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How Transit, Design And Technology Are Coalescing To Build A Smarter D.C.

The Federal Triangle in Washington, D.C.

The Washington metropolitan area has been the crucible for many of the great experiments in modern urban planning. Graying government districts have emerged as vibrant, 24-hour enclaves. Transit-oriented development now affords easier public access to the District for thousands of residents in Virginia and Maryland.

“I have watched Washington mature over the years into an impressive city,” said David Thom, president of IBI Group, a technology-driven design firm that ranks among the largest in the world.

In highly competitive markets like Washington, Thom leads his team as it continues to pivot toward technology-centric design, championing artificial intelligence and integrated design as solutions to the many challenges of urban life. IBI is committed to innovative placemaking where technology empowers human communities.

But the experimentation is far from over. New coalitions of urban planners, private developers, government officials, architects, designers and technologists are working to build smarter, healthier, more engaged communities in Washington and around the world.

“It’s not just about creating housing that is attractive and affordable, it’s about thinking beyond the housing units, or even the building, to the entire community,” IBI Group Global Director of Placemaking Trevor McIntyre said. “We’re designing every part of where people live: the architecture, the landscape, the park systems, the retail offerings, how you get from place to place.” 

IBI has been involved in the redevelopment of Washington for almost 25 years. From its offices in Alexandria, it has contributed to some of the largest planning projects in the city, partnering with many of its peers in the architecture and design industries, as well as the federal government.

IBI worked to expand the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency as it moved from subpar offices at Waterside Mall to its current housing in Federal Triangle. Though they predated the healthy buildings movement, the protocols established on the EPA project became the foundation for the LEED rating system.

The EPA's new headquarters was a facet of a larger master plan to update the Federal Triangle's 1930s-era buildings and connect them more seamlessly to the Metro station below. The design had to balance conference and training spaces, libraries, offices and open plan workspace.

The Axis Condos at 411 Church St., Toronto, designed by IBI Group

The firm also provided design, planning and programming leadership for the District of Columbia courts in its Judiciary Square campus and the St. Elizabeths West Campus, which now houses the Department of Homeland Security. But though much of its work has focused on work with the federal and local District government, IBI has been setting its sights more recently on the wider issues of commuting, working and living in the D.C. area.

Mobility underpins all of the work that we do,” McIntyre said. “We’ve worked to help D.C. move around, whether it’s designing EZ Pass systems or planning the areas around Metro stations.”

Rethinking transit systems is a daunting task, and IBI has learned to harness technology to make informed choices for transit development. The firm specializes in parametric design, a technique that leverages computing to test out thousands of different design possibilities under a few constraints.

“It used to take six-to-nine months to run studies on housing affordability and financial feasibility for new transit lines,” IBI Group Global Director of Buildings Mansoor Kazerouni said. “Now, we have developed software that lets us run those tests in a matter of weeks.”

That technology can also optimize urban communities and full neighborhoods. Kazerouni explained that especially for mixed-use and residential developments, parametric design can help analyze room layouts, breakdown of housing types and even optimize sight lines and eliminate shadows. 

Empowered with that analytic information, IBI designers can make evidence-based decisions for the best use for a given site.

“The final decision on every project comes down to the discretion and expertise of a team of seasoned professionals, and of course the client," Kazerouni said. "Marrying the human touch with technological power is what IBI does best."

The combination of technology and human touch also influences how IBI reaches out to communities. Each plan, residential or public, has to be tailored to its local context, to make sure that residents all feel they are being served well by the developments in their neighborhoods. The firm uses digital surveys, apps and in-depth demographic research to help inform and validate final design decisions. 

A rendering of IBI Group's proposal for the Los Angeles Civic Center

"These devices are just tools to harness human engagement,” Kazerouni said. “We are using them to make sure citizens are engaged and participating in the health and well-being of our cities. That’s really what makes cities ‘smart.’”

As Washington continues to grow, having an engaged community will become increasingly important in order to balance the needs of longtime residents and new arrivals. But even though the city faces systemic issues, IBI has a deep faith that a single project can reframe the entirety of a city.

IBI’s work in Federal Triangle and Judiciary Square has contributed to the creation of two new commercial hubs for the city. Each of the company’s members was excited to see what was in store for Washington as underdeveloped areas were being pushed into the 21st century, with denser, more vibrant mixed-use developments.

“It’s a unique city, it’s a thriving city,” Thom said. “We've created a legacy here in the nation’s capital. We want to create a new vitality, not just for the millions of people who live in the D.C. metropolitan area, but for that one person, for every D.C. resident individually.” 

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and IBI Group. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.