New Year’s resolutions for architecture and infrastructure: Did D.C. area succeed?

December 30, 2011

At the beginning of 2011, I proposed that those who in some way shape our city and its architecture adopt several New Year’s resolutions: to design ever “greener” buildings; to save buildings worthy of preservation and find new uses for them; to sustain, and make more sustainable, urban and suburban community infrastructure; to invest in and improve all modes of transportation serving metropolitan Washington; and to reconsider and modernize land-use policies and regulations, especially zoning ordinances.

As 2012 begins, have last year’s resolutions produced results?

Being greener: Architects and engineers are indeed designing or retrofitting buildings to consume less energy for heating and cooling, ventilation and lighting. And they’re using more renewable and recycled construction materials. The result is that new and renovated architecture increasingly receives LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver, gold and, occasionally, platinum ratings from the U.S. Green Building Council. Increasing numbers of architects and engineers are LEED certified.

Preserving architecture: Many older buildings are technically obsolete, financially not viable and sufficiently dysfunctional and deteriorated, which can justify demolition. But many others are worth saving. Reusing a building can preserve architectural history as well as significant investments of money, energy and material resources. Redevelopment projects increasingly entail modernizing and re-purposing structures in the interest of environmental and economic sustainability.

Sustaining community infrastructure: Metropolitan areas depend on a daunting array of infrastructure services and systems: soil and forestry conservation; open space and wildlife protection; storm water management; waste collection and processing; and basic utilities — clean water, sewage collection and treatment, natural gas and electricity distribution, telecommunications. Sustaining this infrastructure requires constant repair, replacement and expansion.

But ensuring that vital infrastructure systems are well performing and reliable is an uphill battle, mostly because of lack of funds for timely maintenance and upgrades, and sometimes because of poor planning and operational mismanagement. Does Pepco come to mind? Efforts to do better continue, yet how much progress will occur remains to be seen.

Improving transportation: This resolution keeps yielding results that are plentiful, visible and sometimes obstructive. Most memorable are the region’s huge, multi-year, multi-billion-dollar capital investment projects: Maryland’s Intercounty Connector, the ultimate effectiveness of which is unproven; and Northern Virginia’s Capital Beltway expansion and Metro Silver Line extension toward Dulles International Airport.

On a more modest scale in the District are the nearly complete 11th Street bridges over the Anacostia River and the streetcar line being built ever so slowly along H Street NE. But light rail plans for Columbia Pike in Arlington County and the Purple Line serving Montgomery and Prince George’s counties remain aspirational and controversial.

Meanwhile, thanks to federal stimulus money, segments of the region’s arterial and feeder roads are being steadily improved, while many neighborhood streets long in need of improvement are being refurbished with new curbs, sidewalks, pavement and sometimes utilities. No surprise here, because fixing existing roads is much easier and cheaper than building or extending transit systems.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is making some progress. New Metrobuses look sharp. New 7000-series Metrorail cars are on order, and Metro station escalators are gradually being fixed. But so many other problems persist: poor lighting; unintelligible public address announcements; lack of up-to-date informational signs at station entrances; and single-tracking — for track maintenance — at often inconvenient times, producing excessively long waits for overcrowded trains. With adequate funding, WMATA could solve many of its problems, but chances of such funding next year are slim.

Land-use policies and regulation: Many area jurisdictions are changing the rules of the real estate development game. Most proposed changes are intended to allow more diverse, intermixed land uses at higher densities in designated areas, particularly those with access to public transit. A common aim is to promote more affordable housing, job opportunities and walkable communities. Jurisdictions are revising and adopting master plans, amending zoning ordinances and, it is hoped, simplifying regulations. Developers and designers especially would like a more streamlined process for obtaining approvals and permits, but that could prove elusive next year or any year.

I will continue keeping watch in 2012. Happy New Year.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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