Marshall Purnell on the Height Limit

Pepco building by Devrouax + Purnell.

Greater Greater Washington asked accomplished DC architects to weigh in on the positives and negatives of the height limit. This comment is part of that series

The argument being used to push for a change in the height limit is misunderstood at best and disingenuous at worst. Washington is full of boxes because developers want to build out to the very maximum FAR available. The measurement is taken from the inside face of glass. This means any relief in the facade results in lost FAR. This makes the city very much a city of two dimensional facades not architecture. There have been noted exceptions to this of course but they are not the norm. All things being equal, allowing for taller building will probably result in taller boxes. Developers will still want to maximize the envelope at the expense of some needed relief. They will still keep hiring the same architects and hope for different results. There’s a definition in that last sentence.

Another solution would be to hire more creative architects. However, if you become popular for creating Washington boxes it seems the development community will beat a path to your door. They get a building with maximum income potential (translated: space) for a modest cost and a downright meager fee with no push back from the architect for any idea suggested, good or bad.

I have had the good fortune to have some clients that were not driven by maximizing the FAR so much as building to their limited budget and providing the best design value.

Marshall Purnell, FAIA, is director of Devrouax + Purnell Architects, and former president of the American Institute of Architects. 

One comment

  • December 23, 2013 - 4:42 pm | Permalink

    “The argument being used to push for a change in the height limit is misunderstood at best and disingenuous at worst.”

    Maybe for the design argument, but that is hardly the only argument in favor of changing the height limit.

    In a city that needs more room to grow among the regulatory constraints we’ve placed on ourselves, I wouldn’t be dismissing the desire to maximize FAR so lightly.

    Even if all we got was taller boxes with more square feet, that isn’t necessarily a bad outcome. More space to grow is the most compelling reason to change the limit in the first place.

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