By C.C. Sullivan
As the first cabinet-level headquarters to be designed and erected in the nation's capital since the 1970s, the new U.S. Department of Transportation home office successfully balances hardened security with elegant architectural openness.
Of course, presenting an inviting public countenance for a large public agency is no small feat, especially when it is to be housed in a 1.9 million-square-foot, double-tower complex spanning two city blocks. The architectural design team was charged with integrating a number of significant security requirements, starting with 50-foot setbacks that challenged prevailing design directives for urban planning in a redeveloping area of Washington, D.C. Within the building, the architectural solution would have to allow the incorporation of a sizable lobby security check area, an extensive closed-circuit television (CCTV) system, and space for specialized air filtration equipment.
In addition, critical spaces within the structure, including the lobby, mailroom, loading dock, and underground parking garage, would have to be structurally fortified - "hardened," in the most literal sense - against explosive threats from nearby public areas. In these and other less visible ways, the new DOT building would meet federal security design criteria in the highly vigilant period following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
But even though the architecture and engineering team - led by executive architect DMJM Design of Washington, D.C., with the design architect Michael Graves & Associates of Princeton, NJ - had to contend with such heavy U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) security requirements, they were also able to appease city planners. This was as important for local officials as it was for the project team, given that the complex was viewed as the beginning of a major urban redevelopment project for the Southeast Federal Center, a 55-acre site along the Anacostia River and adjacent to the Washington Navy Yard.
"There was a tension between what the GSA and the government wanted and what the city of Washington and the Office of the Planner wanted," recalls Jon Miller, project principal for the DOT headquarters and a DMJM Design vice president. For example, the 50-foot street setback requirement was seen as a significant variance from area zoning guidelines, which among other things required that new structures build out to the lot line. Planning officials were concerned about consistent looks, but concerns about protecting employees won out. "The setbacks were desired by GSA to improve security, and the building design was heavily influenced by these requirements," Miller relays.
Secured as a Park
Transportation Walk, a walking museum of the history of transportation, includes silhouettes, artifacts, and appliqués on the windows honoring trailblazers in the history of transportation from 1600 to the present.
But the design team found a way to turn the regulation into a perk, says Mike Crackel, project manager with Michael Graves. "We wanted to treat the setback as an amentity and create a more parklike garden, so on the southeast corner we created a large plaza," he explains. "This was already part of DOT culture. Their previous building at L'Enfant Plaza had a central courtyard that they used during the week as a farmers' market, so we tried to recreate and respect that culture where they all come together."
Complete with benches and space for street vendors, the green spaces hardly look like security features. "Security should be sensitive to people's needs," explains Ken Jandura, AIA, principal of DMJM Design. "Good design is more than installation of a visible ring of concrete planters, barriers, and curbside bollards to prevent truck bombs or terror attacks."
Plans were also put in place to ensure the building's security-related components would only improve over time. For example, says Miller, "There are lots of bollards, but many will be obscured on M Street as hedges will be planted in the same space. So as the landscaping develops full growth, they will hide or enhance those security features."
The team also worked to blend aesthetics and security in the structure's façades, which were built to be both decorative and defensive. "We used richer and more noble materials at entry on main entry - a heavily veined white marble from Vermont - and carried that white around the building in recessed bays," says Crackel. "And we created projecting bays in red precast, which alludes to residential structures across the street and industrial buildings in the Navy Yard which border to the south side."
The bays also help to break down massing of building, but they add security, too. "The precast panels have blast-resistant qualities as well as a mix of three stones to add texture," relates Miller. "We faced an interesting coordination challenge to have the stone cut in advance in order to be properly mixed in with the concrete."
The dining commons is located in the atrium in the east tower. The atria are designed with clear-span structural trusses supporting the skylight and enclosing the space. By drawing natural light to the center of the building, the atria improve the quality of the workplace while retaining office planning flexibility.
Plans to bring together 5,500 previously scattered DOT employees into the new, $275 million headquarters facility actually began back in 2001, prior to the tragic events of September 11th. After the attacks raised the threat to government installations, the GSA worked quickly to revise the design criteria, adding blast-rated assemblies as well as air-purging systems in certain areas.
"There was also greater selectivity as to who could occupy the building," recalls Miller, noting that local officials had hoped for a mixed-use development to spur the area's renewed growth. "Originally, there were plans for ground-level commercial uses, but then after 9/11, the government backed away from those ideas. Also, since the building is very close to a Metro station, the initial idea was to tie into the transit and have an underground connection, but 9/11 scrapped that, too."
