Tag Archives: climate change

Certifiably Green: Sustainable certifications for high-performance housing

High-performance housing is on the rise and, with it, an overwhelming number of green building certification programs designed to target specific standards and sustainability measures. In addition to the obvious environmental benefits, for the real estate community, the strategies outlined in these programs have more tangible advantages too. Commitments to green practices can differentiate properties from a design perspective and establish a market edge, resulting in less long-term investor risk. Beyond fulfilling code requirements, pursuing certification status substantiates mission and brand values, communicating an authentic culture to stakeholders. Finally, they deliver residents and tenants with a healthy interior environment, one that positively impacts their overall happiness and wellbeing – essential qualities in the post-pandemic marketplace.

So, whether it’s meeting local sustainability guidelines, reducing energy consumption (and cost), or prioritizing the health of occupants, there’s a program to meet your building’s needs. Here’s a rundown of the basics to get you started.

Run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy, the Energy Star certification program focuses on energy efficiency and reducing waste in buildings. The government-backed program offers consumers and building-owners a catalog of information on cost-effective products, services, and tools that help measure and improve building performance. Energy Star certified buildings feature high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, complete thermal enclosures, water protection systems, and efficient lighting and appliances that provide cost savings to building owners and residents alike.

Originally created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and U.S. General Services Administration, Fitwel is a leading certification system that integrates scientific and sustainable solutions into the design process to promote health and wellbeing in buildings and communities. The Fitwel Standard is a tailored scorecard that provides a path towards certification status for existing and new buildings and sites. Projects can achieve three levels of Fitwel status based on a point system addressing Fitwel’s Seven Health Impact Categories—including, Impacts Surrounding Community Health, Supports Social Equity for Vulnerable Populations, Enhances Access to Health Foods, etc. Points are awarded according to which Fitwel strategies are applied. Strategies coincide with the Health Impact Categories and are categorized into 12 sections from location and outdoor space to water supply and vending machines/snack bars. The program is designed to be user-friendly and customizable with all strategies voluntary and no prerequisites required for eligibility. 

Recognized worldwide, LEED is one of the most commonly used programs, providing a comprehensive framework for achieving healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings. LEED places emphasis on the end-user and urges the building community to focus on their health and safety as much as improving construction practices, efficiency, and material use. A flexible set of metrics allow all building types and phases, including interior fit outs and core and shell, to target various levels of certification status depending on energy and water usage, waste, maintenance, air quality, and comfort. Additionally, LEED engages occupants to contribute and decrease consumption. For example, encouraging they take the stairs over using the elevator by placing them in a convenient location or accommodating bikers with storage options to reduce the number of residents commuting by car. Each LEED level – from certified to platinum – makes greater improvements to promote building, occupant, and environmental health.

The RELi rating system and leadership standard takes a proactive and holistic approach to resilient design, specifically in relation to the increased frequency of natural disasters and changes in weather as a result of climate change. Used by companies, developers, city planners, architects, bond insurers and more, RELi involves the entire community to assess and adapt vulnerable structures, taking preventative measures to ensure building’s can physically withstand natural disasters. In addition to mitigating hazards to buildings, the RELi system takes the preparedness of entire communities into account. Success is measured according to how quickly they can recover following unplanned events (including economic disruption and resource depletion). From preparing emergency supplies and acquiring back-up renewable-powered generators to thoughtful site selection and durability, RELi outlines the necessary steps building owners and leaders can take to future-proof communities and improve quality of life in a changing world.

WELL is a globally recognized performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and well-being. WELL identifies 100 performance metrics, design strategies, and policies that can be implemented by owners, designers, engineers, contractors, users, and operators of a building. Consisting of eight categories—air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind—the WELL Building Standard bridges the gap between human and environmental health, recognizing that a strategy benefiting one will likely benefit the other. For example, increasing access to natural sunlight reduces energy consumption while improving productivity, mood levels, and circadian rhythm. While similar to FitWel, WELL places greater emphasis on the built environment and how it impacts human quality of life. Unlike Fitwel, to be eligible for WELL certification, projects must fulfill a set of prerequisites including several addressing air quality and filtration, water quality, ergonomics, and accessibility. Additionally, the documentation process is more rigorous with several strategies requiring applicants meet target measurements and produce data to support claims. Finally, to achieve WELL certification, the space must undergo an on-site assessment and performance testing by a third party.

