Wednesday, June 30, 2010
The Department of Real Estate Services (DRES) issued an RFP in January and twice extended the submission deadline, originally set for February 16th and ultimately enforced March 26th. At the time, a DRES representative told DCMud it had received three applications, though Carter only acknowledged two. The respondents were the Central Union Mission and Ready, Willing & Working Inc. (RWW).
The Mission plans to match the service they now offer on 14th Street, NW, expanding from 135 beds to at least 150 beds for the men's Christian homeless shelter. The Mission will likely add to the rear of the building with a design by Cox Graae and Spack Architects of Georgetown, a build-out that would allow for kitchens and extra classrooms.
The other applicant, a joint venture between RWW, the Doe Fund Inc. and Building Partnerships, proposed to convert the school into a facility providing housing and job training for upwards of 100 homeless and formerly incarcerated men.
Friday's semi-announcement caught many observers by surprise, including Councilmember Tommy Wells, who had asked Carter for an update during a hearing. Wells commented that "the proposal by RWW is still something that is needed by the city..." Carter indicated his agency hopes to find space for RWW on the campus of St. Elizabeths.
When asked for additional details on the award and a timeline for construction, Charles Allen, the spokesperson for Tommy Wells, replied in an email, "The Friday hearing was the first we had heard about it...we are working to follow-up and get more information." Sources familiar with the Mission's project were equally surprised and eager to learn more about the award. Several calls and emails to the District Government for additional details were not returned.
The Mission's bumpy past with the Gales School boils down to concerns over government subsidies going to religious organizations. The America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit claiming an Establishment Clause violation - i.e. separation of church and state - because a previous agreement reportedly would have netted $12 million for the Mission (including the property value), which requires homeless men to participate in religious services in return for room, board and counseling services. In a previous conversation, David Treadwell, Executive Director of the Central Union Mission, said, "I can't speak for the ACLU, but I believe the concern was more the $7 million than the property exchange" in the previous RFP; this year's RFP did not include a monetary exchange.
In March, Arthur Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU, said his organization has no problem with religious organizations running social services. The problem is when those services are only offered in exchange for "hellfire and brimstone" proselytizing services. Ultimately, Spitzer said, he "hopes they have made this into a fair process" and if it is, and if the Mission wins, then "perhaps that will be OK."
Addendum: In the wake of this report, the District made their announcement official with this announcement.
Washington, DC real estate development news
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
There may be deals in waiting (for the buyer, not for the District taxpayer), given the restrictive qualifications on purchasers. Buyers looking to get in on the Shaw transition can bid on 1713 New Jersey Avenue, NW (pictured), which tax records show sold for just under $300,000 in 2005. Neighboring properties have sold for as much as $750,000 in recent years. A lot at 805 7th Street, NE, near H Street, zoned for residential use, could command some interest given the District Council's recent approval of overhead wires for the future streetcar. Though a buyer could snag a bargain, the buy-in and then the required 10 percent deposit within three days time could be a bit of a deterrent for the do-it-yourself buyer.
The District auctions the properties in the hopes of returning them to the tax roll, creating additional revenue and removing blight. The vacant properties were acquired through negotiated friendly sale, eminent domain, donation, and tax sale foreclosure when owners were "unwilling or unable to maintain their properties." The auction, run by Alex Cooper Auctioneers, will take place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center tomorrow beginning "promptly" at 2 PM.
Washington, DC real estate development news
Labels: Douglas Development, Penn Quarter, Shalom Baranes Architects, Zoning Commission
Douglas's planned 11-story building would bring 91,000 s.f. office space with 6,000 s.f. of ground-floor retail to an L-shaped amalgamation of lots. Plans also include the renovation and relocation of the two-story Waffle Shop now on the site - reassembled on another site. HPRB had initially granted Douglas's request to destroy the eatery, despite the dearth of retail downtown and the vacant storefronts downtown at the time, but later reneged on that offer thanks to community outcry. The developer committed to moving the shop to a new location intact within five years of the approval; two years, down three to go, an alternate location has yet to be publicly announced.
During their 2008 testimony at the Zoning Commission, the project team said it had been pursuing a project at the location for nearly nine years, finally convincing the property owner to sell in 2005 and closed in 2006. Douglas development's Paul Millstein described the importance of F Street and its continued renaissance to the firm, "we have a passion for F Street...this building represents much more than just a building to us."
