Governments have certain tools at their disposal that can influence how buildings look and feel. But zoning codes and building height limits can only do so much to affect the aesthetic designs behind private projects. Architect and Washington Post columnist Roger Lewis returns to explore what makes for good design and whether it’s possible for the public sector to impose strict design standards on private endeavors.

Guests

  • Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park

Transcript

  • 12:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. There's a new apartment building going up on your street and some of your neighbors are offended by what the final product is supposed to look like.

  • 12:07:05

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAll that glass will stick out like a sore thumb on our traditional street, they say so they decide to fight it. But are there tools available to local governments to give them power over the aesthetic designs of private projects, zoning rules, height laws, safety codes can all affect the building's appearance up to a certain point.

  • 12:07:26

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut when it comes to aesthetic design, private projects are not subject to the same design review scrutiny as their public counterparts in a city like Washington. Architect and Washington Post columnist Roger Lewis is here today to help us ponder the following question. Should they be?

  • 12:07:45

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIRoger Lewis writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post. He's also Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, welcome to our new building.

  • 12:07:55

    PROF. ROGER LEWISThank you very much.

  • 12:07:55

    NNAMDIWell, we'll comment on the design of the building later but right now let's go right back to that big glass building going up in the more traditional neighborhood that's going to stick out from all the others around it. There are obviously some rules of the road that one has to play by that would prevent someone from building whatever they want, however high they want to build it, with whatever material, in whatever neighborhood.

  • 12:08:20

    NNAMDIWhat are the rules or laws that are going to have broad effects on what a building can look like?

  • 12:08:25

    LEWISI assume we're talking about Washington, D.C.?

  • 12:08:27

    NNAMDIYes.

  • 12:08:29

    LEWISBecause if we go to my hometown of Houston, Tx...

  • 12:08:30

    NNAMDIThey're not.

  • 12:08:32

    LEWIS...anything goes. I mean half the buildings are all glass. No, I think if we're talking about the District of Columbia, the District of Columbia first of all has a comprehensive plan for the whole city. And then it has, in addition to that plan, presumably a zoning ordinance which is in synchrony, is harmonious with that plan that reflects the intent of the comprehensive long-range master plan.

  • 12:08:54

    LEWISThe zoning ordinance essentially stipulates how you can use property, land uses. It stipulates density, how much building, how much can you put on that property, on each side in that zone. It has rules about parking. It has regulations concerning, or I should say, there are building code regulations that have to do with safety, essentially making sure that people are safe from fire and smoke and are able to get in and out of a building if there is an emergency.

  • 12:09:25

    LEWISAnd that the floors don't collapse, et cetera. It's just as you said. You said it very well. There are a whole lot of rules and regulations. They basically say very little. They're almost mute when it comes to aesthetics. You know, and you said it very well as to materials, and materials, certain materials have to be fireproof. They have to be strong enough.

  • 12:09:45

    LEWISBut there are a huge number of materials that would satisfy those criteria. They're mute about color. Height is constrained especially in Washington, D.C. because we have a city in which there is an absolute cap on the height established by the 1910 Height of Buildings Act which is currently being considered...

  • 12:10:05

    NNAMDIYep.

  • 12:10:05

    LEWIS...by NCPC and the Office of Planning.

  • 12:10:08

    NNAMDIA few months ago we were joined by Thomas Luebke, the secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts which reviews the designs for public architecture projects here in Washington, D.C. What standards does it apply and how does the process work?

  • 12:10:22

    LEWISWell, I think if you think back to Tom's comments the CFA actually has no standards that are, if you will, codified which is one of the reasons some people have wondered about how they make their decisions. They also are looking at the same issues. I mean they have the same focuses as the city in that they know that buildings have to conform to all of these more or less, objectified rules and regulations.

  • 12:10:54

    LEWISBut after that, when it comes to the aesthetics, do I like it? Do I not like it? Is this going to harmonize or not harmonize? It's, I have the beholder time and so the Commission of Fine Arts which has oversight of essentially federal projects or projects that directly affect federal interests, they pretty much are on their own in terms of saying whether they think a design is acceptable or not.