The Passive House Institute US., Inc. (PHIUS) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization committed to making high-performance passive building the mainstream market standard. Its certification program, PHIUS+ is the leading program in North America and the only one that combines a thorough passive house design verification protocol with a stringent Quality Assurance/Quality Control program performed onsite. The high-performance building standard challenges the industry to construct buildings that can maintain a comfortable indoor environment with very low operating energy. Certification indicates an energy efficient building design modeled using location-specific climate data and occupant behavior based on three pillars: limits on heating/cooling loads, limits on source energy use, required air-tightness and other prescriptive requirements. The latest version accounts for how occupant density and envelope-to-floor-area-ratio influence heating and cooling load limits. While the program is stringent and requires precertification review as well as third-party on-site quality assurance checks, PHIUS+ is considered a legitimate path to achieving net zero energy and offers tremendous long-term benefits to the occupant and owner.  Its air-tight construction reduces moisture and mold issues, while heat recovery ventilation systems improve indoor air quality, while no thermal bridges make for a comfortable interior environment.

Developed by the International Living Future Institute, the Living Building Challenge is a performance standard for buildings that uses a regenerative design framework focused on maximizing positive impacts specific to a project’s place, community, and culture. Described as regenerative and self-sufficient, the ideal living building is informed by its bioregion’s characteristics, generates all of its own energy through renewable sources, captures and treats all of its water, and operates efficiently while being aesthetically beautiful. The Living Building Standard is continuously informed by current realities and project work as Institute staff monitor and make adjustments based on changes in the field and market. The Challenge assumes typical best practices are currently instituted for a project to begin the certification process. To achieve certification, projects must address aspects of all seven performance categories, known as Petals, which are subdivided into twenty Imperatives, including energy and carbon reduction, net positive waste, education and inspiration, access to nature, etc. Alternatively, projects can achieve Petal Certification for completing all imperatives under a specific Petal or category. 

Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED Zero moves beyond LEED certification to provide a framework for high-performance buildings and spaces and reduced greenhouse gas emissions through a comprehensive set of strategies impacting land, waste, materials, and more. There are four categories of LEED Zero including Carbon, Energy, Water, and Waste. To pursue certification, projects must be LEED certified under a BD+C or O+M rating system. Under USGBC, LEED Zero Carbon certification recognizes buildings operating with net zero carbon emissions over the course of the past year. LEED Zero Energy recognizes buildings or spaces that achieve a source energy use balance of zero over a period of 12 months. LEED Zero Water recognizes buildings that achieve a potable water use balance of zero over a period of 12 months.LEED Zero Waste recognizes buildings that achieve GBCI’s TRUE Zero Waste certification at the Platinum level.

Interested in pursuing green building certification for your space? Contact Laura Roth, Director of Business Development to speak with our high performance design experts.

Hickok Cole Celebrates Second DOEE Grant as Director of Sustainable Design is Appointed to HUB Board

In partnership with Redbrick LMD, Arup, and DPR, this grant will support the study of embodied carbon for a new office building in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 20, 2021) – Today, Hickok Cole announced it received a $10,000 Building Innovation Design Assistance Grant towards the Embodied Carbon Lifecycle Analysis of an office building at the Saint Elizabeths Campus in Washington, DC. Funding was provided from the Green Building Fund through the District of Columbia’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE).

Set to begin immediately and completed by September 30, 2021, the grant will facilitate early design assistance supporting the analysis of embodied carbon for Building Number 2 on Parcel 17 at Saint Elizabeths. Embodied carbon will be tracked and priced in three structural systems and building envelope details, thereby providing Redbrick LMD with sufficient data to minimize embodied carbon in the project at hand. Long-term, these insights will offer members in the local development community a model for assessing embodied carbon in their own projects. The ultimate goal is to establish a broader framework for future building valuation, including the development of carbon neutrality resources, policies, and code.

