The former American Press Institute (API) building, Virginia’s only building designed by architect Marcel Breuer and a noteworthy example of brutalist architecture in the U.S., can be demolished to make way for a residential development, under a ruling made Tuesday by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. The board voted unanimously to allow rezoning of a parcel in Reston, Virginia that contains the former API building, a 1974 structure designed by Breuer, and to permit its destruction to make way for a replacement project. Preservationists and historians have argued that the vacant API building on Sunrise Valley Drive is a significant example of Breuer’s work and should be recycled, possibly as a regional library or home for a nonprofit organization. They contend the Breuer building should be saved because it was the first building in Reston designed by an internationally prominent architect, that it was a significant example of Breuer’s sculptural use of precast concrete panels, that it was important in developer Robert Simon’s early plan for Reston, and that it was associated with a long list of noteworthy journalists. More than 1,600 people from North America, South America, and Europe have signed an online petition to preserve the building. Earlier this month, public officials in Atlanta voted to save and renovate Breuer’s central library building there, after it was proposed for demolition. “Fairfax County is fortunate to have a building of such stature designed by a world class architect,” said Carol Ann Riordan, a former API executive who heads a group that mounted an effort to save the building. “It deserves far more than a demolition permit.” The county’s Planning Commission last month voted not to recommend demolition of Breuer’s building, giving preservationists hope that it might avoid the wrecking ball. But county officials said the API building is not protected by any landmark status, that its significance was not noted when planners prepared a plan for higher density development in the area, and that the county has no funds to save it. Supervisors also noted that the housing proposal, by Sekas Homes, is consistent with the county’s plans for Reston and had to be considered on its own merits. Riordan said today that her group will not appeal the decision. “Mounting a legal campaign like that would be costly,” she said.
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For once, a Brutalist building gets a stay of execution. The Planning Commission in Fairfax County, Virginia, overruled its own staff recommendation yesterday and voted not to approve a developer’s request to rezone land in Reston so a developer can tear down the only Marcel Breuer-designed building in Virginia to make way for residential development. The planning department staff had recommended demolition of the former American Press Institute headquarters on Sunrise Valley Drive, a 48,000-square-foot building that opened in 1974, and rezoning of the land to make way for multi-family housing. The planning commission voted 6 to 6 on the question of rezoning the property for residential development, and that was not enough for the developer to obtain a demolition permit. Technically, it means that the planning commission forwards the developer’s rezoning application to the county Board of Supervisors with a negative recommendation. The vote came at the end of a sometimes heated hour-long discussion about the importance of the Breuer building and the groundswell of support it has received from preservationists, including an online petition signed by more than 1,300 people from as far away as Europe and South America. Several of the commissioners said they were impressed that the building was getting international attention and so many people wanted to see the building saved. Before the meeting, the commission received a flood of letters, emails and other materials from groups that want to see the building preserved, including the American Institute of Architects and New York architect Robert Gatje, who worked with Breuer for many years. “The world is now aware that this building exists,” said commission member Julie Strandlie. Commissioner James Hart, who studied architecture at the University of Virginia, said he was impressed by a site visit to the building that the group took on June 2. He said the building is in good shape and raved about the acoustics in the conference room. “I was favorably impressed by the use of natural light and shadows,” he said. “It brought the outside indoors” to the extent that some rooms “appeared to have trees in them,” he said. Hart also said the county was wrong not to recognize the Breuer building’s significance. “This was a major screw up,” he said. “I hope this is a wake up call to us that we need to make sure something like this does not happen again.” The commission also voted unanimously to direct the Board of Supervisors staff to conduct a countywide survey of properties to make sure there are no other buildings that deserve protection but don’t have landmark status. Preservationists had argued that the Breuer building should be saved because it was the first building in Reston designed by an internationally prominent architect, that it was a significant example of Breuer’s sculptural use of precast concrete panels, that it was important in developer Robert Simon’s early plan for Reston, and that it was associated with a long list of noteworthy journalists. Carol Ann Riordan, the last director of the American Press Institute (while the organization was in Reston) and founder of a group formed to save the building, praised the commission for its decision not to approve demolition. She said her group wants to see the Breuer building preserved and reused, perhaps by another non profit. “We’re all very pleased and elated that the planning commission took this stance, which was a very brave stance,” Riordan said. “It is an architectural treasure and deserves a second life. It’s part of Reston’s rich tapestry. There is still much work to be done. But the end game is that the API building had a mission—lifelong education, transformation, building community—and we would like to see it passed on to another group that has a mission along these same lines.” Riordan said she was most impressed that planning commission members admitted that the county “screwed up” in not recognizing the significance of the Breuer building and then voted not to support the demolition rather than letting the building be torn down anyway. “It takes a lot of guts to say ‘we screwed up,’” Riordan said. “I find that very courageous.”