  • 12:11:20

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Do you think design review boards for private architectural projects in our region are necessary in order to prevent eyesores or to preserve the character of neighborhoods? Why do you think so or why not?

  • 12:11:36

    NNAMDIGive us a call 800-433-8850 or send email to kojo@wamu.org or you can also send us a tweet @kojoshow Back to private projects Roger, are you an advocate for the use for such design review boards to those kinds of projects as well?

  • 12:11:53

    LEWISYes, I actually, and I should disclose, I am a member of a design review board for the City of Alexandria. I've been doing it for over 20 years and I think if it's done right, if it's set up and managed right and if you have people on these design review boards or committees or commissions that are responsible and objective and don't have a hidden agenda or for that matter, an overt agenda they can be very effective.

  • 12:12:23

    LEWISMy experience in Alexandria tells me that what, having a design review process accomplishes a couple of things. It motivates the owners, the developers of property to raise their sights a little bit when they go out and look for design talent to design something knowing that it's going to be reviewed. They have to do more than just meet the code and zoning regulations.

  • 12:12:47

    LEWISSo it motivates them to do a little bit better and I think it motivates the architects who are hired to do a little bit better. Plus, the dialogue that goes on between the design review group and the design team, if it's constructive and non-adversarial it will actually elevate the quality of the design and that's been my experience for the most part in Alexandria.

  • 12:13:09

    NNAMDIWell, what would you say to the argument that the government or committee appointed by the government has no business dictating taste and that it's all fine and good to make sure buildings are safe, that neighborhoods are planned well but that when it comes to design this is something that's better left to the free market to determine. People should be allowed to do whatever the heck they want.

  • 12:13:27

    LEWISWell, that's the objection. There are often design review bodies however they're organized or referred to as beauty police. But I think well, all we have to do is sort of look at the physical environment and we can. I'm sitting here actually looking out your window.

  • 12:13:46

    LEWISAcross the street is a one-storey building that, it's not dreadful but if you look at the design of this, the way the signage is handled and the different awnings. First of all, it probably should be a building that's three or four times higher than it is on a street like this, on a street that's very wide.

  • 12:14:06

    LEWISThis is Connecticut Avenue...

  • 12:14:08

    NNAMDIYep.

  • 12:14:08

    LEWIS...so the first thing one could say, even though it's not illegal, is this, from an urban design architectural point of view it's underdeveloped. It should be larger. I have no problem with the brick but I think that my argument is this, that the, there are matters of taste. There's unquestionably a matter of taste that plays into this process.

  • 12:14:33

    LEWISBut if you again have confidence in the group that's doing the review, if they are responsible and have, really have a conversation at length as we do in Alexandria with the applicants, the developer and the architectural team, that doesn't become an issue. In other words I see it as a collaborative process. I use the word non-adversarial.

  • 12:14:55

    LEWISI think that's the solution. You can get around this hang up of, oh gosh you're limiting my freedom of design by having a design review process. The fact is it's a collaborative process that usually can enhance rather than take away from the end result. One other point I should make Kojo. I think we, I think sometimes things get through all of these reviews that are done through the regulatory bodies that in fact most people think are really awful.

  • 12:15:24

    LEWISAnd having a design review generally can at least get rid of the dogs, the really bad stuff. It won't get you to an A project but you might get the Cs up to a B.

  • 12:15:34

    NNAMDISo you think that the cluster of buildings literally across the street from us that you're looking at right now could have been different, more attractive had that whole development been subjected to an aesthetic design review process?

  • 12:15:49

    LEWISMight be, yes, I mean it was. If you look at, part of the problem is the building across the street. A lot has been tacked on to the building. Now there's some jurisdictions where that's constrained actually by law. So, for example there are signage laws in, actually in D.C. but I know in Fairfax County. Probably you would not be allowed to put that "Value Garment Care Service" sign above the cleaners, you know, that banner hung up there.

  • 12:16:17

    LEWISClearly it's ad hoc. It doesn't. I think everybody would agree it doesn't look good. It's good information. They shouldn't be precluded from putting that up somewhere but there should be some thought about where it's displayed.