“We’re honored to be the recipients of this grant and to have the support of the DOEE once again. It’s a privilege to be selected to contribute our research and insights towards achieving DC’s progressive climate goals,” said Holly Lennihan, RA, LEED AP, Senior Associate and Director of Sustainable Design at Hickok Cole. “We’re especially thankful for forward-focused partners like Redbrick who are committed to promoting sustainable development and pursuing decarbonization strategies to secure a bright future for this historic campus.”

The project team includes structural engineers from Arup and high-performance construction experts from DPR. Arup will take the lead on documenting the structure with low embodied carbon concrete and cross-laminated timber; Hickok Cole will generate building façade details with similar criteria. Data will be managed using modeling software, One Click LCA. Following this study, DPR will conduct a cost comparison of the three structural assemblies. Final project deliverables include a report summarizing the activities undertaken in pursuit of reducing embodied carbon, a copy of the Life Cycle Analysis, and standard information contribution towards an official case study.

The announcement comes following Holly Lennihan’s appointment to the Advisory Board at the DC Building Innovation Hub, where she will act as one of the primary high-performance design experts. Under her leadership, Holly and her team have won a series of state and federal grants focused on sustainability, resilience, and urban ecological systems including a $20,000 grant to explore net-zero energy potential for 800 9th Street in July of last year.

About Hickok Cole
Hickok Cole is a forward-focused design practice connecting bold ideas, diverse expertise, and partners with vision to do work that matters. Informed by research and fueled by creative rigor, we look beyond today’s trends to help our clients embrace tomorrow’s opportunities. We’ve called DC home for more than 30 years and are proud to have designed some of the area’s leading sustainable projects, including the American Geophysical Union’s net zero energy renovation and 80 M Street SE, the first mass timber commercial renovation in the District.

Mass Timber’s Moment: What’s Next for CLT?

The 80 M Street SE mass timber addition will be the first of its kind in Washington, DC.

Just last month, over 1,300 tons of mass timber arrived on site at 80 M Street in Washington, DC’s Capitol Riverfront district. Having completed its journey from the forests of the Pacific Northwest and Eastern Canada, the timber was hoisted atop the commercial office building and, over the course of a few short months, will result in 105,000-SF of additional leasable tenant and amenity space. The 80 M Street renovation, the District of Columbia’s first mass timber and glass vertical expansion project, is a triumph for a number of reasons, the most crucial of which is its signaling to the real estate industry the possibility for further development of its kind.

The culmination of extensive research and a lengthy entitlement process including the approval for code modifications and community review, 80 M Street came to fruition under the guidance of a client with vision and the collaboration of an invested project team who saw the sustainable material’s long-term potential. And the potential is endless, insists the senior designer behind 80 M Street, Tom Corrado, LEED AP, who, in partnership with John Lang, AIA, a senior associate at Hickok Cole, has been exploring the next opportunity for mass timber development in DC.

“We’re at a point where every conversation we have with a client begins with mass timber,” Tom stated. Having witnessed the rise in remote workers this past year, and well aware of the housing crisis in the District, Tom and John venture that timber could reconcile these issues.

Due to its pre-fabricated nature, timber construction takes approximately 25% less time to build, resulting in faster lead times and improved quality control.

“Residential construction is primed for timber, especially when you need housing fast,” comments John. Having specialized in residential design throughout his tenure at Hickok Cole, John is an advocate for affordable and attainable housing and sees it as timber’s next step. “The module for housing is smaller than office and timber construction excels on shorter structural systems. Better still, mass timber comes in pre-fabricated panels that speed up construction and reduce the amount of labor on-site. Consequently, that usually means improved quality control.” With labor costs skyrocketing and skilled labor dwindling, this could ultimately help drive down or at least steady rent prices, he pointed out.

“Not to mention the biophilic element and connection to nature these residences would provide,” adds Tom. “Humans are not meant to live in these 600-SF boxes. We need access to greenery and sunlight. And just being surrounded by wood accomplishes that – it’s definitely better for you than concrete and dry wall.”