Architect Shalom Baranes explained that his design was emphasizes the "verticality" of 10th and F Streets. The facade is planned to feature two surfaces - a "masonry curtain wall" and a "transparent, more prismatic form" to articulate the volume of the building. The property contained two historically contributing buildings, the Waffle Shop and 1000 F Street, which will be the corner structure of the development. The extension expires May 16, 2012.
Washington, DC real estate development news
Frank Lloyd Wright was right. The story goes that in the 1940s, the iconoclast architect stood on the site of the future Hilton Washington, next to a once grand but derelict Victorian mansion known as "The Heights," declaring it a prime location for a hotel. Two decades later, Conrad Hilton shared that vision and on March 28, 1965, built in the signature 1960s and '70s Brutalism style of the American modernist movement by architect William B. Tabler Sr., the hotel - at 1919 Connecticut Ave. NW - opened its doors to what continues to be a Washington keystone.
With more than one million s.f. of space and following a massive, three-year (concept-to-champagne) $150 million renovation - and in many spaces a painstaking restoration - the Hilton Washington is still going strong, having reinvented itself in time for a re-launch on May 25. Shepherded by OPX Global architects, under the auspices of owners Lowe Enterprises and the Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund which purchased the property for $290 million in 2007, the hotel has achieved historic preservation status in its quest to become a coveted landmark property, and also included community focus groups, to reestablish itself as a seminal neighborhood landmark.
Up to the Challenge
“They’re really trying to be a hotel that lives in Kalorama, lives in DuPont, lives in the U Street Corridor,” said W. David Owen, OPX principal, explaining that among other things, his firm opened up the property by improving the clarity of glass on the public levels so neighbors could see into the lobby when illuminated at night. Conversely, the profile of the landscaped dome outside was lowered for more visual access from the inside out to the sidewalk. Soon-to-be realized plans for a Starbucks just inside the lobby will serve both hotel guests and area residents, and in an effort to improve relationships with most of the neighbors, according to Owen, the loading dock, where facilitating large exhibits has been known to impede street travel, was redesigned in ways that included reworking turn planes and improving capability to accept larger bay trucks.
In the big picture, among the many design challenges for OPX Global was an effort to establish a sense of flow and make every space feel seamless, according to Owen, who noted it had been “chopped up” in prior renovations. In part this was achieved by establishing a basic palette at the front door with very light finishes in contrast to dark woods, something that resonates throughout the property. Bringing the building back to its modernist roots, in light of prior renovations, also posed a challenge, as did a 21st century dictum for the integration of pervasive and visible technology vis-à-vis “raising the hotel up into the luxury market.”
Around the Room(s)
According to Owen, when the hotel was built, “…it was kind of an interesting hybrid because the latest trend at that time was motor courts.” Accordingly, the 1,250 guestrooms – all of which faced out and curved per Tabler’s design – were very small, emblematic of the “clean, efficient, moderately priced” motor court credo. “It stood in contrast to some of the grand hotels that were here, which serves well for a convention market where people are not in their rooms for most of the day,” Owen explained. Efficiency withstanding, and without altering the guestroom footprint, OPX Global rallied to visually expand the stark, small, utilitarian “pie wedge-shaped” rooms to include warm bathroom granite-topped cabinetry that “looks like a piece of furniture,” and replace doors with translucent glass sliders. Bathroom floors are marble, and combination light/mirror fixtures both conserve and open up space.
The hotel is renowned for its legendary 35,815 s.f. International Ballroom which seats 2,700 and, according to one source, is one of the largest public hotel spaces south of NY and east of the Mississippi. The ballroom is the annual scene of the crime for the White House Correspondents Association dinner, among other glittering events, including one of 2008’s inaugural balls. A brand new 15,000 s.f. exhibition space, Columbia Hall, is part of an additional 20,000 s.f. of public space added to the hotel, and can be used as a whole or partitioned into four separate rooms or two banks of two with a center corridor. “Actually I believe there are almost 10 configurations they can do with walls around the center,” Owen said, with the center portions having 14-foot ceilings to comply with Hilton brand’s requisite for social event rooms.