  • 12:16:31

    NNAMDIAt least there are windows over there...

  • 12:16:33

    LEWISYes.

  • 12:16:33

    NNAMDI...unlike when the Mazza Gallerie which you have spoken about before when the Mazza Gallerie was developed on Wisconsin Avenue NW.

  • 12:16:40

    LEWISExactly...

  • 12:16:42

    NNAMDIThat was not subject to any kind of design review process at all obviously.

  • 12:16:45

    LEWISAnd most buildings in D.C. are not subject to design review.

  • 12:16:50

    NNAMDIHere is Jack in McLean, Va. Jack, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:16:54

    JACKGood morning Kojo, good morning to your guest. I've experienced the design review board concept in three different communities where my family's lived over the last 25 years and frankly I think it's a great idea and it's one that I think deserves discussion at a couple of levels.

  • 12:17:15

    JACKA lot of times when you hear the concept of design review board or beauty police or design police come up you also have the word, free market, thrown into it and you know, part of the concept of free market is not that you let somebody build something next to you that devalues your own asset.

  • 12:17:35

    JACKAnd I think in a lot of the situations that I've seen particularly one out in Chicago where we lived for about a decade where you had a lot of development both residential and commercial taking place that was actually causing people to not come to a particular part of the community because it was as if you took three architectural firms, crashed all their buses together, pulled out individual pieces of plans and built from that.

  • 12:18:01

    JACKThere was no rhyme, reason, aesthetic to it all and at the end of the day, you can, one can argue whether contemporary is better looking than traditional English Tudor. Most people know ugly and when you look at something and you apply a little bit of common sense you can look at it and go, does that really add to the community?

  • 12:18:23

    JACKAnd I mean I think around the D.C. area particularly both residential and commercial you see both ends of the spectrum take place. I live in Fairfax County where there doesn't seem to have been a lot of interest paid in any type of design review for the last 20-25 years.

  • 12:18:42

    NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up because Roger, I haven't thought before of design or the lack of a design review process being a disincentive for people to live in certain neighborhoods because of what they see when they look there.

  • 12:18:56

    LEWISYeah, I don't know that we. I don't know how many people make a decision about where to live or where to situate their business based on design issues as much as you might think. There's no question that if you talk to developers, a lot of developers today have become quite sophisticated about design and a lot of them will tell you that they can market it, that the better building, particularly in the office market but also in housing, that if a design is better than average they can make that pay.

  • 12:19:32

    LEWISAnd actually a lot of architects will tell you that's in a way their best leverage for getting clients to do what they want them to do, to design your building is to convince them that in fact you've added value, not just aesthetic value but economic value.

  • 12:19:46

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call Jack. So if one were to impose a design code in a city like Washington on top of the other codes that apply to architectural projects, what would such a design code look like?

  • 12:19:59

    LEWISWell, I just. A year and a half ago I worked on some design guidelines, urban and architectural design guidelines for a large property in Fairfax County at Tyson's Corner. And the word guidelines is important because what we did is we wrote a series of suggestions, recommendations. Some of them are more than guidelines. Let me -- I should confess that some of them are mandatory.

  • 12:20:28

    NNAMDISome of them are rules.

  • 12:20:29

    LEWISSome of them are rules and some of them are essentially suggestions. I mean, I think the -- for example, in Carlisle, the area that's called Carlisle in Alexandria, three was a guideline -- it really is a regulation that said 50 -- no more than 50 percent of a façade will be glass. You can't build an all-glass building in Carlisle. But after that there was tremendous amount of flexibility in materials. People could use precast concrete or masonry stone, brick. They could use glass metal. There's still a tremendous amount of flexibility or freedom of design there.

  • 12:21:06

    LEWISBut the intention of this particular guideline, no more than 50 percent glass, was actually to prevent all-glass buildings from being built and to create what was hoped for, which was that the facades would be mostly wall surfaces with punched openings in them. That was kind of the -- if you go and look at Alexandria, most of the buildings -- not just the traditional ones but even a lot of the new ones -- are not all glass boxes like you see in Dallas. But they're wall surfaces with openings punched into them. That's what we mean by punched windows. That was the intention of that guideline.