With the increased attention to health and wellness due to the pandemic, John explains, it’s obvious that the housing industry will require a shift as well. “That includes everything from better HVAC systems and ventilation to availability of outdoor amenities and remote work accommodations. But, we’ve also seen how drastically our presence impacts the planet. With nowhere to go this past year, the roads were clearer and so were the skies – we can’t ignore that.”

Studies show exposed wood has resulted in improved mood and productivity levels for building occupants.

It’s true that our definition of a healthy lifestyle has expanded to include a focus on climate change and reducing our carbon footprint – and that of buildings. It’s especially true when you consider that the construction and building industry accounts for nearly 40% of global carbon emissions annually. Not only is wood the only building material that is 100% renewable but as they grow, forests actually sequester nearly 13% of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions per year. As a result, buildings made from wood store that carbon throughout their lifespans.  

The case for timber is clear and has been made countless times. So, if it seems so obvious, then why has it been so challenging convincing developers and building owners to pursue mass timber construction? As is usual with the early stages of any new technology, the biggest hurdles are cost and the associated risks (including a decent learning curve in this case) with being the first. But, as Tom points out, we’re not the first. We’re not even close – at least not globally. In fact, most of Europe and Canada, and even parts of Asia, including China despite its robust steel economy, have been investing in the material for some time now. In West Coast states like California and Washington, where timber is easily accessible and often cheaper, experimenting with timber in a variety of project types including schools, hotels, and even entertainment venues began almost a decade ago.

“We’re looking into medical office buildings as well,” Tom added. “There’s been a shift in the medical community away from single practitioners occupying a portion of a larger building towards several providing care under one roof. We predict folks will be going to a single location for all their health and wellness needs in the future so why not create a better environment and improve the user experience holistically?” Mass timber can improve air quality and acoustics, and has been proven to elicit a positive human response from occupants.

The current premium on mass timber is driven by a lack of readily available resources on the East Coast and subsequent low demand. One solution is for jurisdictions to alleviate costs by offering incentives like tax credits.

Now that timber has made it to the nation’s capital, the question remains: how can we propel the timber movement forward? Cutting down costs is one way – but that comes with increased supply. One of the biggest factors contributing to the premium on wood is limited resources on the East Coast. “We need to make the case for forests on this side of the country. Areas in the northeast like Maine and Vermont are well suited for it,” says John.

The next step is understanding the International Building Code and navigating jurisdictional zoning laws and safety regulations. “Form your project team early on, involve local representatives and jurisdictions right away, and educate the community,” Tom suggests. “Every project is different, but it only takes a few early adopters to remove uncertainty from the equation.” From there, he says, the knowledge is public, and you now have a pool of experts who can take the lead on the entitlement process or negotiating code modifications, as needed.

“It’s true that sustainability alone isn’t enough of a motive for development to occur, especially if the dollars don’t lean in your favor,” says John. “And developers shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of these costs. That’s why it’s crucial to have an open dialogue with your jurisdiction.”  Putting your cards on the table and seeing how your goals align can prompt the introduction of sustainable incentive programs, tax credits, grants, and other forms of government support.

“The results are in on timber. We should no longer be concerned with early adoption,” Tom contended. “In fact, our biggest risk is being last to get on board.”

80 M is scheduled to deliver in the fall of 2021, just a few months after construction launched in March.

Want to explore mass timber for your next project? Contact Laura Roth, Director of Business Development, to schedule a conversation with the team.

Re-framing the Carbon Conversation

As the building and construction sector improve operational carbon efficiency to address global GHG emissions, embodied carbon will make up an increasingly significant share of a building’s total life cycle emissions (up to 50%, from approximately 28%, today). While policy and code changes are on the horizon, it’s clear we need immediate action if we are to reverse the damage already inflicted by the built environment.

In honor of Earth Day this month, we asked our partners to share what steps they believe the industry can take today to help move the needle towards carbon neutrality and net zero carbon projects.

Lindsey Falasca, RA, LEED BD-C, Director, High-Performance Building Hub at Institute for Market Transformation

“Investors drive demand on the front end – informing building owners and developers about their priorities and expectations. More than ever, investors are prioritizing ESG goals and requiring building owners to report against sustainability targets. Tenants are the customers on the back end – and they need to use their consumer power to demand spaces and buildings that meet rigorous sustainability requirements. This consumer demand, while increasing, has not hit scale yet.