“All of the construction was done while the hotel was operating,” Owen stated. “It never closed, except for one two-week period after holiday parties when things slow down, in order to relocate a massive amount of plumbing that involved the ceiling in the lobby area. Forfeiting 100 of the hotel’s 1250 guestrooms to the renovation, the hotel anticipates creating long term rental suites for business travelers replete with kitchenettes and other extended living-type amenities. The owners have also received approval from the District to build a condo tower on the property, wherein residents will be able to share hotel amenities such as maid service, health club, catering and more, according to Owen.
Monday, June 28, 2010
Labels: Boston Properties, Clark Construction, Foggy Bottom, George Washington University, Hickok Cole, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, Sasaki and Associates
Square 54 will bring 335 rental units, 440,000 s.f. of office space, an open central courtyard and retail plaza on I Street, over 80,000 s.f. of retail space (including the mystery supermarket), and over 1,000 underground parking spaces. The project is a partnership between Boston Properties and George Washington University, which owns the 2.6-acre site. The site was formerly part of GW Hospital; Boston has a 60-year ground lease on the land.
The residential portion will include 292 market-rate rental units and 43 units set aside for affordable and work-force housing. According to the developers, the residential portion of the project will deliver in May 2011 and begin leasing in January or February of that year. Residents will have access to approximately 250 parking spaces and at least three car-sharing spaces will be available for resident use.
The commercial/retail building will deliver in March 2011, according to Richard Ellis, a Project Manager for Boston Properties."All of the retail space is currently accounted for," according to Ellis. Ellis's calculations generously include the 15,000 s.f. under lease negotiations with a potential grocer, though he declined to comment on the Whole Foods rumors. Hunton & Williams signed on for 190,000 s.f. of office space in the commercial building and according to Jake Stroman, a Senior Project Manager at Boston Properties, the total leased office space and space under lease negotiation is 315,000 s.f., leaving 125,000 s.f. of office space up for grabs.
The project was designed by Connecticut-based Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, LLP and Sasaki and Associates, the architect of record was Hickok Cole; Boston recently hired design team Carlyn and Company Interior Design to work on the residential interiors.
Washington, DC real estate development news
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Labels: 14th Street, Eric Colbert, Georgetown Strategic Capital, U Street
In April, Moore said once the team secures financing for the $93.5 million project they will put together construction drawings and obtain permits, reportedly over the next nine months. Moore said construction would likely begin in 2011 and complete in 2012. Utopia will provide 220 residential rental units on the corner of 14th and U Streets, with the building and all entrances facing 14th Street and incorporating some of the historic facades on U.
The new project will offer 150 parking spaces to service both retail and residential uses. The building with be tallest on U Street at 90 feet, stepping down to 65 feet, then 45 feet on the south side as it moves away from U Street and will include 20,000 s.f. of retail and a roof top pool. Eric Colbert & Associates designed the mixed-use project.
UPDATE: Robert Moore of GSC reached out to DCMud to provide a brief update on the project. Moore said his team is still wrapping up financing and a joint venture partner agreement. Financing in terms of debt financing for construction is still "a long way off" he added. That said, Moore hopes to obtain permits "over the next 12 months" and that he is "pretty confident" that the project will be in the ground in the beginning of 2011.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Labels: Archstone, Clark Construction, Convention Center, Foster and Partners, Hines, Shalom Baranes Architects, Smoot
Riker said the team has already chosen a general contractor team of Clark with Smoot Construction; subcontractor bidding will begin shortly. The first phase of construction is scheduled for the first quarter of 2011. "The idea is that we'd start construction on the entire site south of I Street at one time, dig a deep hole, build the parking" and then continue with the office and residential projects, explained Riker. The project should reach "substantial completion between May and September 2013" estimated Riker, adding that the office would deliver first, likely in the spring, with the residential following shortly thereafter over the summer. The first phase is estimated to cost $700 million and is is entirely privately financed, according to Riker.
Foster and Partners of London and DC-based Shalom Baranes serve as co-architects on the massive endeavor. Designed to achieve LEED Gold certification, "the design of the landscape, office and condominium buildings relates to the specific sun and wind patterns and the climate. The site and the buildings will also incorporate solar shading, harness rainwater and water conservation and planting," according to Foster's website.
The second phase (the northern quadrant) of the project includes a hotel on property owned by Kingdon Gould, which he obtained through a land swap with the District Government in 2007. Gould gave up land on the site of the future Convention Center Marriott to get the northeast parcel of CityCenter. Riker indicated the 350-400 room hotel project was still in the planning stage, but that the team could select an operator "hopefully later this year."