Designers turned a security requirement into an aesthetic by creating a landscaped plaza on the facility's south elevation.
What emerged, instead, were two towers that were all business: a nine-story western block and an eight-level eastern tower, housing a total of 7,000 office workers, DOT included. Matching 70-foot-wide central linear atria provide a visual connection between the towers. The heavily landscaped ground level also features an outdoor walking museum along M Street, highlighting the nation's transportation history.
The main lobby itself is a convincingly livable blend of major security checkpoint and a comfortable mingling space. Visitors and employees initially confront a larger-than-normal arrival area to accommodate high levels of personnel during rush hour. Magnetometers, X-ray machines, and queuing areas are set off with elegant architectural elements. Unscreened visitors have access to the rotunda area, and then they go to a security desk depending on the nature of their visit, then to badging and magnetometer screening. "Once you're past that ‘line' and cleared, the security systems really don't affect the interior layout," reports Miller. "It feels like a regular, normal, efficient building; you're not hampered by security protocols anymore - you're in."
That's unlike many government buildings, where "at each door, at every counter, along every wall, there are surveillance gadgets. There is a silent acceptance that you are the target. You know you are under surveillance. You are entering a secure building," relates Nikay Landress, a spokesperson for DMJM.
Even though it was designed post-9/11, the DOT headquarters is a remarkably low-key facility in terms of security. Still, some of the security systems were not fully integrated into the project design development. For example, although the design team worked to integrate an army of CCTV cameras into the architecture, Miller reports mixed success. "The GSA and DOT internal security department worked with us on how and where to put the cameras, but these stakeholders were outside of our team and control. This is an ongoing dilemma for the architectural community," he explains.
While designers were able to strategically place cameras inside of a large, overhanging cornice that visually caps the building façade, for example, "in other cases, we could only have them surface-applied on a camera stand," says Miller. In addition, because CCTV cameras require a clear line of sight, their application also affected the heights and densities of landscape plantings, such as trees.
Designed as a blend of security checkpoint and mingling space, the main lobby space is large enough to accommodate high levels of personnel during rush hour.
Security requirements also came into conflict with achieving a balance between opacity and transparency of the exterior façade and interior walls, notes Crackel. Because blast resistance and visual protection of building occupants had to be prioritized, the designers' original hopes to introduce high levels of daylighting had to be compromised. "So we used the atriums to get daylight into the core without opening more façade area," Miller explains.
Yet another security threat that had to be addressed in the design was preventing the spread of noxious gases that could be introduced at the street- or first-floor level. This required oversized MEP equipment rooms to provide additional filtration and ventilation capacity in the event of chemical and biological attacks. In addition, the GSA hoped to have a purging system that would blow building air out of the structure in the event of contamination. At the same time, local fire- and life-safety codes required that the tower atriums also have their own purging systems, designed to draw smoke out through fans at the top.
The need to protect building occupants drove the solution for bringing fuel to the site for backup generators and the physical plant overall. A remote filling station was designated where deliveries of refill fuel would be staged, minimizing the need for service vehicles to approach the building.
A New Face
The design team used heavily veined white marble to create a decorative aesthetic at the main entrance to the U.S. DOT headquarters.
With all its security features, one would expect the DOT headquarters to project the visage of a threat-hardened, locked-down citadel. Not so. More visible is the building's role in creating a neighborhood and kick-starting the area's revitalization plan. For example, the landscaping of the building setback areas softens such security features as the bollards and creates a comfortable plaza, enlivening the street-level pedestrian experience. Even the setbacks themselves allowed the designer to use more glass at the lower floors, projecting an open and friendly image, especially in the evening.
At least one of the building's most neighborly features will remain largely hidden from view: At 68,000 square feet, one of the largest green roofs on the East Coast tops this government building, helping make it as sustainable as it is safe.
Ultimately, the new 11-acre government complex is expected to help transform the Southeast Federal Center and Washington Navy Yard into what's been described by local real estate executives and economic development officials as a "lively waterfront of offices, restaurants, shops, and marina." The overall image, credited to Michael Graves, combines a community-friendly appeal without detracting from the seriousness of a cabinet-level agency. Though this is an office building, it will sit well alongside the area's more than 6,000 new residential housing units, retail uses, and a new baseball stadium for the Washington Nationals.
C.C. Sullivan (email@example.com) is an author and communications consultant specializing in design and construction.