Monday, May 23, 2011

Stairway to Change: The Links, Incorporated

By Beth Herman

For 65-year-old powerhouse African-American women’s volunteer and service organization The Links, Incorporated, finding the right team to expand and modernize its outmoded national headquarters at 1200 Massachusetts Ave. NW was key to facilitating its future. Plagued by antiquated structural elements and inadequate electrical, cable and mechanical systems last addressed in a 1984 renovation, the organization was profoundly challenged by issues surrounding the desired integration of two distinct historical buildings from different eras into a single 21st century workspace.

The first structure, which housed the organization’s current offices, was built in the 1930s as a single family home that became commercial space, with the other, consistently an apartment building, built in 1908 and more recently acquired though not yet utilized as office space. Seeking a design that embraced its mission and supported a visiting national staff, as well as accommodated expansive meetings and training, the organization would charge its architects with bringing state-of-the-art efficiency and sustainability components to an historical space, commissioning R. McGhee & Associates for the evolving task.

Defined by floors of varying elevations (there was no way to join them efficiently for the two buildings) and deficient structural systems in both buildings, the 1908 structure was also marked by multiple interior changes resulting in a substandard framing system. Additionally, the architects’ efforts to expand the headquarters from the first building’s 6,168 s.f., to a combined nearly 9,400 s.f. of office space, was fraught with unanticipated D.C. Historic Preservation Office hurdles.

Formerly on its board of directors, Principal Ronnie McGhee said his firm thought it had initially understood HPO’s objectives for this project. “Usually it’s the building’s exterior they want us to save,” McGhee explained. “But in this case, they wanted us to save some of the structure inside which really hamstrung us with the idea that we couldn’t change or manipulate all of the interior framing.”

Assiduously retaining historical elements such as existing joists and beams, among other items, McGhee said project manager Cary Blackwelder-Plair spent a great deal of time melding history with the organization’s quest for LEED Silver which, when attained, the architects say will make it the first LEED Silver building for an African-American organization.

Ratcheting it up on the LEED scorecard, sustainable elements include a green roof with drought-resistant plants, double hung windows, DIRTT System glass panels for interior office walls to help channel natural light, 58 percent FSC-compliant wood, low-VOC paints, carpeting and finishes, LED and CFL lamps and occupancy sensors, removal (where sanctioned) and reuse of existing wood structural elements and flooring, walls and insulation with an R- value of 20, renewable bamboo and cork flooring, and the use of vinyl and rubber in lieu of VCT . According to McGhee, working closely with Monarc Construction, Inc., and Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., 91 percent of demolition and construction waste was diverted from landfills.

Expanding space and agendas

With a membership of 12,000 professional women of color in 274 chapters spread among 42 states, the District and the Bahamas, a staff of 14 occupies the D.C. headquarters with accruing meetings, training, programs and philanthropic planning on its daily, weekly and/or monthly dance card. Divided into two entities: The Links, Incorporated, and The Links Foundation, Incorporated, the latter of which was founded in 2006 and is the organization’s philanthropic arm, respective needs and activities vary and a variety of spaces to support these pursuits were mandated, with shared common spaces like a kitchen/break room.

“One of the constraints of the original structure was the conference room was very small and there was very little flexibility of the building,” said Blackwelder-Plair. A conference space that barely accommodated eight or 10 could not be utilized for typically larger meetings and events, with the organization forced to rent hotel space. To that end, in the new design, a glass-walled conference room accommodating 16 opens with sliding doors to a lobby space for even larger functions. A second, basement-level conference/training space holds up to 32 people. Also in the basement, a library that houses and makes accessible the organization’s extensive archives replaces the former “compact” method of storage not uncommon to an organization experiencing growing pains: standard cardboard boxes.

Where the floorplan itself was concerned, the organization opted for a mix of defined office space with solid walls and more open spaces, though private offices contain glass corridor walls to utilize available natural light. “The building is an odd shape and is very tight,” Blackwelder-Plair said. “In fact once we started the demolition and (many) walls were gone, it felt like a huge, open building which is a big advantage for them.”

According to the architects, integral to the design was the inclusion of swing spaces or touch down office spaces. With officers scattered throughout the country (the former president was from Illinois and the current one is from Ohio), D.C. headquarter visits warrant spaces that facilitate work and even take “internal geography” into account. For the national treasurer, a touch down space for her abuts the finance group’s space for immediate access to like personnel.

For the organization’s Midwest-based president, a third floor executive suite replete with office, full kitchen, bedroom and bathroom facilitates work, economic and time factors, precluding the need for a hotel commute.

Light on the program

“One of the major elements for the project to be successful was the ability to be on one floor and see up an open stair to the other floors, though there’s a 5 to 7-ft difference in (each building’s) floor height,” McGhee said of the joining of the two structures. “Technically, you could have had a situation where a staircase was behind a wall, and you could have taken an elevator and gone up five feet to one level, then four feet to another, then five feet to the next,” he said, adding that all you’d really see is the inside of an elevator. Though there is an elevator with eight stops, the open stair which feeds the variegated levels provides a visual connection from one side to the next so the single-building concept is firmly established. The addition of both a skylight and roof window above the open staircase paints the area in available light.

Advocating green education and green housekeeping programs, McGhee said the client strongly supported the firm’s ideas, inching it higher on the LEED ladder.

“The biggest key to this project was getting an efficient layout out of all the programmatic, code and historical preservation requirements that came out of the building,” McGhee said. “It’s a very important project for our firm, but also for The Links, Incorporated and the African-American community overall.”

For design story ideas, please contact Beth at bh@


Jason Trotman on May 24, 2011, 1:27:00 AM said...

This is a spectacular renovation. I'm impressed with the incorporation of energy efficient and modern design concepts while preserving the historic nature of the building.

Anonymous said...

a brilliantly executed project. mr. mcghee, the client and the city can be proud.

Blake Mitchell on Jan 15, 2013, 9:46:00 AM said...

I must say that R. McGhee & Associates did a very good job with the renovations. I did not see the previous look of The Links, Incorporated office, but I know that this new look is gorgeous. The space looks lively and bright. I do love the combination of colors and details. Despite the presence of various details, the office space comes together nicely.

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