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.

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.

Middle path density gets some news

Option A
Option A (by nydiscovery on flickr)

This  past weekend, the East Bay Express (a paper in Oakland), wrote a fairly balanced article about the battles over densification in Oakland and Berkeley. Although it took as its subject a particularly acerbic debate over local development projects, the scenario is the same everywhere. The article presents three largely oppositional theses: tall buildings are environmentally sound, all density is environmentally unsound, and that density can mean Paris as well as Manhattan. Each one is given a fair voice, but ultimately only the middle path comes out looking informed.

Of course the commenters jumped out of the starting blocks and onto their respective causes: the electric car, renewable energy, zero population growth, THE IMPORTANCE OF WRITING EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS, planting “subsistence” gardens in quarter-acre lots, and obviously the meme that developers are profiteers and gentrifiers. But what none of these people seemed to see was that the options of a pleasant human environment and a limited footprint on the natural world are not mutually exclusive.

Option B (from baslow on flickr)
Option B (from baslow on flickr)

Read the article; take a look at the section on pages 3 & 4 in particular, where Mike Pyatok, an architect with decades of experience, drops the usual truth bombs.

In an environment with artificial scarcity by way of outdated and strict zoning, the costs of land allotted to tall development, prices will be too high, even for luxury development. 5-8 story buildings are cheaper, more comfortable, and more energy efficient on a regional scale. Similarly, the need for a large footprint to justify the vertical costs means a less refined urban grain and less human-scale detail and fewer potential owners.

As long as cities are lusting for the skinny towers of 1920s New York, opponents will only see a superblock grime of the 1970s. Unfortunately, those skinny towers never made much money and definitely won’t nowadays. So, many opponents are simply reacting to unreasonable visions of the future with equally wrong visions of dystopia. Expect to see knees jerking until city councils and armchair planners ask for middle density.