Taller buildings, better architecture?

Would lifting the height limit lead to better architecture? It’s not that simple, say architects. There are many people and forces, both cultural and economic, shape the built environment, not just height.

Proponents of relaxing the height limit say that it would improve the quality of architecture, but they usually mean that new buildings will be less boxy if there’s less pressure to maximize floor area. Yes, this might encourage more setbacks, deeper walls, more varied patterns, and richer textures. It might also lead to buildings that are just taller versions of the same boxes.

We asked several experienced architects to weigh in on the topic. Some oppose revisions and others support them. But they all note how aesthetics, human comfort, and building performance get trapped in between money and the law, and offer tangible ways to improve the urban environment with or without relaxed height restrictions.

L'Enfant's Tomb by AlbertHerring on Wikimedia

Form follows finance

It may be helpful to think of a speculative office building as a machine for making money. In order to provide a very high level of service to a large amount of floor space, modern office buildings are packed with mechanical equipment and consist of highly engineered assemblies from structure to skin. We can see when money has been spent on high-quality finishes and beautiful details, but the real luxury is empty space.

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. 

Roger Lewis on the Height Limit

Greater Greater Washington asked accomplished architects to weigh in on the positives and negatives of the height limit. This testimony from the NCPC hearings on the Height Limit is part of that series.  

Thanks to these historic limits, the nation’s capital has remained a uniquely memorable, low- and mid-rise city. From many places in the city, views of America’s most iconic, symbolically significant structures – the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the White House – have been preserved because downtown skyscrapers cannot be erected.

Yet there are places in the District of Columbia where height limits established decades ago are today inappropriate and unnecessarily constraining, a reflection of outdated planning and zoning practices from the early and mid-20th century. These practices were characterized most notably by designation of large areas – land use zones – within the city limited to predominantly one use and uniform height limit. Broad-brush, one-size-fits-all planning and zoning failed to take into account, within each land use zone, locational variations in topography, solar orientation, views and vistas, proximity to parks, adjacency to civic open spaces, and infrastructure, especially transit. It did not differentiate between mid-block properties and properties at major intersections.

Today’s city planning, urban design and architectural principles and techniques – such as computer-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) – are far more sophisticated and effective. Broadbrush strategies of the past are obsolete. We now can engage in fine-grain planning, urban design and zoning. We can identify, analyze and designate specific sites in the city where increased building height and density make great sense aesthetically, environmentally, functionally, socially and economically. This “smart growth” approach can enhance the city’s urban and architectural qualities while yielding fiscal benefits for the city. Furthermore, enacted as an incentive bonus overlaying existing zoning in appropriate locations, increased building height limits – and density – can engender development of much needed affordable housing.

Where should height limits change? In the downtown l’Enfant Plan area of the District, including traditional residential neighborhoods, height limits should remain substantially unchanged to preserve the center city’s dominant character and skyline. But there are specific sites – such as the Southwest and Anacostia River waterfronts – where upward adjustment of height limits would be beneficial without jeopardizing the city’s historic profile. Outside the l’Enfant Plan area, many sites could be suitable for higher buildings, especially near Metro stations and major roadways.

The only equitable, professionally responsible method for identifying places to raise height limits, and for determining new height limits, is to create a detailed, city-wide plan, prior to any rezoning, based on a rigorous, comprehensive study. This is essential to avoid piecemeal, property-by-property relaxation of height limits through variances, exceptions and ad hoc rezonings, a process too often influenced by political and financial pressures. Because municipal and federal interests are involved, the building height study and plan should be prepared collaboratively and transparently by the D.C. Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission.

Many Washingtonians are apprehensive when anyone suggests modifying D.C. height limits. They envision Rosslyn-like skyscrapers rising all over town, ruining the capital’s historic image. Some believe that raising D.C. height limits anywhere would set precedents invariably opening the proverbial “barn door” to greedy developers in league with corrupt politicians, enabling high-rise buildings throughout the city.

But skeptical citizens need to understand that, through fine-grain urban design, prudent legislation and precisely targeted, well enforced land use regulation, the barn door will not and cannot be thrown open. Therefore, revisiting D.C. height limits requires not only a credible, city-wide planning effort, but also an on-going public education effort to help citizens recognize that legislation adopted over a century ago can be improved.

Roger Lewis, FAIA, is a registered architect and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. For over twenty years, he has written a column for the Washington Post. 

This post is a version of Lewis’ July 19th, 2013 testimony before Congress.  


Matt Bell on the Height Limit

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

Certainly the possibility of an enhanced skyline is suggestive and more height may mean a more interesting skyline in places. But the primary concern should be how the buildings address the street and add to the vitality of our city. Any such changes to the Height Act would be well advised to take that into consideration. Yes, the skyline of New York is great and tall buildings are much the reason. But the 1916 Zoning Code of NY also resulted in a wonderful sense of urbanity, where the tall buildings “behaved” at street level, defining public space and reserving their more celebratory features for many more stories up in the air.

But, it’s doubtful that similar effects will be tolerated in DC. So, where does that leave us? On one hand, the question is one of urbanism. K Street, while generally ugly (it is not the Rue di Rivoli!), has a sense of urbanity that is impressive on weekdays from 8 to 6. More residential development would help in the off hours. Those buildings, for better or for worse, define the street, have active ground floors and provide the continuity of the street wall necessary for any successful downtown.

Thinking architecturally, DC buildings can be proportionally a little squat, so perhaps more height might help. But while many lament “squatness” as a given condition of DC design, its really a question of understanding and manipulating the proportions of the facade and the vertical surface. After all, Paris has short buildings and people seem to like it!