There is potential to increase demand for high-performance buildings in both groups, but the key is to talk about concerns that resonate. Investors care about their reputation and about remaining in business no matter what climate or natural disasters strike. Tenants generally don’t choose buildings based on performance; for them, it might be more important that a building is beautiful, resilient to power disruption and designed to keep them healthy and safe. Environmentalists in the building industry need to translate the benefits of high-performing buildings into value for those who have the power to influence the outcomes.”

Joël Onorato, Project Architect at Hickok Cole

“Not only does embodied carbon make up an increasing share of total carbon, but as things currently stand, embodied carbon is projected to represent 50% of the global carbon emissions for new buildings from today by 2050. In other words, at least half of the impact of new construction, in the timeframe that matters to fight climate change, is in building materials.

Reducing embodied carbon can be done at the material or component level itself, as with the composition of concrete, and by implementing the circular economy. Circulating materials minimizes the volume of production and therefore emissions, as they get reused and recycled, while generating revenue in new ways. Even better than reducing carbon is storing it in natural products such as straw or sustainably sourced wood. Many solutions are available now, and at little cost, but they require changes in habit. This is why, progressively, governments should procure only zero or negative carbon materials, while projects, owners, and manufacturers explore the value that lies within the circular economy. As designers, we should continue talking about embodied carbon and be proactive in advocating for low carbon design solutions.”

As designers, we should continue talking about embodied carbon and be proactive in advocating for low carbon design solutions.

Melanie DeCola, Manager, Architectural Research, The American Institute of Architects

“The AIA has pivoted its mission, slightly to be primarily climate focused. The COTE Top 10 has now been re-established as the Framework for Design Excellence and is being included as criteria for awards across the organization. The AIA has also created a spreadsheet for architects to download and input predicted and measured data in order to understand the carbon impact of their projects; this spreadsheet directly matches the 10 categories in the Framework.

The AIA has also made a formal commitment to climate action, with both its 2020 President and CEO signaling this shift. And we are creating new resources and tools to support architects who are engaged in high performance building and wish to further reduce the embodied carbon footprints of their projects. These include an embodied carbon tracking tool being embedded in the latest version of the DDx and a guide for architects entitled, Buildings that Last: Design for Adaptability, Deconstruction, and Reuse.

We’re also planning the 2020 Intersections Research Conference this fall, in conjunction with ACSA, which will be entirely focused on issues around carbon and carbon management. This will be a chance not only for architects to come together and share the knowledge needed to solve some of these massive planetary challenges and share lessons learned, but for academia to present the latest research on life-cycle analysis, decarbonized grids, materials science, and more.”

Mark Fretz, Associate Director of Outreach, Research Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon

“Designing for carbon is designing for health. We need to reframe the conversation of carbon in buildings to be less abstract and technical and more about the health of individuals, communities, and the planet impacted by GHG emissions.

At the University of Oregon, we launched the Institute for Health in the Built Environment to synthesize these vast scales of health, through radical interdisciplinary and industry relationships that move beyond typical integrated design practices to connect architects, engineers and contractors with biologists, chemists, physicians, and environmental health experts. Through our industry research consortium, Build Health, we are developing and conducting an impactful research agenda together with design firms, such as Hickok Cole, manufacturers and other built environment stakeholders, who can then translate the findings into design, construction and operation practices. Furthermore, through Build Health, design students here at the University of Oregon have the opportunity to work with industry to visualize and design for the unseen in buildings, including performing whole-building life-cycle assessment (WBLCA) on real projects to identify sources of high embodied carbon and develop lower carbon alternative solutions.

This ecosystem of research collaboration across industry and academia, coupled with the integration of research findings into design education, will be how we move the needle towards carbon neutral and net zero carbon projects now as we focus on developing healthier individuals, communities, and planet.”

Designing for carbon is designing for health.