Washington, DC real estate development news
Thursday, June 24, 2010
The Hickok Cole-designed 9-story complex will feature a lecture hall, seminar rooms and office space for NYU’s Office of Government and Community Affairs and John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress, below five-stories of student housing. The facility will also offer temporary living space for visiting professors. The slim 60-foot wide lot posed a design challenge to the architects, luckily students are adept at living in diminutive spaces, especially New Yorkers. Rooms will be arranged in four-room suites. A balcony along the building façade will act as a visual separation between the student housing and the academic areas below.
The BZA exception removes the developers requirement to provide parking or loading areas. The location lends itself to a walkable lifestyle, blocks from the White House and the legion of summer internship opportunities.
A groundbreaking is planned for September of this year, the first student would likely arrive in 2012. Once completed, the Center will serve as NYU’s thirteenth off-campus (but first domestic) study abroad site.
Washington, DC real estate development news
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
General contractor, Moseley Construction Group, is responsible for the demolition and construction. According to Johnny Moseley, President of Moseley Construction Group, the demolition is 50 percent complete. Moseley said he was "not sure" about the status of the second phase, actual construction.
The project, originally planned as 131 units by then-owner Comstock East Capitol LLC, received a zoning extension in 2009. The approved zoning changes and plan modifications give the developers until December of 2010 to file a building permit, and December of 2011 to begin construction.
In December 2007 Comstock received approval for a consolidated PUD allowing construction of a 133-unit building. In that same month, Merion acquired the property for $6.2 million from Comstock, which paid $9 million in 2006. Merion Chairman Bill Bensten was formerly a senior executive at Comstock.
Washington, DC real estate development news
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Labels: mt. pleasant
From humble origins three and a half years ago, the coop has grown to 350 members, 45 of whom have installed photovoltaic cells on their roofs, and has seeded similar coops throughout other DC neighborhoods. While not a collective financial institution as the name might imply, the organization helps individuals surmount hurdles associated with reducing reliance on the infamous grid. That's harder than it sounds. Schoolman says that even though subsidies make the decision a financial no-brainer, the process requires a large up-front investment and is fraught with difficulties, from installation of the panels and meters, filing tax credits, and dealing with PEPCO, to navigating the DC government's rules and adhering to historic preservation restrictions.
Schoolman hopes to change that, and is on a mission. The Mt. Pleasant resident says she has worked "about half time" on the issue since it began in 2006, when her son came home and thought, apparently with little clairvoyance, that it would be a "cool" thing to do. "It really came about with my son, who was 12 at the time, and his friend. They had gone and seen Al Gore's movie (not Love Story) and really wanted to do something. At that time it was very confusing and very expensive, we got contradictory advice...the tax credit was limited to $2,000, so we told the kids it was going to be hard and that it would take a couple of years."
That was optimistic. But financial incentives for solar have improved, thanks in part to those efforts. Schoolman says the average cost of installing solar is about $20,000 on a single family home, but the federal government will refund 30% of the entire cost in the form of a tax credit. On top of that, the District government rebates $3 per watt of system capacity, or about $9,000 for the average 3 kilowatt solar system. Then there are the utility companies that need to buy renewable energy purchase credits, which puts "about $900 per year" in the pockets of the typical homeowner, according to the evangelistic Schoolman. The credit is measurable thanks to an upgraded meter, which can run backward or forward, depending on which way the net energy is running. "Its a great deal. Over the lifetime, its an incredibly great investment," she says, noting that the payback time is only about three years on the typical installation.
But that's not what takes the breath away from Schoolman, a natural energy force in her own right. "The most important factor is that you get a natural reduction in your PEPCO bill. Most systems supply one-third to one-half of a home's electrical needs," says Schoolman, who can rattle off energy ratings, government regulations, and average monthly kilowatt hours without punctuation. "People hate PEPCO, there's so much satisfaction in just being able to get out from under your electric bills. People email me just to say how excited they are about the change in their electric bills since they started." That satisfaction comes back to her. "Its been really fun and satisfying, if I go up on my roof I can see seven solar systems just from my roof, that's really why we do it."