Virginia Tech students demonstrate a light touch with glass and steel pavilion.The undergraduate architecture students enrolled in Virginia Tech's design/buildLAB begin each academic year with an ambitious goal: to bring a community service project from concept through completion by the end of the spring semester. In addition to the usual budget and time constraints, the 15 students taking part in the course during the 2013-2014 school year faced an additional challenge. Their project, a public pavilion for Clifton Forge Little League in the tiny hamlet of Sharon, Virginia, was entirely lacking in contextual cues. "It was interesting because our previous design-build projects have been downtown, with lots of context," said Keith Zawistowski, who co-founded and co-directs design/buildLAB with his wife, Marie. "Instead, we had a pristine, grassy field with a view of the mountains. We joke that this is our first group of minimalists." The students' understated solution—three geometric volumes unified by the consistent use of a vertical sunscreen—turns the focus back to the pavilion's surroundings with a restrained material palette of concrete, glass, and steel. Design/buildLAB assigned a separate structure to each element of the Sharon Fieldhouse program, nestling the open-air public pavilion between glass boxes containing the restrooms and concessions kitchen. Different roof heights distinguish the spaces, yet a common material vocabulary and their arrangement along a single horizontal axis allows them to be read as a single object. "The students describe the field house as a linear incision through the site," said Zawistowski. "Basically it's just light cut through the green landscape." Because Sharon Fieldhouse is intended for seasonal use, the students focused on maximizing environmental performance for the warmer months of the year. "Everything's about cooling and ventilation," said Zawistowski. A no-energy ceiling fan cools the kitchen, and tempered laminated white glass helps cut solar gain inside the enclosed areas. "The glass has a translucent quality, so that the spaces are bathed in even light, eliminating the need for electrical lights during the day," explained Zawistowski. The external sunshade, comprising vertical steel plate elements painted white, serves both conceptual and practical ends. "The shade screen is about intimacy and privacy—not just under the open-air pavilion but in the enclosed spaces," said Zawistowski. "The elements vary in density. They're tighter together toward the more private parts of the building." At the same time, larger gaps between the screen's members on the east side of the pavilion welcome in the morning sun, while to the west the steel bars draw together to provide afternoon shade. The screen simultaneously functions as skin and structure. "In most cases, the sunshade is tacked on. In this case it's part and parcel of the architecture," observed Zawistowski. Wider steel bars take the weight of the building's roof, and help conceal downspouts. "Everything is hidden there in the screen," said Zawistowski. "We brought a new group of students to the field house and asked them if they could figure out how rainwater could get off the roof. They didn't know." The students prefabricated portions of the pavilion at Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus, panelizing the screen members and roofing. "One thing that bothers us in design-build education is that multiple generations tend to work on one project," said Zawistowski. "It's important for us that the same group sees the implications of what they design, so we rely really heavily on prefabrication." On campus, he added, students are able to take full advantage of the university's resources. Once on site in Sharon, the students completed assembly in just a couple of weeks. Given the fact that his students conceived of, fundraised for, programmed, planned, designed, and built Sharon Fieldhouse in less than ten months, it's no surprise that Zawistowski refers to the supernatural when he talks about the project. But when he brings up hocus-pocus, it is as much about the pavilion's aesthetic impression as it is about the speed with which it was brought into being. "We say that it's put together with magic," he mused. "All the connections are hidden—everything's just light and shadow."
