Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Constitution Center: Letting the Light In, Keeping Terror Out

The $250 million renovation of Constitution Center — the block-sized, former Department of Transportation building at 7th St., SW — is inching towards the finish line. When renovation plans for the 1960s-style concrete relic began circulating five years ago, owner David Nassif Associates had three objectives for the architects and engineers at SmithGroup: Design a modern structure that will stand the test of time, retain the building’s original concrete frame, and make the building attractive to bulky federal tenants. The blast-resistant glass building incorporates federal security guidelines and boasts worker-friendly amenities like private D Street metro access, which mean SmithGroup may achieve all three when James G. Davis Construction wraps their work in November of 2009, 29 months after work began in mid 2007.

As lead architect David Varner puts it: “Maintaining the concrete frame probably saved about $60 million in construction costs and shaved about a year off the renovation.” But as far as design, “We pretty much went out of our way to invert just about every design feature of the old DOT building.” Although designed in 1969 by the architect behind the Kennedy Center and Radio Center Music Hall, Edward Durell Stone, the general consensus - at least among DOT employees - was that their old office frankly didn't measure up to general office standards.

DOT employees used to describe their offices as “dark and disorienting,” according to Varner because the original building had less than 50 percent glass. That’s not a problem with Constitution Center’s floor-to-ceiling, blast-resistant glass design that ensures “no employee will be further than 45 feet from a natural light source at any time.”

No federal agencies have yet signed up to move their offices to Constitution Center, but the buzz is that the owner would prefer one federal tenant with multiple departments to move in by early 2011. With 1.3 million s.f. of rentable space, a 310-seat auditorium, a 15-acre garage with a 1,500 car capacity (the largest in the city), four lobbies, and a 90,000 s.f. central courtyard, it's safe to say the future occupant will be able to stretch out in the complex that occupies the entire block between 6th, 7th, D, & E Streets. Add to its list of superlatives that the project is the largest office renovation in the country expected to receive a LEED Gold certification.

Along with aesthetic improvements, a major security overhaul went into the new design of the Constitution Center complex. Garage columns are steel jacketed to guard against an ISC Level IV explosion, just for that country-Inn-kind-of-feel. And while your Beemer may be toast by that point, two separate security access points were placed at the employee-only entrance. All air-intake units and filters are located 110 feet above the ground to guard against any airborne biological attack which, we're told, tends to concentrate closer to the ground. Constitution Center even has its own filtered water supply.

The major trade off? The grand central courtyard designed by the landscape architects of Oculus will, predictably, be closed to pedestrians, meaning no more public access or farmers market. But when you're talking about an office building with its own filtered water and air supply, are you really surprised?

Varner explains that in a modern, secure building, the owner felt it was not feasible to keep a public courtyard. But, in an effort to maintain a solid relationship with the community, Oculus and SmithGroup designers worked to increase the outdoor green space by 700 percent, beautifying the street front for those that have to walk around it.

Shedding a little sunlight on federal offices isn't such a bad idea, even if it's coming through blast-resistant glass.


IMGoph on Sep 22, 2009, 10:49:00 PM said...

increasing public green space 700% is all well and good, but if it was 5 square feet and now it's 35 square feet, that's really using numbers to fib like mad.

any idea what that square footage really is? if not, could you find out for us?

цarьchitect on Sep 22, 2009, 11:08:00 PM said...

Wow, that actually turned out really nice.

Putting some color next to HUD is a step in the right direction.

Unknown on Sep 23, 2009, 11:10:00 AM said...

Now if only they could get the FBI to take the space and do something with the Hoover Building as well...

Sydney on Sep 24, 2009, 3:43:00 PM said...

David Varner, the lead architect on the project, says he'll do some calculations and get back with us by the end of the week about the exact s.f. of the outside green space.

Anonymous said...

I with Mike on the Hoover Building. That thing is the biggest eyesore on the Grandest Avenue of the city!

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