Thursday, January 31, 2008

Industry Insight: Bonstra Haresign Architects

It's hard enough to schedule an appointment with Bill Bonstra and David Haresign. With projects galore in progress and a busy staff to lead, both men, who total nearly 60 years of experience, are seemingly ubiquitous. Yet they graciously accepted DC MUD's request to pick their brains on their history in the business, its current state of affairs and even their stock portfolios. And to think, were it not for that supple bottle of Pinot Noir at Ardeo in Cleveland Park, we might never have known the duo that is Bonstra Haresign Architects.

Prior to that night, David had been considering strategies to lure Bill to his former firm, only to be rebuffed. But that evening at Ardeo the tables were turned, and Bill angled to bring David to the firm he established some years earlier, to create a team that would change the face of architecture in DC. Maybe it was the twenty years of friendship, or their shared passion to design unforgettable landmarks that brought them together; whatever it was - David swears the bottle of wine had nothing to do with it. Now, three years later, the two partners complete each other's sentences and laugh wholeheartedly at themselves.

DC MUD: What made you enter this business?

Bonstra: I have always had an affinity for construction. As a kid I used to watch the neighborhood houses being built and helped my father with any number of house addition projects that he undertook over the years. I’ve always been able to draw and many people encouraged me to get into architecture while in school. I think I’ve been fortunate, as David has, to never have wavered from the notion of being an architect.

Haresign: Well, my father was an engineer and built our first house. As a boy, I helped my dad with his carpentry projects. I sketched and drew by hand, and learned to draft in high school - all the things that everyone said architects needed to do. I was 12 or 13 years old when I realized I wanted to be an architect.

DC MUD: So you had your sights set.

Bonstra: I think one of the appealing things about the profession is the impact that you have on society. What you do is out there for everyone to see; for this reason it can put a lot of pressure on you because there are just as many critics of your work, as we are critical of others. Each building becomes part of the built landscape and in this way takes a special place in history.

Haresign: We try to do excellent design, much better than just the bare minimum, so that it has a lasting impact. Our projects show that level of care. The longer we do architecture, the more we want to do things that are great.

DC MUD: How would you characterize your style?

Haresign: We don’t really have a style, but we are contextual modernists. The contextual portion of it is really the key - understanding the constraints and the contexts that we work with.

Bonstra: Over the course of history we’ve been through many architectural styles, but these styles were within other broader periods of design. Whether its art deco, art-nouveax, even the modern architecture of the Modernistas of Barcelona, these styles happened within the modern movement. My personal taste in design is using contemporary materials and organizing them in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. We’re also artists, so we make architecture like we would make a sculpture or a painting. Additionally, I like to include some element of craft into contemporary building design; the idea being that today’s buildings are built by craftsman, by hand. For the most part we still build today the same way we did a hundred years ago…not a whole lot different. But there are a lot of new building products out today for architects to utilize in their work; such as plastics, glass, even titanium, and these different materials are useful to us in creating interesting and memorable architecture that is a product of our time.

Haresign: Our architecture is defined by the rules, and specifically by the context. We look at the immediate surroundings: physical characteristics, adjacent buildings - if there are any - orientation, pedestrian and vehicular circulation, views, topography, and solar/wind orientation. Zoning and building codes as well as cultural norms define and influence design response. And in addition to rules and context, there are fiscal constraints - time and budget dictate how the architecture is going to be expressed and what the materiality of the project is.

DC MUD: So time, context and budget are constraints, but how does the market dictate what is expected of you?

Haresign: I don’t see any difference in design that people are asking from us. There’s an evolution the folks on the fringe who thought it was really cool to be a developer, now are not in the dance anymore.

DC MUD: So does that leave you in a unique position, where more experienced developers are asking for work and you’re left with more freedom?

Haresign: No. I think the freedom and our ability to do good work comes out of client respect and trust in our experience getting projects entitled and built.

Bonstra: If they're going to spend valuable time to develop a project, they realize they want to do it right. And although it may not be limestone-clad or use titanium panels, working with a palette of interesting and cost effective materials we make it the best architecture that is appropriate. And there are the economic sides that can put a damper on good design, but architects should not use the excuse that cost effective buildings cannot be beautiful. It takes an overall understanding of budget, the clients needs, and the design sense to produce good design.

Haresign: But it has to work. Vitruvius [a Roman architect of war machines, we know you knew, but we had to look it up] described architecture as something that requires ‘Firmness, commodity and delight.’ It should be substantial, meaningful and delightful.

DC MUD: I think a lot of people wonder what bearing the market has on what you do.

Bonstra: You know, the residential market in DC really began to heat up in 1999. Overall it was resurgence in urban living. Along with our multi-family work, we do a lot of commercial work as well, but the cooling of the residential market hasn’t significantly affected our business. Everyone wants to say the residential market is terrible, overbuilt and nobody can get loans, but our population will continue to grow and those people will need somewhere to live.