Brick and metal transform a tired office block into a residential building worthy of its site.Located on a slice of land adjacent to the Potomac River in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, the 1984 Sheet Metal Workers Union National Pension Fund building failed to live up to the site's potential. "I've used this in a couple of lectures," said Shalom Baranes Associates principal Patrick Burkhart. "I show 'before' photos and ask the audience, 'What is this building?' The answers include: 'It looks like an urban jail.'" When the property came on the market, Maryland-based developer EYA seized the opportunity to transform the waterfront eyesore into a contemporary condominium complex. Clad in brick and metal paneling, with high performance glazing emphasizing views along the Potomac, the Oronoco balances a sleek urban aesthetic with sensitivity to Old Town's historic fabric. Because rowhouses dominate Old Town's residential real estate market, "we thought there was a pent-up demand for one-level living for empty nesters," said EYA senior vice president Brian AJ Jackson. The developers took a "less is more" approach to the conversion, opting for 60 large units over the 110 allowed by the zoning code. They kept the old office building's stepped profile, creating penthouses on multiple levels, but carved out the center of the structure to make way for a courtyard. "The courtyard really gives the project a heart and soul," said Burkhart. "It creates something that's not inward looking, but outward." The Sheet Metal Workers Union building was "originally designed with fairly innovative sustainable ideas, for an office building," said Burkhart—including the stepped terraces, on top of which were solar collectors. "But a lot of it didn't work well." One major deficit was the structure's reduced window openings. During renovation, Shalom Baranes Associates focused on maximizing daylighting and views without sacrificing thermal or acoustic performance, selecting a variety of high performance products from Peerless for the building's glazed areas. Given the Oronoco's location along the flight path to and from Reagan National Airport, "the acoustic glazing is amazing," observed Choptank Communications' Brent Burkhardt. "You hear very little from inside the building, yet you have a neat view of the planes." The building's brick cavity wall offers additional benefits in terms of energy efficiency. "It's our theme to blend in," said Burkhart. "We decided to work with the brick aesthetic" that prevails among Old Town's older residences. The architects broke the building into townhouse-scale bays, wrapping every other bay in metal panels from Alcoa/Reynobond. "It alternates between brick and metal as you go up the steps: brick, then metal and glass, then another brick element. That helps pull you up the height of the building," explained Burkhart. The LEED Silver Oronoco achieves the performance aspirations of its predecessor without neglecting the building's visual appeal—and without taking unnecessary risks. Obtaining LEED certification "is always a little more challenging for residential designs," said Burkhart. "Many of the points are developed simply through a careful selection of materials, instead of choosing more exotic measures."
The Vancouver-based New Buildings Institute (NBI) tracks energy efficient built work, and their 2014 update, “Getting to Zero”, provides a snapshot of the emerging U.S. market for net-zero buildings—those are structures that use no more energy than they can gather on site. In the United States, California leads in the number of low and zero energy projects with 58, followed by Oregon (18), Colorado (17), Washington (16), Virginia (12), Massachusetts (11), Florida (10), Pennsylvania (10), Illinois (8), North Carolina (8), and New York (8). NBI also compiled a database of all their buildings. They say architects and developers interested in pursuing net-zero design could find inspiration there, searching according to their local climate and/or building characteristics. The database includes energy-efficient and high-performance buildings that are not net-zero, as well. Though the trend has succeeded in garnering attention and excitement among many designers, true net-zero buildings remain elusive in the built environment. So far NBI has only certified 37 buildings as net-zero. That ranking is based on performance—each building underwent a review of at least 12 months of measured energy use data. If piece-meal projects aren't yet adding up to a groundswell of net-zero design, NBI is also pushing systemic change—rigorous energy efficiency standards recently adopted in Illinois took cues from the group's Core Performance Guide.