Chris Gorthy, Project Executive at DPR Construction

“The most straightforward way to reduce embodied carbon now is by repurposing existing buildings or using existing materials to build new buildings so you aren’t using a bunch of energy to harvest new materials.  These methods can make economic sense for developers now, using smart design and construction methods to keep costs down.  Until embodied carbon is linked to some kind of cost metric, it’s not going to be widely adopted.  Once that happens, there will be a tipping point where demand for materials that encase or sequester carbon increases dramatically. 

In the meantime, our industry can invest in material research, mock ups, tests and use cases for new or re-discovered building materials that encase or sequester carbon.  A prime example is mass timber, which is rapidly gaining traction in the design world for its aesthetic beauty and sustainable properties.  An emerging example is alternative cement, or cement made of fly ash (fine particles formed when coal is burned in power plants) in lieu of the traditional carbon-intensive burning of limestone.  At DPR Construction, we are investing in these methods and collaborating with our industry colleagues to research and raise embodied carbon awareness.  For example, we contributed to Integral Group’s “The Total Carbon Study” back in 2015, which established key metrics for whole building life-cycle elements.  More recently, we built our sixth net zero energy designed office out of mass timber in Sacramento. There’s a lot to consider when developing real estate, and we are working to ensure embodied carbon is part of the conversation.”

Holly Lennihan, RA, LEED AP, Director of Sustainable Design, Senior Associate at Hickok Cole

“In our culture, we use the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ readily and, most likely, too superficially. Having said that, I believe that designing with the intent to minimize the embodied carbon content of our buildings, is a radically different approach to creating architecture – a real paradigm shift!

What does this approach look like? It places value on the source, production process, and inherent qualities of each material that will be used and specified. This background data—the amount of energy used to create and ship a material to a job site—does not even fully exist yet. Modelling the amount of carbon in a building is another tool just now emerging. Designers will develop a new lexicon of materiality. For one client, we created imagery of local materials at the early concept phase. The standard and expected interior finishes—especially those that convey expense and exclusivity—will evolve. Beauty will still be the elusive goal. The palette will merely have been updated to something better for the planet.”

Beauty will still be the elusive goal. The palette will merely have been updated to something better for the planet.

Katie Rothenberg, LEED AP, Managing Director at Paladino and Company

“There are three BIG steps that the industry must take. The first is that owners must buy the maximum level of green power available through their local utility. The cost of renewable energy is increasingly a bargain compared to efficiency savings through cutting edge building design. You can have both, so commit to renewables! Next, designers must eliminate combustion on site. When you look at the Global Warming Potential (GWP) contribution of leakage in the natural gas delivery grid, it doubles the impact of the fossil fuel burned on site. Stop setting things on fire and promote electrification! Finally, Contractors and manufacturers must require Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and volume takeoffs for all materials significantly contributing to the project’s embodied carbon. This will require commitment from owners with designers’ specifying accordingly. You cannot manage what you do not measure!

Implementing these steps requires patience, but if we want to slow global temperature rise, we must do this important work now, before it’s too late.

Linda Toth, Senior Consultant at Arup

“With a recent increase in my time for introspection, I was thinking back (nearly a decade now) to the first time I tried to wrap my head around these vague definitions of ‘Zero’ targets, while completing a campus zero waste strategy during a Graduate Assistantship. How on earth was I supposed to develop a plan for an entire campus to divert all of their waste? Only to learn that zero waste was widely accepted to mean only 90% diversion – signaling that close was good enough. A more complex language has since emerged with operational energy. Which NZE/ZNE/ZE definition will you follow? Are you including source energy calculations, or is site energy good enough? 

Coming back to current day, embodied carbon is now starting to get some air time, not on every project, but gaining some ground every week. On a recent Living Future webinar, the term, Integrated Carbon, was used to emphasize the importance of evaluating embodied and operational carbon in tandem throughout the design process, not allowing them to stay in their current silos. Ming Hu’s recent book, Net Zero Energy Buildings: Predicted and Unintended Consequences introduces the term, Zero Impact Buildings, which also highlights the need to include calculation of occupant transport choices. While I don’t have the perfect phrase or term to use today – I challenge our design community to take the rest of 2020 to tackle the linguistics challenge of clearly and consistently communicating carbon management impacts throughout design, construction and operations of buildings. When we talk about carbon, we will talk about ALL carbon impacts and possible reduction strategies, not just the ones that will earn the project a new plaque in the building lobby after a year of operation.”