So, will more height give us better designs? I’m doubtful. It may give us more development opportunities and greater density in places. And those are powerful and perhaps good reasons. But better quality? It ain’t necessarily so.

Matt Bell, FAIA, is a principal at EEK/Perkins + Eastman in DC. 

David Varner on the Height Limit

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

As Shalom Baranes has written, there are good things to come from modest increases in height (one story or so) with no parallel increase in density. This would enable a saavy building owner and creative architect to articulate their design more aggressively, creating better spaces for its users and a more interesting façade. Today’s market in D.C. is marked with significant efforts to differentiate seemingly similar properties and the ability to sculpt and offer alternative space plans is appealing. Also, the concepts of sustainable workplaces don’t need to be “of the future”, and the healthy vibrancy of daylighting and views in our homes is always appealing.

An increase in height doesn’t, however, protect the city from vanilla design and established real estate conditions favoring hyper-efficiency in office planning (such as GSA, for instance), or the increase in the cost of structure or skin, might not appeal to every landowner. Take a look around the region, though, to see how height relates to design quality; it would be better if it was more energizing. I think it will open the gap between designs aiming at the upper percentile market and the mainstream, and to me any opportunity to increase in the average design quality will ultimately enhance the District.

I would be interested in seeing a dialogue about the impacts of changing the height limits in the core downtown areas that have 130 ft to 165 ft height limits. There are huge investments in place, many with trophy designs that might be negatively impacted by a neighboring property that could now leap past them. It could become a bit of a dinosaur discussion that forces change on deep labyrinths of dark office space, and I’m all for removing the pressures that forced creation of those spaces.

One tool that might be useful is already in place — the Transferrable Development Rights provisions in the Zoning Code. This has the net effect of increasing heights in the three receiving zones currently entitled for TDRs. If we were to create new zones, perhaps we could control the locations of new height districts and preserve others along the way.

Relaxing the height limit in a big way — say, for instance, doubling it — creates opportunity for aspirational skylines in a historically flat city. Provided, of course, we can deal with the impacts to sensitive neighborhoods and transportation issues. I think that the CBD should be spared a huge evolutionary jump, though, out of respect for the original planning and beauty in the monumental core. So I’d advocate for new districts where additional height could be created. There are underserved sectors of the city that might attract investment in this new concept, and we might see a futurist vision of Metro emerge out of the hugely successful planning that began over fifty years ago but now seems to struggle with stagnation and capacity questions.

In summary — as an academic exercise, YES, relaxing the height limit will increase design quality in D.C. The scale of a 21st century urban environment should not be bound by 18th and early 20th century idealisms. The scale of our endeavors, the speed of our activities, and the agility of our culture is better off with more variety and greater opportunity for good architecture

David Varner, AIA, is Vice President for office design at SmithGroup in DC.

Robert Peck on the Height Limit

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

There’s not going to be enough height under any proposal to have slender towers dotting the skyline. However, a slightly higher height limit, slightly higher being around 20 feet, could allow us to indent buildings without losing development density and that would add interest.

But maybe the best outcome would be higher floor to ceiling heights in the same number of floors that we have now; usually a maximum of 12. Washington has unusually low ceilings. Higher ceilings allow more natural daylight to penetrate deeper into the floors, which is good for everyone; providing a healthier environment and lower energy use.

Relaxing the height limit in DC as a means to better architecture is a bit of a trick question. I think that it increases the chances for better architecture than the current regulations do, but it does not guarantee it.

Robert Peck, Hon. AIA leads the Workplace Consulting division at Gensler‘s DC office.

Travis Price on the Height Limit

Lloyd’s of London building, Richard Rogers, and Willis Building, Foster + Partners

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

Will more height bring better architecture? Yes and no. Initially, on the one hand, I would say no for 2 reasons. The current height in concert with the street widths has a major influence on keeping human scale paramount and thus makes great street in a friendly city.

Scale is an immensely powerful design directive on human behavior. It also forces development to expand at a human scale inside the city limits. This tends to fill the city with better living and a better ecological footprint instead of leaving vast areas of land squandered while nondescript high-rises further alienation.

On the other hand, the boredom of boxes is equally discouraging. Flatness contributes to a banal and far too homogenous city. Some fun and upward joyful shapes could readily dance with the civic memorials such as the National Cathedral, the Capitol, and the Washington Monument. Arlington’s taller boxes are exactly what we don’t need in DC.

Chimneys on the roof of by Antoní Gaudi’s Casa Mila

I would propose a future approach. For each city block, each building gets a moment of roof delight by allowing additional partial floors stepping back 15 feet per floor from the parapets, up to 5 stories and with 50% reductions in footprint per step. This would give us some refreshing chaos and rhythm to the city scape without overwhelming us with high boxes.

This is much like [former New York mayor John] Lindsay’s incentive zoning approach for Manhattan but at a much smaller scale. Let the architects go wild with this one. Incentivize a bit of freedom for creative developers and architects to break heavy thumbs of symmetry and repetition whenever possible.

So, no on big heights, and yes on complex delights! To paraphrase Churchill as many do: First we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us. Let’s shake up the shapes and shake down the boxes! Let a few stories happen with a fun jury of outside reviewers and not just only well-intended public officials under the heavy thumb of conformity and regulations. Perhaps along with Fine Arts Commission, let’s have a Fun Architects Commission.

Travis Price, FAIA is director of Travis Price Architects in Georgetown.


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.