Wave of modernist condos ushers in new age of D.C. architecture

As featured in The Washington Post

With a rusty-looking metal exoskeleton crisscrossing over a glass and metal base for one building and a glass-and-metal design mimicking the shape of bricks on a wall across the street, the Atlantic Plumbing condos in Northwest Washington were a unique vision of futuristic, industrial design in the city.

Then came Westlight at 23rd and L streets NW, the luxurious project from developer EastBanc. When the high-end 71-unit condo building opened for sales in November, a line of campers settled around the block to wait for hours for the opportunity to sign a contract to live in the glassy creation, designed by Mexico-based architect Enrique Norten and opening later this spring.

And just a few weeks ago, another modern residential project designed by an out-of-towner debuted. When Ditto Residential finished its most recent condo project on the 1500 block of 6th Street NW, designed in a glassy, breezy style by Chicago-based architect Brad Lynch of firm Brininstool + Lynch, developers were stunned by how quickly buyers snapped them up.

“We had no amenities, not even parking,” Ditto Residential founder Martin Ditto said. “We priced it at the top of the market, and we found buyers in 48 hours. I thought: What just happened?”

What Ditto believes is that the tastes of buyers in the District have evolved to embrace modern architecture, which, he said, “is more fluid; it embraces open floor plans and the space is more flexible, and natural light is more abundant.”

“What we’re seeing is a real appetite for avant-garde and contemporary, modern spaces. We’ve predicted for years that people would start to demand exceptional design, and I think we’ve arrived at that moment,” said Ditto.

Principals at JBG concur.

The behemoth development firm, responsible for countless residential projects throughout Washington, is going on more than a hunch. According to JBG partner Kai Reynolds, the firm holds numerous focus groups in neighborhoods where they have plans for a development.

“We show images, and we’ve seen a really strong tendency toward modern architecture, particularly because it was contrasted with historic,” said Reynolds. “The juxtaposition between modern and what’s in place is a striking difference that people find attractive.”

“People are gravitating away from the crown molding and the traditional look,” said Mei Mei Watts Venners, EastBanc’s director of sales for the recent Westlight project. “They want natural light, they want windows. The urban marketplace has changed.”

Inspiration from other major cities

In historic Washington, a residential development boom from more than a century ago dictates the look of much of the residential architecture.

Walking around Shaw, said Reynolds, “every single building is a 2½ -story brick rowhouse that was built in the early 1900s.” The early 1900s were a boom time in Washington, when prolific developer Harry Wardman built out neighborhoods such as Bloomingdale, Columbia Heights and Woodley Park with hundreds of rowhouses and dozens of apartment buildings and hotels. Brick abounds.

Now that another development boom is underway, developers are starting to realize that contemporary designs are appealing to some high-end buyers more than recreations of the past.

“For many years, until the last six or seven years, there was not a lot of new residential product being delivered in the market in general. The actual addition to the stock is a new phenomenon,” said Brian Coulter, a managing partner at JBG. “We’re not trying to copy what is there, because, frankly, the craftsmanship would be really difficult to copy in today’s world. And we are always looking for variety.”

On a trip to Seattle, JBG developers found Miller Hull, the Seattle-based architects they eventually tapped to design the Shay, a modern project at 9th and U streets NW in Washington. (Courtesy of JBG)

The design of the 7770 Norfolk apartments in Bethesda includes glass railings , textured bronze and metal paneling. (Courtesy of JBG)

For inspiration, the JBG developers embark on field trips to cities that have evolved more quickly or differently than Washington, Reynolds and Coulter said, including Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Vancouver, Toronto and London. On a trip to Seattle, they found Miller Hull, the Seattle-based architects they eventually tapped to design the Shay, a modern project at 9th and U streets NW.

“That’s what Miller Hull had done in Seattle and Chicago,” said Coulter. “They went into historic neighborhoods and plopped down a very striking piece of modern architecture.”

When envisioning the Atlantic Plumbing project, Reynolds felt that the area north of U Street could be similar to the Meatpacking District in New York City.

“We went to the Meatpacking District and walked around and there were a couple buildings we really liked, and we found out Morris Adjmi had been the architect of those buildings — that’s how we found him,” said Reynolds. “We brought him down here and told him our vision, and he really got the same feeling as you get standing on some of those corners in the Meatpacking District and Tribeca. So he proposed these designs, which are a modern take on warehouse buildings.”

Ditto similarly brought in Lynch, whose 6th Street project was his first in Washington. Lynch’s firm was established in Chicago in 1989, and is inspired by a “Chicago-style” architecture established by 20th-century Chicago modernists such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright.

“Lynch is awesome,” said Ditto, “and we’re happy and proud to partner with his group. We also work with Mark McInturff, traditionally a high-end single-family architect, and Chuong Cao of Dep Design, who works mainly in the commercial world. To me, partnering with a diverse set of designers brings a sophistication to new development in D.C.”

Glass and steel

Materials such as glass and metal are more expensive to use than masonry, and the prices reveal the cost of construction: At Atlantic Plumbing, condos ranged from the upper $300,000s to $1.9 million; at Westlight, from $625,000 to $4.4 million; and at Ditto’s 6th Street project, from $995,000 to $1,249,000. With the price per square foot at the top of the market, the modern units are sometimes smaller, and the abundance of light helps the spaces feel open.

Lindsay Reishman, an agent and senior vice president at Compass, brought several clients to Westlight.

“One client was looking at the penthouse, and the price came out to $1,500 per square foot — I told them, I can’t point to a comparable sale,” Reishman said.