That subject naturally segues to the fierce debate in environmental circles about pushing small, easily adopted changes versus urging more fundamental change that, while more impactful, is less likely to be appropriated. Schoolman has an opinion: "Alot of policy makers see energy efficiency as the goal, with solar as a luxury, but installing solar is so tangible and makes it so real, that once you install solar people get really engaged in a way that they just don't with energy efficiency." Schoolman feels that energy efficiency can lead to a certain complacence, whereas with solar "once they see their bills drop it becomes a game to see how much they can save. Can they go totally off the grid? They totally understand the kilowatt usage. It becomes really inspiring and exciting."
Asked the inevitable question about its effect on property values, Schoolman notes that none of the solar-powered houses in Mt. Pleasant have tried to sell yet, so the empirical data just isn't there, but expects that this will become a strong selling point. Not to fear, she has an idea: "I think there's an emerging consensus that it would be more valuable if there were a disclosure requirement to show the years' utility bills. That way people could differentiate from these and other typical homes and it would show the relative value of solar, I think that's huge." She hopes for "another 10 to 20 houses going solar this year" just in Mt. Pleasant, but isn't stopping there. Her group has inspired 5 other coops in DC - Georgetown, Palisades, Brookland, Petworth and Shepherd Park, but Schoolman is "shooting for one in each ward." Hoping to increase the messengers and not just the message, Schoolman says she attends other coop meetings to give them logistical and practical support and encouragement. "Neighborhood roofs tend to have alot in common, so we can share information and there are a whole host of issues with the roof types."
Appreciative of the any financial incentives, Schoolman nonetheless is unimpressed with Washington DC's commitment to sustainable energy. "The only thing that limits this is that the DC rebate program has enough money to fund only about 200 houses per year," an amount she obviously thinks insufficient. "When we buy solar the money stays in our community; the installations are here - not like coal power. This is good for our local economy. We just wish they were more consistent about [the funding], it takes a while to build a base." Schoolman says the DC government "has not really made this program a priority. It was never really properly staffed and very poorly managed." As evidence, DC maintains a long waiting list for applications that don't yet have funding.
In that crusade, Schoolman has found a kindred soul in Councilmember Mary Cheh. Cheh introduced the Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008 that created the Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU), a third-party utility responsible for fostering sustainable energy in the District and, among other things, requiring a study of building a sustainable energy facility within - or sponsored by - the District. The SEU is expected to come online next year, overseen by the newly created Department of the Environment (DDOE), but while details get worked out both Cheh and Schoolman have seen a lack of leadership and accountability for sustainable credits and programs.
Cheh found the DDOE unresponsive and uncommitted. "They were dragging their feet and disorganized. I got them $2 million, but the money wasn't getting out the door even though the people were ready and had applied" said Cheh. In fact only about $600,000 was granted, and Schoolman and others had to pressure the District to roll the remainder over into the next year. "We had to fight to get the rest rolled over so it would be spent this year," says Schoolman. The funding now comes from a surcharge on every resident's PEPCO and Washington Gas bill, but only "a very small amount of that goes to solar, alot more goes to energy efficiency projects." Schoolman complains that during the recent budget proposals solar funding was cut back from $2m to $1.1m, but she and Cheh fought to push that back up to full funding.
Funding aside, both women found the District's concentration on the subject halfhearted, or worse. "I anticipated a three year period for it to come online...but they still can't get their act together. They had only one guy who wasn't even full time on this" said Cheh of the administration of energy credits and application processing. "There's no reason they shouldn't have been able to do it...they've been leaderless. They have done some good work over there, but it could be alot better." Cheh held an oversight hearing taking DDOE to task for their sluggishness, and a new Director has since been appointed by Mayor Fenty, events Cheh thinks will help focus DDOE's attention on the matter.
"Mary's been an incredible leader on this" says Schoolman. Still, the two are ideologically separated, with Cheh playing the pragmatist to Schoolman's passionate visionary. Asked about the expansion of solar funding or government mechanisms to push solar conversions, or solar requirements in new developments, Cheh prefers to sidestep being too wedded to one technology. "Not overdoing technology right now might actually be a boon to us as we expand the options that we have. I see this as accelerating, but there are other things we can do too. We also want to look at geothermal and cogeneration. There are places where they use the heat generated in the city, but solar is definitely going to be part of the mix, and I anticipate RECs (renewable energy credits) expanding."