  • 12:21:44

    LEWISNow they could've written it more specifically and said, you know, you will do punched windows. But they -- the people who wrote those guidelines decided that was too restrictive. So there's always a challenge in writing guidelines as to A. whether they're mandatory and B. how do you word it? What do you say so that it's not so loose as to be useless, but it's not so tight as to really constrain creativity?

  • 12:22:09

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Roger Lewis. He's an architect and the Shaping the City columnist for the Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. We're talking about setting standards for design, inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Is there architecture in your neighborhood that you feel violates the character of everything else around it? Do you think there should be public codes that enforce rules for esthetic design, 800-433-8850? You can send email to kojo@wamu.org.

  • 12:22:41

    NNAMDIRoger, to what degree should a design code take location or neighborhood into account? After all, what might be esthetically pleasing in Georgetown may not be esthetically pleasing or may look out of place in Columbia Heights?

  • 12:22:57

    LEWISWell, that's a -- absolutely. I think every -- in fact, I think the best codes or the best guidelines are very site-specific, are very much based on the nature and the character of a neighborhood, of a street. I think one of our problems in the United States -- and I've written a lot about this over the years in the Washington Post -- is we have too much -- it manifests itself in the zoning ordinance -- we have too much big broad brush, one-size-fits-all thinking, so that if you look at most zoning maps, they generally delineate entire areas of cities or towns or counties for a certain use. And they limit the height and they talk about density and they talk about parking and that's it.

  • 12:23:43

    LEWISAnd within that, the fact is there're all kinds of different conditions, topographic conditions, localized conditions where the general rules may not be appropriate. I think that -- the term I use is fine-grain planning and fine-grain coding C-O-D-I-NG, so that, in fact, the guidelines and the rules are very much tailored to the specific locale.

  • 12:24:14

    NNAMDIHere is Elliott in Rockville, Md. Elliott, your turn.

  • 12:24:19

    ELLIOTTThank you very much for the opportunity, Kojo and Roger. Good afternoon to you both.

  • 12:24:23

    NNAMDIAfternoon.

  • 12:24:23

    LEWISGood afternoon.

  • 12:24:24

    ELLIOTTI've actually been in real estate development throughout the D.C. metropolitan area for the past 11 years. And I very much welcome in concept the prospect of design review of having that dialogue both with the city and the community in terms of what is to be built, again in concept. Unfortunately, in practice I think it's far less viable. My experience has been often that generally civic groups and residents, they're very resistant to change. It's the whole not-in-my-backyard phenomenon, particularly in neighborhoods in transition.

  • 12:25:00

    ELLIOTTAnd usually the interactions that you get in those cases are more, we don't want to see things go up. If we have to swallow them going up, we want them to be as small and as ignorable as possible. And often then what you get into is more of antagonistic type of conversation about what should go up as opposed to how should it go up. What's the best way for it to go up. And so while I welcome the prospect of constructive dialogue often in my projects, I also find it's harder to come by.

  • 12:25:32

    NNAMDIElliott, thank you so much for your call. You bring us to the next issue we wanted to discuss, which is a very specific building and very specific issues with it right here on Connecticut Avenue. Roger, lots have been made about the propose for design for a building just up the street from here at Connecticut and Military Road. A lot of people who live around that site are upset about the size of the project, whether it's too urban for a more suburban corridor of upper northwest D.C.

  • 12:25:57

    NNAMDIAnd a lot of residents have voiced concerns about the design of the project, which is fairly modern and includes a lot of glass. Strictly from the design perspective, what would you say to their concerns and Elliott's notion that, well, you can have dialogue but you really are not going to please these people whatever you do?

  • 12:26:15

    LEWISWell, I think Elliott summarized very well what is, in fact, the condition of the behavior not limited at all to D.C. or Maryland or Virginia. It's universal. There always, always will be some people in any neighborhood in any town, city or county who are going to resist change. We're going through it with the height limit discussions right now here in Washington, D.C. I mean, there are people who have, even before the studies that are being done have been published, said, you know, whatever it is I'm against it.