I challenge our design community to take the rest of 2020 to tackle the linguistics challenge of clearly and consistently communicating carbon management impacts throughout design, construction and operations of buildings.

Inside Facades+ DC: The Projects, Trends, and Voices

From left to right: Elba Morales, Holly Lennihan, Sophia Lau

Architecture in Washington, DC is easily overlooked, often distilled to a vision of concrete and conservatism or disregarded as unimaginative. But architects in the city would argue that this couldn’t be further from the truth. In recent years, a broader shift in cultural and social values coupled with an urgency around climate change have contributed to a gradual yet undeniable transformation of the capital’s urban landscape. Even as the same restrictions around height remain in place, architects in DC have continued to innovate and mature within those boundaries – redefining the city through placemaking and the sheer power of a facade.

Ahead of the Facades+ DC conference this month, we sat down with Co-Chair Elba Morales and panel moderators, Holly Lennihan and Sophia Lau to discuss the evolution of DC design and explore the most significant factors influencing its future. Let’s dive right in.

Elba, over the past several months, you’ve been working closely with the Architect’s Newspaper to curate the programming for Facades+ DC. What influenced your selection of panel topics and speakers?

Elba Morales (EM): The conference presented us with an opportunity to design a program around what we’re most excited about and, more importantly, what we thought our peers and clients would be most interested to learn. We wanted to expand the conversation on DC architecture beyond federal buildings and monuments by introducing a new crop of buildings with materials, details, and tectonics that offer a counterpoint. Likewise, the local industry’s recent discussions around glass box fatigue are justified to a certain degree. But we tried to examine what it is about glass facades that we’re reacting to specifically – is it the lack of sustainable strategies in the enclosure, the generic character of the façade, the missed opportunity to contribute to the character of the neighborhood? We wanted to capture how glass is being redefined to become more sophisticated and tectonically complex. Solid facades present different opportunities in terms of placemaking. So we selected projects that convey how a facade can relate to its surroundings in different ways and propose a new type of monumentality. Finally, we knew we definitely wanted to address high-performance design because of the natural progression of policy and because we feel it’s important to perpetuate the dialogue around sustainability.

You mention DC’s glass box fatigue, which has been a hot topic across the industry over the past few years. What makes the first panel’s focus on the glass facades at the International Spy Museum and 2050 M Street different?

EM: Both projects have a distinctive façade and treatment of glass that is anything but generic, and we’re going to hear directly from the teams responsible for executing them. If you think about 2050 M, we see the fluted panels but so many of the details are hidden, or eliminated in the case of the vertical mullions. At the Spy Museum, all of the gymnastics of the oversized glass and connections to the angled fins are fascinating to me. It’s really unusual to see a façade layered in such a way that it creates pleats – it makes the whole facade feel lighter. And the way the entire façade cantilevers over the street! These tectonics did not exist in DC before these two buildings. The complexity of these facades required a lot of technical expertise, in some cases a massive approval process, and ultimately an owner willing to go there. I want people to be inspired by the challenges that come with innovating and going outside the norm like this, and look forward to hearing more about it myself.  

How do you hope the presence of these innovative projects will impact design within the city?

Sophia Lau (SL): It’s important to showcase that this kind of work can be done in DC. These buildings have a sculptural quality and are very thoughtful in how they’re realized in the details of construction. They create inspirational places for people to enjoy and remember. Exposing the DC marketplace to this caliber of design will hopefully bring new trades and skills to the construction industry that make it more mainstream. Everything we build is part of a movement to push the industry to the next level. Having these kinds of forums allows us to engage in conversation, build on ideas and then fuel them forward. It’s a village: the designer, the contractor, the developer and so on. We want to find new ways to inspire and challenge the status quo and enjoy working with clients that want that too.

The second panel takes the concept of sculptural design to the extreme through the examination of the Glenstone Museum and The REACH at The Kennedy Center. What makes you excited to hear from the teams behind these two projects?

