Bringing Downtown Buildings Into the 21st Century

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, March 15, 2008

The 21st-century makeover of 20th-century office buildings, well underway throughout downtown Washington, is gradually changing visible and not-so-visible aspects of the District's commercial heart.

Walk around downtown, and you will see construction cranes towering over well-located but dated buildings that are being gutted and renovated. New facades are being applied to denuded structural frames, changing substantially the character of buildings designed and constructed only 30 or 40 years ago.

Pre-cast concrete and insulated metal panels, rectangles of limestone and veneers of masonry are being stripped away. Transparent skins of high-performance, all-glass curtain walls are often replacing them.

Unseen is the economic impact of such transformations.

A building redo entails enormous costs. To justify the investment, rents must be considerably higher after renovation. Consequently, the supply of expensive, well located, class-A office space in the city is rising, along with real estate assessments and tax revenue.

New office buildings are still being developed, either on downtown's few remaining surface parking lots or on cleared sites previously occupied by buildings so obsolescent that they justified demolition. But development of new buildings from the ground up will be increasingly eclipsed in years to come by makeovers.

Of course, the makeover trend is predicated on sustained demand, relative to supply, for prime downtown office space because a makeover depends on tenants willing to pay class-A rents.

What must owners and their architects, engineers and contractors contemplate when undertaking a makeover?

The first consideration is economic: Can a building in its current state continue attracting tenants and generating rental revenue? If a building is favorably located but no longer offers competitive aesthetic and functional amenities, and if essential technical systems are wearing out or underperforming, it's time for a makeover.

One obvious economic advantage of renovation over total demolition is that the owner can preserve and reuse a building's structural skeleton, foundation and basements. But if the framework's floor-to-floor dimensions are too large, if basements are too small to accommodate enough parking or if the existing building is well below the density allowed by zoning, demolition may make sense.

Other deficiencies leading to makeovers include some items that are cosmetic and some that are functional:

Once today's credit and capital crisis is behind us, Washington's skyline will be punctuated by many more construction cranes than you see now. Most will be for makeovers.

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

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