  • 12:26:49

    LEWISSo I'm very sympathetic with Elliott's observation. And it's another reason I said earlier that it really matters who is actually making these design judgments. I think in the case of this building -- I'm not that familiar, I haven't studied it -- I do know that this building up at Military and Connecticut presumably is -- its size generally is a matter of right -- is allowed by zoning, as I understand it. I think a lot of the issues have been focused on how the building site on the property, its exposure, its relationship to the surrounding streets. And I think there's an ally next to it, and the amount of glass.

  • 12:27:34

    NNAMDIGlass.

  • 12:27:34

    LEWISAnd I think the -- and my understanding also is that there are -- there's a spectrum among the neighbors from some that are against it, I think, really no matter what is done...

  • 12:27:47

    NNAMDIYep.

  • 12:27:47

    LEWIS...to others who feel, well okay, let's take a look at this and see if we can get the developers and the architects to make this building as harmonious as possible, which is probably the way it's going to play out. I mean, I think that's how it's going to play out. The building -- because I'm not as familiar as I might be with the latest design, my understanding is the first design that was exposed to the public had a lot more glass than the one that they're pursuing right now.

  • 12:28:15

    NNAMDISo that's my understanding too.

  • 12:28:16

    LEWISThat's my -- anyway, I -- it'll get resolved. One hopes it isn't resolved to the point where the building gets so compromised that, in fact, it's -- it goes from being maybe a B to a C using my professorial lingo here. Again, it's a building that has not been subject to any kind of institutionalized and professionalized design review. Essentially the developer and the design put it out there, people don't like it. People are against it for probably different reasons. And there's going to be a negotiation, not unlike what's been going on in congress for the last couple weeks.

  • 12:28:57

    NNAMDIThis is true. But had that building been subject to some process of design review, do you think the controversy around it would necessarily have been lessened?

  • 12:29:08

    LEWISIt probably would've been lessened. I would think it would've been lessened because I think that one of the things that design review does -- and I know in Alexandria there's a -- the public has an input. We have a public -- we have a citizen member on the design review board. Yeah, I think it would've improved the negotiation. And these days, almost every project of any consequence involves some negotiation with the community and the neighbors.

  • 12:29:32

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. We're going to continue this discussion on setting standards for design. But when we come back from this short break, it's to remind you that we are in our fall membership campaign. But if you have called to join the conversation, you can stay on the line. And if you'd like to call, the number's 800-433-8850 or you can send email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:38:15

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Roger Lewis on setting standards for design. Roger Lewis is an architect. He's also the Shaping the City columnist for the Washington Post and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Roger, before we go to the phones, can a design code at the end of the day ever really impose design? Won't it still be the case that bad architects with bad vision will produce bad architecture?

  • 12:38:45

    LEWISYeah, absolutely. I mean, we -- no, no, we've seen that in Alexandria, for example and in other places. One of the things we ought to remember is of course there's a kind of -- there's a tendency in the world of design to follow trends. There are movements and shifting principles. And all we have to do is look at the FBI building and know that there was a period in the '60s and early '70s when architects thought the greatest thing in the world was reinforced concrete. And we don't think that way anymore. We still use concrete but we don't use it the way we did.

  • 12:39:23

    LEWISI'm looking across the street and I see UDC and I see a bunch of...

  • 12:39:26

    NNAMDIIt's a lot of concrete.

  • 12:39:27

    LEWIS...a lot of concrete, buildings that I think if we were designing them today, I don't care who the architect might be, they would look different. They would look very different. So we ought to keep that in mind that what is seen perhaps at one moment as esthetically appealing or attractive may, in fact, not be perceived to be that 10, 15, 20, 30 years later. No, there's no -- I've always reminded people, including my own clients, that you still need talent. You still need someone who knows, as we say, where to draw the lines. The computer software programs don't know where to draw the lines. The human being, the designer, the creative designer has to do that.