DC MUD: And we’re still short on housing?

Bonstra: Yes, and we will be short again, exactly.

Haresign: In about two to three weeks there will be another series of Dr. Stephen Fuller lectures. And he will talk about statistics, job growth, and people moving into the area and what the housing situation is. Traditionally, we’re always short on units - that’s why people are building cheap units way out...because they’re inexpensive. There is going to continue to be a demand for good urban housing.

Bonstra: And that single-family nonsense out in the woods has got to stop, as a philosophy of land planning.

DC MUD: So you guys are fans of Smart Growth?

In Unison: Yes.

DC MUD: So let's talk about some of the stuff you're working on.

Bonstra: We are working at the Benning Road Metro station at Benning Road and East Capitol Streets; this site is rural in character. There are telephone poles with overhead wires, and individual buildings strung along the roadway. It’s the most unbelievable underutilization of land that you’ve seen. Our project is on an acre of vacant land; we’ll build a 150,000 s.f. office building along with retail and residential uses, which is 500 feet from the metro. It’s an area of the city that hasn’t developed much in the last 50 years.

Haresign: We just renovated two 1960’s medical-office buildings which were side by side, called Pershing Court. We used an allowance within the Montgomery County Zoning Code to do the connection, because it was already over the allowable floor area. We now have one set of bathrooms to service two buildings, one elevator that services two buildings. So we increased the amount of sellable area, that helped pay for the glass-bridge connection. It sold out like that (snaps his fingers). And it’s in the middle of Silver Spring; the owners took occupancy in October.

We’re also working in Wheaton, at the Wheaton Metro stop. Where Georgia Avenue and Veirs Mill Road intersect, there’s a triangular site that is currently being used as a metro bus kiss and ride. Bozzuto Homes entered into an agreement with WMATA, who brought in Spaulding and Slye Investments, which is part of Jones Lang LaSalle, to be the commercial development partner. It will be a mixed-use project with retail and office space, and possibly a hotel or residential tower.

Bonstra: Georgia Avenue is an unbelievable mix of land use. There are single-family houses on Georgia Avenue, along with office buildings - just a complete mix of things. And the Wheaton area is coming in right on the coat tails of the revitalization of Silver Spring. It was only a matter of time for development to move north as it had done from the west.

Haresign: Which is now an extremely desirable place to live. But it took a long time to build enough critical mass into, let’s call it the successor, or next in line to Bethesda.

Bonstra: When I was in college, Bethesda was a sleepy little urban area. We went to the Bethesda surf shop to buy skateboard accessories, and that was the only reason to go. And look what it’s become. So yes, Silver Spring was the next pod, and we’ll see Wheaton do the same over time. Smart growth along established transportation routes is sound urban planning, period.

DC MUD: What areas will be developed after Wheaton?

Haresign: I predict our city is going to continue to urbanize east of the river. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. And New York Avenue ‘extended’ will continue to develop.

Bonstra: I think the movement will be in growth around the metro lines. We’ve seen that in Mazza Gallerie, we’ve seen more in Cleveland Park, even in the city. They’re not going to develop faster than the overall texture of the land, but there will be some redevelopment.

DC MUD: So who’s your favorite architect in DC?

Bonstra: David Haresign (laughs).

Haresign: You know, we’ve been friends for 22 or 23 years, and I think it’s really important that we convey how much we respect each others work and enjoy working with each other.

Bonstra: I can’t imagine having a better partner and how much we get out of each other’s experience. Having done this myself for a while, you really do quickly see the benefits of partnership, to be able to accomplish more and do better work, that’s really what this is about.

Haresign: I’ve been a partner in larger firms, where there are too many partners. There’s a whole new dynamic to that, there’s a lot of negotiation and counter-energy. So when’s there’s only two people...

Bonstra: You only have to convince one guy that something is a good idea. We’re not mired in bureaucracy, or politics, or our egos. We’re a strong mid-sized firm, we’re principal-lead, we’re involved in every project, we participate with our architects in all aspects of the work, and we get the most out of our staff which allows us to spend more time doing what we enjoy: designing buildings.

Haresign: We have a huge amount of enthusiasm about architecture, and energy to make it happen in our firm...we’re having a great time.

DC MUD: How about architects outside of your firm – any favorites?

Bonstra: The list would be pretty long. I have had the opportunity to work with Shalom Baranes and David King; I respect their work enormously. I like Phil Esocoff’s work; I like his attention to detail and his sensibilities of color, surface, and texture. There are any number of good local firms - Cunningham + Quill; they do similar projects. Cox Graae + Spack, a great local firm – led by a classmate of mine, Bill Spack.

