Tag Archives: height limit

Architecture Local

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.

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Architecture Local

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. 

Architecture Local

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.