To that effect Cheh has promoted the Energy Efficiency Financing Act of 2010, a bill introduced by the Mayor that would authorize the District to issue up to $250 million of revenue bonds to finance low-interest loans to District property owners to make energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements. Property owners would repay the loans through an assessment on their property taxes.
Does the BP disaster add impetus to the demand for greener energy? Cheh thinks the District is already leading the way. "We're already getting close to being, if not number one, then at the top of the market. The problem is still racing forward without knowing where the technology is going." But the District does not quite rank at the top of renewable energy production by most measures, including those of the U.S. Department of Energy (despite hosting the solar decathlon), and many states have aggressive solar energy standards. The Councilmember points to more privatized solutions to meet the needs of sustainability. "The Willard Hotel greened its operations, it has been able to use its green approach to things. My bill requires you to benchmark your building for energy use and put it up on the internet, yearly. That gives you a comparative framework to judge efficiency." That approach squares with Schoolman's disclosure approach for energy costs in home sales, though the Willard has no mention of its energy efficiency on its website, taking some of the force out of the argument.
Schoolman says don't wait, buy now. "Alot of people are not early adopters and are watching to see how it will go, but I always tell people that the future of the DC credit is uncertain, so now is definitely the time to do it. If anyone has any questions about this they can email me." Really? Publish your email address so anyone can write to you? "Sure, if I can't help them I can send them to someone who can." Okay, its SolarCoop(at) yahoo.com. Schoolman says there are plenty of reliable independent contractors that can help through the process, including GroSolar, Maggio Roofing, Switch Energy, Standard Solar, and Capital Sun, though the District has a list of approved contractors that must perform the installation to qualify for the credit.
Surely her son and his friend (Walter and Diego Arene, both now 15) have long since found other types of sun worship and lost interest in the minutia of solar energy lobbying? "They're very involved" says Schoolman. "They come to meetings, they volunteer, they talk to the press, and explain about solar energy. Both are really into it." Perhaps Mt. Pleasant is on to something after all.
Washington DC real estate development news
Monday, June 21, 2010
Labels: AHC Inc., Ballston, Bonstra Haresign Architects, Clark Construction, Cooper Carry, JBG Companies
Designed by Bonstra Haresign Architects and developed by AHC, on a portion of the JBG Companies' land, the new building will sit on top of the 600+ space garage, which will largely serve JBG's office building. Work on the garage by JBG's general contractor, Clark Construction, is nearly complete and in July, AHC and Harkins Builders will begin work on the four-story affordable residential project. According to Curtis Adams of AHC, the project should deliver by summer of 2011.
The land swap made for "complicated real estate" admitted Adams, but "everyone agrees that the best land use came about in the end." AHC originally owned Jordan Manor, which sat across the street at Wilson Boulevard and North Wakefield Street, and wanted to develop a denser project than planning would likely allow. Nearby, JBG sought a lower density residential project to neighbor its large office project. So after some prodding and negotiating, they swapped, keeping the density all on one site. JBG will develop 28 townhouses on AHC's 1.1-acre Jordan Manor Site, keeping it lower density.
The entire development on the "Peck site" will deliver two office buildings with over 400,000 s.f. of office space (pictured at right) and 36,000 s.f. of ground floor retail space, designed by Cooper Carry.
Arlington, Virginia real estate development news
Tekton: from the Greek, meaning one who works with their hands. -Wikipedia
For the intrepid 11-member Richmond, Va.-based Tektonics Design Group, blazing trails into D.C. territory with a local office helmed by architect and LEED AP Will Teass, working with their hands has little to do with memories of Mr. Connolly’s freshman shop class. In fact, it has everything to do with the marriage of custom fabrication and cutting edge design, with which the firm is fast becoming synonymous. In short, Tektonics is in the details.
“There are two sides of our practice that merge,” Teass said, explaining with Principal Damon Pearson that the group, which started in a Connecticut garage, is not a signature style design firm. “We’re not a signature style anything,” Pearson affirmed, alluding to Tektonics’ maverick modus operandi.
Founded in 2003 by industrial designers Christopher Hildebrand and Hinmaton Hisler, the two principals had worked together in a New England fabrication shop before partnering and relocating to their garage digs. With backgrounds in fine arts, sculpture, blacksmithing and metal working, Hildebrand and Hisler tackled projects head- (and hands-) on with the same vision and acumen they later brought to their Mid-Atlantic practice. When joined in 2007 by architect Damon Pearson, Tektonics quickly developed a reputation for its execution of complex commercial and residential design challenges.