  • 12:40:08

    LEWISSo that is still always necessary and indispensable. All design codes or design guidelines can do is provide the designer with some tips about what might or might not be appropriate in a certain location. And beyond that you've got to rely on the designer.

  • 12:40:33

    NNAMDIOn to Ann, in Mount Rainier, Md. Ann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:40:38

    ANNHi, Kojo and Roger. I love this show. Thank you so much.

  • 12:40:41

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 12:40:42

    ANNAnd from Mount Rainier, Md. I wanted to challenge my colleagues in the Gateway Arts District to contribute during the campaign because so often your show is on in our studios while we're working.

  • 12:40:56

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:40:57

    LEWISNice to hear.

  • 12:40:58

    ANNYeah, my question -- you've been talking a lot about the design review board process, with respect to design and aesthetics. I wondered about design and function. So for example, we're looking for more spaces where creative activity can happen, in both our public and private buildings. And then also things like growing food in places where we might have just had green landscape before. So what role does the design review board have in expressing the community's desires for function, aside from aesthetics?

  • 12:41:38

    NNAMDIFascinating question. Roger?

  • 12:41:40

    LEWISWell, I think, first of all, there is no standard design review protocol in the United States or it's essentially -- the few that exist -- and this is, again, something that's not ubiquitous. It's not everywhere that you're going to find this design review process at work. But one can set it up any way one wants, and I completely agree with you. It seems to me that part of a design review -- we certainly talk about it in Alexandria -- does go beyond aesthetics. We do talk about how things function and the purposes they serve.

  • 12:42:18

    LEWISBecause you can't divorce them. I mean you can't divorce discussion about these things. I was -- quote Vitruvius, the Roman architect or engineer 2,000 years ago said that good design is about commodity, firmness and delight. And you have to have all three. You have to talk about them all together. I think that, in fact, you could easily imagine a set of design guidelines and aspirational guidelines that talk about sustainability, that talk about solving, if you will, economic, social, functional problems, as well as producing something beautiful.

  • 12:42:55

    LEWISThey're not disconnected. The point I’m making, though, is that the one thing right now, our zoning ordinances, most of our codes don't address is aesthetics. They do not address aesthetics.

  • 12:43:08

    NNAMDIHere is Judy, in Silver Spring, Md. Judy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:43:13

    JUDYYes. I wanted to have him comment on the historical buildings in the commercial developments, such as the old Post Office building.

  • 12:43:21

    NNAMDIWhat would you like to hear him say about the old Post Office building?

  • 12:43:23

    JUDYI'd like to know in terms of preserving the history of the city and the commercial changing of the building.

  • 12:43:32

    NNAMDIBecause Donald Trump has now been given the permission to develop that into a hotel, Roger.

  • 12:43:38

    LEWISWell, it's a good question, because historic preservation, again, is part of the picture, especially in a place like Washington. We, again, have -- we didn't mention this, but we have laws, we have laws and regulations on our books here in D.C. that address the issue of historic properties, the historic resources of the District. So we have buildings that are landmarked, that are officially designated as historic, where it's very difficult or challenging to change them or demolish them. And we have neighborhoods that are historically landmarked. Georgetown, the whole Georgetown is a huge area of the city, is an historic district where you cannot do the same thing that you can do, for example, up in Friendship Heights or out on New York Avenue somewhere.

  • 12:44:29

    LEWISSo I think the answer to your question is that we have addressed, particularly in the last 25, to 30 years, this whole notion or the whole -- the challenge of preserving our architectural historic heritage.

  • 12:44:42

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Judy. When it comes to one of the design related regulations that affects all of D.C. architecture, major change could soon be coming. You just mentioned it, Roger. D.C. planners recommending last month, changes to the city's building height limits, which are more than a century old. Things have a ways to go before any changes are officially made, but what would you like to see?

  • 12:45:06

    LEWISWell, the Office of Planning has issued a preliminary study or a preliminary report of its study, which I recently read and have looked at. And I think they're on the right track, which is to say that for a number of reasons -- some of them are economic, some of them are aesthetic, some of them are functional, demographic, there are a whole lot of reasons why I think the height limit in D.C. needs to be reconsidered. Let me explain a couple of things. A lot of people don't understand the way the law works.

