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D.C.’s offices are getting funkier, more modern

Expect greener, glassier buildings in the District’s future

In the past 10 or so years, offices in Washington, D.C. have been changing their look by opening their spaces, offering more amenities, and going green. The reason why is that technology in the workplace has evolved, and the workplace has had to evolve with it to keep up.

Marty Caverly, chief investment officer for Resource Real Estate, Inc., said, "It used to be when you left the door of the office, you’re off the clock. Now, we’re always on. So, the environment has to be different."

It’s not just tech companies in Silicon Valley that are upping their game when it comes to workplace design. In the D.C. area, offices are using their spaces as a recruiting tool, especially for Millennials.

Image courtesy of Nixon Peabody/Eric Laignel
Nixon Peabody green wall and stairs, designed by Perkins+Will

On Millennials, Yolanda Cole, senior principal and owner of Hickok Cole Architects, said, "We are trying to figure out what it is that they love about the city and why they want to be here."

This focus on Millennials as an target audience isn’t new. Residential buildings have been beefing up their amenities for years now, offering novel options like pet spas, movie theaters, and blocks of free Wi-Fi.

"All of these things have become the hallmark of residential buildings coming from hospitalities. All of that kind of thinking has moved into the office workplace," Cole said.

The office has become a place where home and work has started to blend. Pantries aren’t dark spaces anymore. Property managers are becoming more like concierges. More importantly, workers feel more inclined to speak with one another rather than stay cooped up in tiny cubicles.

Cole said, "It’s not really about changing the lightbulb anymore. It’s about making sure that your tenants and the people inside the building are happy and interacting with each other and moving a kind of 24-7 office life."

At some point, people began to realize that workers in separate offices in separate departments weren’t talking to those in other departments. These open spaces have tackled that issue by moving more towards cross-collaborative teaming. Additionally, with technology like iPads and tablets, this has allowed workers to be able to more easily move around from one work space to another and even work remotely.

Nixon Peabody conference room, designed by Perkins+Will
Image courtesy of Nixon Peabody/Eric Laignel

Cole said, "People shouldn’t be so compartmentalized in their work, and they’d be more effective if they were cross-fertilizing within the office space."

Caverly further stated, "The overarching theme here is it’s about getting people to work better together and also ... getting people to want to come into the office."

Some of the design elements that have been popping up more and more have been spaces that are as open as possible with limited objects blocking one’s line of sight. There are higher floor-to-ceiling slabs built in. Outdoor spaces are also being brought inside with green walls or indoor courtyards. Additionally, wellness is being more focused on with access to natural light and stand up desks.

In the end, is it necessary to go all out like Google? Neither Caverly nor Cole think so.

"People confuse big, open plan space with certain kids on skateboards and ping pong tables, and sure that’s part of it ... but really it’s about people cooperating because we don’t need to go in the office anymore to do everything," Caverly said.

Additionally, as Cole put it, "Google goes to the extreme … They have all the capital they need to do that kind of stuff. Not everybody can do that nor necessarily need to."

When it comes to the kind of office space most people expect when it comes to Washington, D.C., what is most often thought of or at least brought up are the bulky Brutalist Federal buildings found in or near L’Enfant Plaza. From the blocky U.S. Department of Education building to the slightly curved U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development building, these structures have been known to top lists ranking the city’s ugliest buildings.

Is Washington, D.C. only filled with boring office architecture? In a panel hosted by urbanist debate group Turncoats, Payton Chung of the Urban Land Institute and Brian Miller of Edit Lab at Streetsense went so far as to say that D.C. not only has boring architecture, it wants it. [UPDATE: Comments made by panelists do not reflect the positions of staff members at Turncoats.]

Chung argued that the architecture is simply a reflection of the type of federal work done by many in the city. At the debate, panelist Mina Wright of the General Services Administration and National Capital Planning Commission further added that she believes the Federal government is not rewarded for being creative, which results in a proliferation of Brutalist buildings.

Robert C. Weaver Federal Building
Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Kjetil Ree

It was between the 1950s and 1970s that the Brutalist architectural style flourished in Washington, D.C. In truth, it wasn’t the egg-crate appearance that caused the D.C. government to become so attracted to the architectural style; it was the low cost of concrete.

Unfortunately, because concrete isn’t necessarily the most durable material, it has led some to criticize not only the appearance of Brutalist buildings, but the maintenance of them as well. Moisture often streaks concrete walls in cold, damp climates. The steel rebar inside the concrete also tends to rust.

In the winter 2013 publication of Preservation Magazine, David Hay wrote, "Because the style was relatively inexpensive to build ... design was frequently sloppy. Many structures from the period—oddities now mocked on the Internet—ended up misshapen, badly proportioned, and drab."

On how the District’s Brutalist buildings have been maintained, BuzzFeed has investigated the structures in L’Enfant Plaza, deeming the area a "crumbling, lifeless concrete island."

Reporter Joanne Pierce is more loving of the architectural style. In this Greater Greater Washington article, Pierce described the style as "lovely," further adding, "Concrete is wonderful."

In an article published September 2016 in The Guardian, author Felix Salmon wrote that Brutalism is back in style. While acknowledging that the architectural style has been associated with "ugly dystopian soullessness" and "everything that was wrong with modern architecture," Salmon further described the style as "down-to-earth, honest, unpretentious, [and] egalitarian."

J. Edgar Hoover Building
Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Aude

If treated with care and respect, Brutalist buildings can be seen as valuable and able to cut across class divides, according to Salmon.

If ignoring the Neoclassical White House and U.S. Capitol, are the Brutalist federal buildings the poster child for federal office buildings in the nation’s capital? If so, this image is likely to change as more and more of the stodgy structures get demolished or redesigned.

In February 2014, the Brutalist Third Church of Christ, Scientist was razed, despite efforts by historic preservationists to landmark the building that was deemed a "Brutalist atrocity" by The Washington Post.

1600 I Street NW
Rendering via Gensler

In August 2015, The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) applied to redesign a Brutalist office building located at 1600 I Street NW. The Washington Business Journal reported that the MPAA planned to completely modernize the building by replacing stone-clad walls with glass and reducing the four- to six-foot recess of the windows by 18 inches.

Still, the public is awaiting the demolition of the Brutalist J. Edgar Hoover building, a property that has been described everything from an "eye sore" to a "dreary 1970s behemoth" to something "dropped in from outer space." It’s worth noting that the demolition of the J. Edgar Hoover building isn’t because of public criticism, but because the building has structural issues that have been apparent since 2001. Regardless, there have been few if any public efforts to prevent the raze.

Impact of Workplace Design. Click on image for a close up.
Image via Gensler

In the end, the design of a building affects more than just aesthetics of a block; it affects the public’s opinion of the city as well. In the 2016 U.S. Workplace Survey, Gensler surveyed over 4,000 U.S. office workers in 11 industries. The results concluded that "higher-performing workplaces are more innovative," with key drivers that include relationships, making a difference, and workplace design.

On the impact of workplace design, Gensler further reported that workers in the most innovative spaces report more positively to statements like "At the end of the day, I feel I’ve made a difference" and "My organization makes a positive contribution to society" than those workers in the least innovative space.

So, if great design drives creativity and innovation in the workplace, could more modern, more aesthetically pleasing urban planning influence residents in a city? If Washington, D.C. were known for more visually stunning office architecture, would there really be a difference?

[UPDATE: A viewpoint by Turncoats panelist Mina Wright was clarified.]