In looking at recent sale numbers in Washington, Reishman points out that 60 percent of the condo sales of more than $1 million in the 20001 Zip code — which covers much of Shaw, the U Street neighborhood near Atlantic Plumbing, and stretches to Columbia Heights — classify as modern.

“Developers like Ditto know that for their projects to succeed, buyers have to be willing to pay a premium for the space,” said Reishman. “It’s still not New York City or Miami, where people pay a real premium for design. But there is a willingness to pay a little bit, and it’s enough to justify the effort for developers.”

A few years ago, modern buildings had a harder time finding buyers to meet their higher price point. The Lacey, for example, is a glassy, modern condo project that went up on 11th Street NW in 2009. Though the design won awards, the developers needed to go through several waves of price reductions before selling all the units.

Georgetown’s 22 West was another pioneer in the modern residential world. The glass condo building, designed by Washington’s Shalom Baranes for EastBanc, went up in 2008. At the time, said Watts Venners, the project presented the community with something new and boggled some minds.

“At 22 West, we had to educate the consumer about the building,” said Watts Venners. “People weren’t sure about it. Now, with Westlight, we have people coming to us and saying, ‘Oh, we want to be in this building!’ ”

Inside out

Ditto’s 6th Street project, an infill on a rowhouse-lined block in Shaw, faced limitations, such as a lack of any side windows. As a natural-light focused modern designer, Lynch maximized the light flow within the living space through a mix of glass walls and interior design. “We designed the kitchen on the side so that you can still see through,” Lynch said, with the living room on one end and the dining room on the other, and floor-to-ceiling windows at the front and back. “We tried to anticipate what’s coming next in terms of natural light.”

The experience inside of these modern units is a major draw, agrees Reynolds.

“A big theme in all of these is the increase in glazing material, as you move more modern,” said Reynolds, and where there is glass, there are views, and natural light. “We spend a lot of time thinking about looking from the inside out. It looks good from the outside, but it looks really good from the inside.”

For Amanda Skura, a resident at Atlantic Plumbing, the modern architecture was a big reason for seeking a home there.

“Growing up, I always wanted to be an architect,” said Skura, who works in software development. “The light is just amazing. I rarely have the blinds closed in the living room, and rarely need lighting on, even when it starts to get dark.”

Living in the streamlined unit also necessitated overhauling her furnishings. Before, Skura was drawn to cozy, puffy “Pottery Barn-style” furniture; in her new place, the cushy style didn’t quite work. “The pieces felt so oversized,” she said. “I was in over my head.” Skura found an interior designer, Stacy Wallace, who specializes in working in contemporary spaces, to help her out.

“We paid careful attention to scale to make sure nothing overwhelmed or detracted from the architecture,” said Wallace. “The furnishings we choose for Amanda have clean lines and graphic forms, and some finishes reference the industrial components of the building.”

Generally, said Wallace, modern architecture lends itself to smaller, more streamlined items. “Everything is very flat, very right-angled,” said Wallace. Because most designers in Washington are still focused on traditional styles, she said, “I usually find pieces in New York or online. I go to New York about every two months to look for inspiration.”

Wallace added, “There is some competition from up-and-comers [in the modern interior design space], but not a lot of competition from the big-name established designers here,” who still focus on traditional styles.

Opposition to modern design

As the modern trend marches on, some detractors exist. When D.C.-based architect Eric Colbert first presented a modern glass-and-steel design for an apartment building at 5333 Connecticut Ave. in 2013, the neighbors balked.

“They objected to it initially,” Colbert said. “Unlike other buildings on Connecticut, there were no bricks on it.”

Neighbors, most of whom lived in single-family homes, filed several lawsuits to try to stop construction, even creating a group, the 5333 Connecticut Neighborhood Commission, whose purpose was to oppose the project. But after meeting with the area neighborhood commission several times and making a few tweaks, Colbert ultimately sold the community on the new design, and the building opened to residents in 2016.

“It’s an incredibly contemporary design, and we’re very proud,” said Colbert.

Colbert is in the midst of Washington’s modern construction boom. While Morris Adjmi drew the initial designs of Atlantic Plumbing, Colbert was hired as the architect on the ground, finalizing drawings and construction plans and seeing the project through to the end.

Colbert also designed the Highline, a 315-unit apartment building near Union Market at 320 Florida Ave., which recently broke ground. The industrial design, with modern materials, was inspired by the nearby railroad tracks and warehouse district.

“The architecture incorporates rail car-looking boxes with industrial steel warehouse cubes in an undulating, random pattern,” David Franco, principal and co-founder of Level 2 Development, told The Washington Post in 2015. “It feels like the building is ready to move down the tracks.”

JBG officials say they have another project in the works that they hope will generate as much discussion as Atlantic Plumbing did. West Half Street, near Nationals Park, is a cantilevered wavelike glass construction. Similar in design to Westlight, though much larger, the 216-unit project will deliver in 2019.

For that project, JBG tapped ODA Architecture, another New York-based firm, which specializes in organic-looking modern designs, with greenery bursting out of glass projections. Like Westlight, the jutting design of the units will allow many more residents a corner view.

With all their love of out-of-towners, the JBG officials stress the talent within the city. “We don’t feel like we have to go out of town to hire architects — there are spectacular local architects, like Shalom Baranes and Eric Colbert,” said Reynolds. “But it’s exciting for us, and hopefully it’s good for Washington in the end to bring in some new ideas.”

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