  • 12:45:44

    LEWISCongress, in 1910, passed this Height of Buildings Act. And all it does is set a maximum, basically it says you can't go any higher than 130 feet and there's some maximums, depending on whether it's a commercial or residential street. This is over 100 years ago, but this law was enacted. Then the District of Columbia has a zoning ordinance that sets height limits that are very often lower then would be allowed by the Congressional 1910 Height of Buildings Act. So that's something a lot of people don't understand. There are many parts of this city where the height limit that's allowed by D.C. law is less than what would be allowed by Congress.

  • 12:46:27

    LEWISFinally, there's a huge percentage of this city where it's very unlikely, if not impossible, to change height limits. It turns out that the D.C. Office of Planning study -- you can see it online. If you go to Office of Planning website and look at it, you will see that they are showing that a very small percentage of the city is actually eligible for development of increased density and height of the sort that I think they feel is needed. So I think there's an educational process going on. I urge listeners to get familiar with this.

  • 12:47:07

    LEWISWhat they basically are saying is let's revisit this height limit. Let's set a standard that is an urban design standard. They've opposed a different ratio for the street width to the building height on streets, particularly in the L'Enfant part of the city. They have advocated that D.C. will still be responsible for -- and when I say D.C., D.C. with Congressional oversight -- still has all of these checks and balances, the comprehensive plan, the zoning ordinance, the historic preservation process. There are a lot of checks and balances that can make any adjustment in the height limits work and not be subject to, let us say, somewhat corrupt behavior, which has been one of the fears I've heard expressed by a lot of the people who say don't do anything.

  • 12:48:04

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones, again. Bob, in Tacoma Park, Md. You're on the air, Bob. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:48:12

    BOBHi. Thank you.

  • 12:48:12

    NNAMDIHi. Go ahead, Bob.

  • 12:48:15

    BOBYes. I have a question, not so much about the regulation of building design, but about building design itself. Namely, I had noticed -- especially in the last 10, 15 years -- that a lot of the buildings, which from a distance seemed to be made of brick, when you get up to them you can see that they're some kind of brick paneling or what I call fake brick. And I'm wondering what our guest thinks about that. Does that have the same integrity in design that real brick has laid by bricklayers with brick and mortar? And I'm also wondering about the structural strength of it because I know that there are some buildings, which are hundreds of years old, that are made of actual brick and mortar, and I can't believe that these buildings are going to last very long.

  • 12:49:09

    NNAMDIRoger?

  • 12:49:11

    LEWISProbably what you're referring to are precast concrete panels. The face of which, in that when they make the panel they actually put brick -- not full width brick, not four-inch brick, but a thinner layer of brick on the outside. And so you are seeing, when you see those installed, you are seeing brick. It's just that instead of a four-inch, what we call a withe or a layer of brick that is the traditional 4 inches thick, you're seeing essentially a much thinner piece of brick. It's still fired clay. It's the same material, but it's been laminated. It's been cast into a concrete panel that might be four or five inches thick.

  • 12:49:58

    LEWISOne could argue it's not only just as strong as a brick facade, but it's probably stronger. You know, the risk is that you could have some delamination at some point. You could get water behind it and freezing and popping off of these thinner layers of brick.

  • 12:50:16

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're almost out of time. But I do have to ask you to answer this from Noelle, who says, "Forgive my ignorance, but I keep hearing concern our zoning rules against glass. Is there something wrong with glass or is it just an aesthetic concern?"

  • 12:50:28

    LEWISNo. There's nothing wrong with glass. I mean it's aesthetics. And there is nothing in the D.C. zoning ordinance, to my knowledge, that says anything about glass, other than the fact that you have to make sure that it's designed and built safely.

  • 12:50:44

    NNAMDISome people like it, some people don't. Roger Lewis is an architect. He writes the "Shaping The City" column for the Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. Roger, thank you for joining us. Always a pleasure.

  • 12:50:56

    LEWISThank you, as always.

  • 12:50:58

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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