The View from Here
Sometimes viewed as the architect’s architects and (industrial) designers, Tektonics Design Group is often retained by the architect of record as a key component in the design and building processes. In this respect, the primary architect’s vision sets the stage for a collaboration which results in Tektonics’ quest for materials and methodology that will completely transform a space, or a particular element of that space, something Teass calls “things that are designed discretely within the context of the overall project.”
In the case of the design for a new, mixed-use church and office building near the Convention Center at 10th and G Streets NW, in downtown Washington DC, working under the aegis of Cunningham Quill Architects in D.C. and Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects in NY, Tektonics is charged with cladding a column that has particular significance for the church. Tod Williams Billie Tsien had clad the façade of NY’s American Folk Art Museum with white bronze panels wrought from sand molds taken from the texture of concrete. The result was an irregular shape and texture, which is also the objective for the column that will become the symbolic icon for the D.C. church. While not looking to replicate things entirely, Tektonics’ goal is to decide how to meet the primary architect’s (or builder’s) vision with appropriate, even locally-sourced and sustainable materials when possible, and to determine a casting process within the parameters of the client’s budget. The group also prides itself in successfully reducing cost in many cases. At a project’s inception, “…sometimes the drawings for a particular project can be an abstraction,” Teass said, admitting he didn’t want to sound pejorative. “But they can be drawn in such a way that can be very expensive, and because we’ve done so much of this before, we have a really thorough understanding of a level of detail most architects haven’t had exposure to.”
The View from Within
Operating from a nearly 11,000 s.f. warehouse in Richmond with a full millwork shop that includes CNC milling equipment and a metal fabrication shop, the group’s dexterity with metal, wood, glass, synthetics, stone and concrete has facilitated the design of such entities as a servery ceiling in the form of an overturned boat at Annapolis’ Naval Academy, a 300-ft curved stainless steel guardrail for Richmond’s Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and a staircase for Richmond’s Reynolds Crossings building. “Every time we present this (Reynolds Crossing) project, people want to know what it looked like before,” Pearson and Teass recalled. The staircase, cantilevered off a beam inside the wall, required that Tektonics fabricate the steel cantilevered treads that are about 50 inches out. A glass guardrail sits in a bracket at the end of the cantilever. Teass explained that glass as a material “can be intimidating, but it’s actually remarkably strong, though very sensitive to movement and deflection” resulting in cracking. With this in mind, the firm ended up developing the connection detail and having the glass prefabricated with the use of templates, then installed.
In possibly one of their most rigorous design challenges, under the auspices of Rand Construction, the group has recently begun work on the redesign of a solarium – to be sited in the interior of P.J. Clark’s, the NY-based restaurant coming to Washington. The 19’ x 29’ornate metal solarium with Victorian overtures, curved roof and flat glass skylight, acquired at auction, reflects the restaurant’s vocabulary but must be modified to fit within its space. Originally designed to be outside, the solarium will arrive at Tektonics’ Richmond facility where the group, among everything else, will scale it down and fabricate the roof – its most complex component. Working under its own roof, something the group promotes whenever possible, precludes time spent in the field where laborers and materials may be subject to such variables as changing working conditions, weather and more.
A View to the Future
For Teass and Pearson, who each graduated from the University of Virginia and received masters degrees from Princeton’s School of Architecture, working in the hands-on realm of fabrication plus design was a natural expression of their respective philosophies. Teass, who spent high school and college summers employed as a millworker, believes the chasm between drawing/designing and building is a result of the intellectualization of architecture in the past 120 years, when it began to exist as a profession. People like Vitruvius and his successors were master builders, he explains, decrying the 20th and 21st century’s “disconnect” with the people who actually do the work. He does acknowledge a more recent shift, however, to a hands-on approach with the evolution of programs such as Auburn University’s Rural Studio, brainchild of architects Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth, where students build homes for rural west Alabama communities. “I don’t see why they (schools) don’t all mandate it,” Pearson said.
With immediate plans to expand into a 30,000 s.f. office and fabrication space in Richmond’s Old Manchester district, and a move this month into brand new offices in D.C., Tektonics Design Group’s future appears as ambitious as its thinking.
“We are really focused on how things are put together,” Teass maintained. “It’s about the process.”