The American Geophysical Union got historic approval for a large solar array atop their Dupont Circle building. But first, Hartman-Cox Architects partner Graham Davidson suggested that stopping climate change was much less important than stopping buildings from getting taller.




Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects.




The AGU, an association of “earth and space scientists,” is trying to renovate their headquarters at 20th Street and Florida Avenue, NW. AGU wants to make the building “net zero,” meaning it produces as much energy as it consumes, on average.

To do that, the new building will have more efficient windows and walls, will tie into the sewers to exchange heat, and on top will sport a large solar array.

The attractive current building is part of the Dupont Circle historic district, but is “non-contributing,” meaning it wasn’t built at the same time as most of the historic buildings in that area and therefore gets more leeway. Still, DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) gets to review the design.

At last month’s meeting, several board members fretted that the solar panels might be too prominent for the “delicate” building and the historic district.

In response, the architects at Hickok Cole lowered the solar array and added some semitransparent panels around the edge, so it wouldn’t shade the street as much. They also made other changes to the window design, entryway, and plaza in front.

 
Previous design (left) and new design (right).


When seeing the project again on May 27, board members were impressed. Joseph Taylor said it would become “An icon on Florida Avenue.” They unanimously supported the project moving forward.

Graham Davidson hopes there won’t be more

One board member, architect Graham Davidson of Hartman-Cox, had previously suggested a building like this might be appropriate “in some remote part of Seattle,” but not in Dupont Circle.

At the most recent meeting, Davidson reiterated his opposition to having more buildings in DC follow AGU’s lead. He said,

On the one hand, we have the desire to make buildings that attempt to be environmentally responsible ... but results, quite frankly, in buildings that are peculiar and certainly a big shift in aesthetics from what we’re used to.

On the other hand, we have the desire to maintain the character of the city. That’s what our job is, and the character of the city is unique. It’s why people like to come here to visit, and what they expect to see. It’s why people live here and why people live in the neighborhoods. Proposing buildings such as this, adding arrays to buildings like this, in such a manner does change the character of the neighborhood and the city.

So I was largely persuaded by the staff report [which endorsed the project] ... but I am very concerned about precedent in this case. When one person on the edge of the historic district, with a noncontributing building, builds a solar array that increases the allowable height of buildings by more than a story, we are going to have hundreds of other buildings that are proposing the same thing.


That’s right — if saving the planet means buildings can get a little taller, well, that’s not a tradeoff Davidson would make, anyway.

It’s also somewhat unclear what he was talking about, as on the AGU renovation, the solar array will be lower than the building’s current penthouse (though higher than the current cornice, the top of the building visible from the street).

He further suggested that, since other energy-saving features will have a bigger impact than the solar array, it was just “great for marketing” by letting AGU “say [it’s] net zero.”


Preservation must preserve our natural environment, too

Historic preservation cannot be so concerned with the architectural appearance of buildings that it loses sight of the bigger preservation challenge, that of preserving our very cities from the dangers of climate change.

If the sea level keeps rising and much of DC ends up underwater, it is not going to matter how tall buildings are or the “aesthetics” of the historic district. People are not going to live in the neighborhoods any more (and I actually don’t think the aesthetics of Dupont Circle are the biggest reason people live there — it’s for proximity to jobs and transit, though the aesthetics certainly matter).

Fortunately, many preservationists do agree, including the historic preservation office staff, members of the Dupont Circle Conservancy, and most of the board.

Board member Andrew Aurbach and chair Gretchen Pfaehler also noted, in the meeting, that the preservation office is trying to start a project that would define clearer preservation standards around sustainability. This, Pfaehler said, would “further integrate and stregnthen the relationship between preservation and sustainability” and “make this kind of dialogue and review and approval happen very easily and smoothly.”

According to Pfaehler’s statements at the hearing, the proposal is waiting for action by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE). This is a good step and should move forward. If it does, it could clarify to Davidson what his priorities should be, or perhaps clarify to Mayor Bowser that the city would be better served with a different architect on the board.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.