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Shaping the City

Characteristics of Good Design May Reside in the Eye of the Beholder

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, December 11, 2004; Page F03

The District of Columbia Building Industry Association's 4th annual Landlord/Tenant Design Seminar, held last week at the National Press Club, had a provocative title: "Does Good Design Make a Trophy Building?"

The seminar focus was on commercial office buildings, mostly in downtown Washington. The consensus was that good design is desirable and necessary, but not always sufficient to make investment real estate succeed in the marketplace.

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But the seminar title suggested other thought-provoking questions. What is "good design" in the eyes of beholders with disparate interests? And what exactly is a "trophy building?"

A panel of professionals with diverse perspectives attempted to answer these questions. Jay A. Epstien, a partner in the Piper Rudnick law firm, spoke for tenants. Blane T. (Zeke) Dodson, managing director at Cassidy & Pinkard, offered the real estate broker's view. Representing the developer's perspective was Michael S. Balaban, president of Lowe Enterprises Mid-Atlantic. And I was invited to speak for architects.

Architect Robert D. Fox, who organized and moderated the panel, kicked off the seminar by summarizing the results of a recent survey by the D.C. association that queried building industry members -- architects, brokers, developers and attorneys -- about the value of design. The survey asked about 100 respondents to identify the relative importance of various building amenities and features, independent of building location or cost.

Many of the amenities and features cited had more to do with services and systems offered by the building than with architecture: a fiber-optic backbone; high-speed Internet connection; wireless technology infrastructure; 24-hour security; a concierge; day care and fitness centers; a mail-screening system; a table service restaurant; and valet parking. Although these features may well be important to tenants, they have limited aesthetic consequence.

Specific architectural elements and attributes in the survey list included atriums, solar control, daylight enhancement, window area, column-free space, ceiling height, lobbies, finishes and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

Also listed as a possible feature of a trophy building was having a "signature" architect. Perhaps it should have said "trophy" architect.

The survey findings showed that, although certain aesthetic characteristics are important, practical concerns and preferences dominate, even when going for so-called "trophy" quality.

The top response was high-speed Internet connections. Next came generous windows, high quality finishes in public areas, ceiling heights of eight feet, six inches or more, fiber-optic backbones, redundant electric power, column-free tenant floor areas, 24-hour security and wireless technology infrastructure. Grand lobbies, visitor screening and daylight enhancement were also deemed desirable.

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