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'Glass Box Fatigue': How Architects Are Flipping The Script On D.C. Office Buildings

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D.C. developers have spent years churning out homogeneous office buildings, maximizing the height under the city's zoning limit and creating all-glass exteriors to bring in light, but the latest projects have begun to differentiate themselves, a trend D.C.'s leading architects say is intentional.

Carr Properties Midtown Center
The elevated walkways connecting the two buildings in Carr Properties' Midtown Center

"Fortunately we've gone through the glass box era, which at first was refreshing, but I think it has probably run its course," said WDG Architecture principal emeritus George Dove, who will speak Nov. 1 at Bisnow's Inaugural D.C. Architecture & Design Summit. "The more successful projects we're seeing today try to deal with texture and a combination of materials in a very contemporary manner that in my opinion is more pleasing to the eye and the urban environment." 

The District limits most buildings in the primary downtown office market to 130 feet in height. Since D.C. developers can't build toward the clouds like their counterparts in New York and other cities, they typically aim to maximize density by building as close to the property line as they can. This results in most new buildings having roughly the same rectangular dimensions. The movement toward maximizing natural light in offices has led to most buildings using floor-to-ceiling windows, creating the glass box buildings that many architects now bemoan. 

"I think it might be a little bit of glass box fatigue," Hickok Cole senior principal Yolanda Cole said. "The city starts to become a big reflection of itself if every building is a glass box and they're all reflecting another glass box."

700 K Anthem Row Meridian Group
A rendering of The Meridian Group's renovated Anthem Row at 700 K St. NW

Hickok Cole's research department, iLab, has been exploring ways to differentiate office building facades with materials like pre-cast concrete, brick, carbon fiber, timber and other materials, Cole said.  

"The pendulum went to all-glass box and then swung back to 'how do you make the next glass box interesting?'" Cole said. "You can use colors and stripes and dress it up in different ways." 

The architecture firm is doing just that with its design of Meridian Group's Anthem Row project at 700 K St. NW. For that project, a $142M redevelopment of an older office building, it used a brick frame on the lower floors to give the building more texture. The brick covers columns that already existed and the remainder of the facade is glass, which Cole said is a less expensive method and doesn't take away from the natural light and views the spaces offer. 

"Not only is that less expensive to build, therefore you can do other things in the building like provide more amenities with the extra money, you can still create the same kind of rentable space brokers want and make it look different in that regard," Cole said.

WDG worked with SHoP Architects on designing Midtown Center, the new headquarters Carr Properties built for Fannie Mae at 15th and L streets NW. The large area of the site allowed the team to create a landscaped public courtyard, and they built three elevated walkways above the courtyard that create a unique aesthetic. They also used a curtain wall pattern with varying depths and a turquoise tint to create a visually distinct facade. 

"The texture of the skin is one of the things that makes [Midtown Center] really dramatic, as well as the semi-enclosed courtyard with diagonal passageways going through the area," Dove said. 

It is rare to have such a large site in Downtown D.C. that allows for courtyards, but Dove said developers in Bethesda and Tysons are able to create new public spaces in their projects as buildings rise higher. The new Capital One headquarters in Tysons became the region's tallest building at 470 feet, and another building has been proposed that would eclipse 600 feet. In Bethesda, Carr Properties under-construction Apex Building development will reach 300 feet, significantly taller than anything that can be built in D.C.

"As I look around the region, for the first time developers and designers are able to go much higher than they've ever gone before in terms of creating true skyscrapers," Dove said. "The aesthetic of taller buildings taking up less ground allows the ground plane and several planes up to be more activated." 

1000 Maine The Wharf
The 1000 Maine office building at The Wharf, where law firm Fish & Richardson recently moved in

In a less traditional office submarket, Fox Architects looked to do something different with its design of 1000 Maine at The Wharf. Fox, along with design architect KPF, used terra cotta framing on the facade, and the waterfront side of the building juts inward in the center with a rooftop courtyard facing the water. 

"The whole idea behind the terra cotta exterior was to increase that sense of scale," Fox Architects Managing Principal Bob Fox said. "It's a very unique building with 10-foot ceiling heights and all glass so you get these incredible views and daylight that pours into the space." 

While the height limit restricts the shape D.C. buildings can take, a recent zoning change has given developers and architects the ability to design a new amenity for tenants. The District in 2016 amended its zoning law to allow for indoor penthouse space and outdoor terraces on the rooftops of buildings. Fox said developers have now begun putting their mechanical equipment lower in the building to keep the rooftops available for amenities. 

"If you think about it, rooftops are some of the most valuable space we have in a building," Fox said. "We're doing a lot of recycling of old office buildings and taking advantage of the views and light you get with access to outside space." 

The positive effects only multiply as more buildings add penthouse amenity spaces and people looking down from the tops of other buildings see more visually appealing rooftops, improving their overall view of the city's architecture.

"Most people see the tops of buildings from other buildings, so we ended up with all these really ugly penthouses with metal screens and mechanical equipment," Cole said. "The new zoning not only has the benefit as far as getting more square footage for the renter, but it also is going to make our rooftops more beautiful from other buildings." 

1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
A rendering of the renovated retail space at 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Architects are also working to make buildings more visually appealing on the ground level. Many retail spaces built into office buildings with no outdoor space and minimal signage have a difficult time standing out. Baskervill is aiming to differentiate the ground-level retail at the renovation of 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, sitting along D.C.'s ceremonial main street.  

"Retailers need to engage the pedestrian level with something other than the blankness of a window or wall," Baskervill principal Burt Pinnock said. "We're pulling out from the entrance because in this property it is almost a 360-degree front of retail, there's a whole lot going on, and some entrances and retailers get lost within that series of fronts. So we're doing what we can to pull out from the facade whether it's with outdoor space or signage." 

Cole, Dove, Fox and Pinnock will discuss the latest trends at Bisnow's Inaugural D.C. Architecture & Design Summit Nov. 1 at The Hamilton Live.