Haresign: David Newman with his partners Andy Lewis and Mark Buchanan have a great traditional architecture firm. Mark McInturff is a superb designer, and one of the best kept secrets in Washington. There are so many others…Tom Kerns, Bob Guerney, Susan Reatig…too many to name. Washington has a rich and talented architectural community.

DC MUD: Could each of you pick your favorite building in the city?

Bonstra: One of my favorite commercial buildings in the city is the Euram Building at One Dupont Circle, a simple diagram, poetic integration of structure and architecture, and it doesn’t rely on ornament to make it wonderful. The beauty is in the succinct composition of a minimal amount of elements.

Haresign: Mine are paradigm shifting modern buildings - the first in my lifetime was the East Wing. It’s contextual – it’s geometric response to the avenues and streets down to the composition of the exterior wall, the careful selection of the marble that matches the west wing...the way it grades up in coloration. KPF’s World Bank addition was an important moment in time for the architecture of DC, and continued the strong shift back toward the type of modern architecture that we enjoy today.

DC MUD: What about buildings that you’ve designed? Any favorites?

Bonstra: If I could only do one building, if I could be known for designing a single building, The Tapies (1612 16th St., NW) would be the building. It’s the most unique site, the quirkiest left over piece flanked by tall buildings of another era. I enjoy talking about it all the time; it is such an interesting piece of architecture. It was fun to design; it was fun to work with the client; it’s fun to look at. It will always be memorable for me.

Haresign: One that’s probably the most recognizable is the Capitol One Headquarters (below left, photo courtesy of Ai, now Perkins + Will). That building is designed in a very specific way - as a contextual response with massing and materials on different faces because of its orientation. And then there’s the detail, it’s very finely crafted. The primary curtainwall face is multilayered and curved to express movement along the beltway. The precast concrete on that building has a blue tint to it, and the aggregate is exposed to catch the sun in different times of the day. Other favorites include AOL’s campus and recently completed Parker Flats at Gage School (below right).

DC MUD: For ou
r last question, we'd like to know how Sustainable Design will change the face of architecture.

Bonstra: Vitruvius was probably the first sustainable designer. He was the first to write about the benefits of properly situating buildings in their environment. As you can imagine, in that day they didn’t have infirmaries or antibiotics - siting a building was very important to overall health and well-being. These are the same concepts we’re talking about today: limiting water usage, managing sunlight, taking advantage of cross ventilation, the concepts are the same. This will change what buildings look like but not as much as you would think.

Haresign: We’re not dismissing LEED, but the principles behind LEED design have been time tested in ancient architecture. We studied them in university studio and have applied them wherever possible throughout our careers. The advantage of LEED is that it has codified and rated practice compliance, and raised public awareness.

Bonstra: These natural characteristics of design have been around a long time, although we’ve forgotten a lot of things over the years. When gasoline costs 25 cents a gallon, the energy needs of our built environment may not be a with it at $3.50 you see that energy usage in our buildings is such a large component of our overall energy needs. It becomes a priority.

Haresign: We use 40% of our energy for buildings, to heat and cool buildings. That’s a significant amount. As architects, we can significantly impact energy consumption by the way that we design building envelopes.

Bonstra: Nowadays, this is very serious. My neighbor thinks that oil will eventually go to $150 a barrel before we run short. If we don’t look for alternate energy sources like wind power and wave power, how are we to meet our energy needs?

DC MUD: So...are you going to buy oil futures?

Bonstra: My neighbor does.

Haresign: Personally, we're going to stick to designing buildings.


Anonymous said...

Does the Smart Growth prediction apply to the Petworth metro as well? Seems the proposal to move the Central Union Mission homeless shelter has discouraged a number of new projects there.

Ken on Jan 31, 2008, 9:39:00 PM said...


I'm not sure that's the case. Petworth seems to be a victim of its own success: cheap land values plus lots of run-down apartment buildings leading to many condo conversions plus numerous developments. Over the past year, Petworth accounted for about 650 of the 6000 condos entering the market, which was perhaps unsustainably large. Sales throughout Petworth have been seemingly slower than the rest of the city, though it is by no means the only place to see a halt in construction.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE what they did at Pershing Court. These two non-descript buildings were renovated the way it should be done. I haven't been inside, but from the outside, they paid attention to the tiniest details both architectural and landscape, taking two very non-descript low-rise buildings and creating a contemporary work of class. Bravo...I am so proud to see this kind of renovation in downtown Silver Spring. Most developers/re-devlopers will not spend the kind of money to create something like this...what a refreshing change.

Anonymous said...

do these guys do single family design?

i loooooove the tapies - ask them if they'll do my new house, yah?

Anonymous said...

DC Lover,

B|HA does one or two custom single family homes per year as well as an occasional unit interior.


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