SL: We chose to highlight glass versus non glass on purpose to spur a conversation between mass and opening. We want to capture how buildings can display elements of excellent design through the examples we highlight in the conference. Not just in museums or institutional buildings but in offices and buildings that affect our everyday. At The REACH, Stephen Holl took advantage of the fact that concrete is liquid to create an experience that embraces curves. His team used the plasticity of poured-in-place concrete to create dynamic forms that literally dance in the landscape. What’s so compelling about Glenstone is how an institution can use the humble material of concrete and realize it in a majestic way. The facade is more than just an envelope and is deployed masterfully. It demonstrates the level of creativity that can be achieved with any material, and showcases how something like concrete can be looked at thoughtfully and reinterpreted. The precast concrete units surprise people because they think its stone. We know it’s not, but Thomas Phifer and his team elevate the material in a way that alters its perception. I am exceptionally interested in learning more about that process and how they could get it to a point of transformation.

The final session invites experts from Transsolar and the Center for the Built Environment to share the latest on their sustainability research. Why are open dialogues like this more important now than ever before?

Holly Lennihan (HL): No matter which way you look at it, climate change cannot be ignored, and that translates to the building industry in the form of being more intentional with how we design. With legislation like DC’s Omnibus Act, all of a sudden we’re having mandated conversations that explicitly require us to explore outside of our comfort zones and learn from others in the field. Quantifying and analyzing building performance or studying how buildings perform with different facades is an expertise, so how do we find and tap into those experts to educate ourselves and our peers? Education is key. That’s why sharing our work more frequently is extremely valuable, especially when it comes to sustainability. It makes replication of what works so much easier, and that’s what we want above anything else – to make high-performance design more approachable for designers and clients. As sustainable programs become more mainstream, the evolution of how they’re applied is changing becoming more sophisticated. For example, we talked earlier about the glass box phenomenon, and all-glass buildings are not great for sustainability when it comes to energy usage. The current solution tends to revolve around layering or adding shading techniques to reduce overheating, but now is the time to go back to the basics and add mass as well as take advantage of the available technology. People are working hard to sort out how to make a shift in their design process. It’s an amazing time to be an architect because there’s a real transformation occurring in how we do what we do. One thing we can’t forget – even with all of the new technology out there – is that the fundamentals of design still apply. Basic things like quality air barriers and proper insulation – these are age old responses to climate conditions that start at the very core of the building and cost nothing. I really think the whole industry is coming to terms with the concept of less is more. And as Sophia said before, the only way we’re going to get there is together.

What do you all hope people take away from the conference? 

HL: There are a lot of great nuggets to pull from, even at the basic level. We want to impress upon owners and developers that professionals in this area don’t shy away from risk. We are not going to ignore the complications of trying something new, or being the first as in the case of our work at AGU. We understand that these conversations start early and that we need to continue to educate ourselves. Anyway we can move the needle forward with our clients – whether it’s a more sophisticated facade or designing for net zero energy – that’s a win for us.

SL: This is an opportunity to join a forward-thinking community. We hope people come away motivated to become active participants in the dialogue, research and collaborations that are pushing the built environment to new heights of design excellence. 

EM: Ultimately, we’re pushing for change and a more immediate dialogue on what it takes to follow through on ambitious aspirations. In the context of the conference, we want to see more buildings with facades that inspire us and that are better for our city, people, and environment. The conference has an excellent range of speakers who will tackle these topics from diverse viewpoints – sharing details, processes, and challenges that are not public.  That in itself is so powerful. We want people to feel inspired by what is presented and what can be achieved. And to know that DC is happening!


Elba Morales, LEED AP is an Associate Principal and Senior Designer at Hickok Cole. She is currently working on several repositioning projects including 1400 L Street NW, 2340 Dulles, and 2 Bethesda Metro.

Holly Lennihan, RA, LEED AP is a Senior Associate and Director of Sustainable Design at Hickok Cole. Holly is in the process of delivering the American Geophysical Union headquarters, DC’s first net-zero energy renovation of a commercial office building.

Sophia Lau, AIA is a Senior Associate and Senior Designer at Hickok Cole. She is currently working on the National Geographic Pavilion.