fitch and Bill Bonstra on the Height Limit

Greater Greater Washington asked accomplished DC architects to weigh in on the positives and negatives of the height limit. This official statement of the DC Chapter of the American Institutes of Architecture is part of that series

The 1910 Height Act was necessary to insure the safety of the citizens of the District of Columbia. It was an appropriate response to a very real threat to fire safety. But since then, the District has enacted zoning and building codes that go well beyond the 1910 Act, and in many cases, provide more protection to the city’s unique skyline than the Act does.

Moreover, the language of the Act is limited to the architectural technology and building science of the early 20th century. For example, in 1910 it was not possible to include life safety equipment in a mechanical penthouse, so occupancy of a penthouse was prohibited. Many of the Act’s other requirements include similarly archaic language that is at odds with modern building and life safety codes.

It is our conclusion that this outmoded language should be brought up to date to reference modern building codes in place in the District. We held a workshop with NCPC staff this summer to help draft language to make the Act more consistent. Furthermore, we strongly agree with the recommendations included in DC’s Height Master Plan that protecting Washington’s cultural resources and physical character is the job of the District of Columbia and not that of the federal government.

We believe that the federal interest in the height of buildings should be limited to areas immediately adjacent to the Monumental Core and critical view corridors. We believe that current building and zoning codes in the District now provide better protection for non-federal areas of the city than the Act.

Finally, with respect to the alternatives described in the study, we believe additional height may be possible in carefully selected spots, with adequate public input, around the District. Moreover, we believe that the proposed 200-foot cap used in the study is arbitrary and that additional height above that cap may also be appropriate for areas outside the Monumental Core and its environs.

While we respect the horizontal character that makes Washington DC unique, we believe well-designed, taller structures will provide an interesting counterpoint and add visual interest and variety to the skyline. This would, of course, require a thorough, in-depth study.

David Haresign, FAIA is the current president of the Washington Chapter of The American Institute of Architects. He and Bill Bonstra, FAIA are principals of Bonstra|Haresign. Mary Fitch, AICP Hon. AIA, is the executive director of AIA DC.

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