A Focus on Tenant Needs Drives Revitalization of a D.C. Office Building

There is a lot about the 1980s that is fun to look back on—sitcoms, pop music and break dancing, for example. But there are also styles and fashions from that era that feel a little cringeworthy today. That applies to parachute pants and perms as much as it does to some architecture from that time.

One example was an office and conference space at 700-800 K Street NW in Washington, D.C. The 12-story office building, which was part of a tech-focused revitalization of the neighborhood in the 1980s, is an element of a larger, six-building complex that covers one city block and includes a hotel with a large conference and below-grade meeting facility.

As the neighborhood evolved and grew around it, the building increasingly felt like a relic of days gone by. It even appeared on a published list of ugliest buildings in the District. It was bought by a development group in the mid-2000s, which had an eye on renovation. At that time, the owner group turned to design firm Hickok Cole for assistance in the redevelopment.

“We have been involved with this project for a long time,” recalls Tom Corrado, senior associate with Hickok Cole and senior project designer for 700-800 K Street NW. “We started working on it in some form in 2007, two owners ago. The building had grown stale and was never really successfully revitalized. We worked with a series of owners to bring the building up to current market standards.”

“It’s a great site,” says Jason Wright, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, associate principal with Hickok Cole and senior project architect for the building. [Editor’s Note: Wright was a judge on this year’s Metamorphosis Awards but recused himself from judging this project.] “It sits across the street from Carnegie Library and the convention center and has access to the portrait gallery, but it did suffer from some bad architecture.”

The building passed from the first ownership group to another and then was acquired by The Meridian Group in 2013. Hickok Cole had conducted a number of studies and stuck with the project. With The Meridian Group, the effort began in earnest to transform the existing 455,000-square-foot building into Trophy Class and Class A commercial office space. The project’s success earned Hickok Cole the First Place prize in the Whole Building category of retrofit’s second-annual Metamorphosis Awards.

Before Photos: HICKOK COLE and After Photos: RON BLUNT, RON BLUNT ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHY

RIGHT SITE

Although the building’s location provided a great deal of potential, there were numerous challenges in front of the design team. Some of these challenges bedeviled the previous ownership interests and delayed the work but ultimately needed to be addressed.

“The building needed a complete facelift,” Corrado says. “We had to come in with fresh eyes and fix some of the physical mistakes made in the original development. Some of that came from the context of the neighborhood at that time, which led to the decision back then to not put the building lobby on K Street, facing Mount Vernon Square. There also was no retail put in because retail would not have been viable in that neighborhood back then. We had to reimagine how the building was going to operate and engage the existing neighborhood.”

“It has proximity to Metro lines and is situated on the edge of Chinatown,” Wright adds. “It has a unique plaza space, but the way the building was organized and oriented undervalued it and didn’t fully take advantage of the site.”

“We did a number of studies. We looked at tearing the building down to grade and building back up,” Corrado says. “The building itself is on a 20 by 20 structural grid, which is not the best for contemporary workspaces. We looked at a variety of ways to reshape and maximize the density of the building. Ultimately, we looked at the fact that the building has a setback on the north face at the ninth floor, so there is a natural break in the building. We started to think about how the building could be marketed and if we had to live with a 20 by 20 grid on the lower floors, we could change the upper floors to target a different type of clientele.”

TENANT FOCUS

Before taking on the physical transformation of the building, the design team did some intensive homework on what would and wouldn’t sell on the commercial real-estate market. The brokerage firm JLL was a major contributor in developing the project goals and strategies.

“We can come up with the most beautiful building, but if we can’t get tenants to pay the rent, what’s it for? The owner had the brokers in all the design meetings,” Wright recalls. “We looked at rents in the city and what our target rents would be. You can’t get the same rent on the fourth floor as you can on the 12th, and it is law firms that pay the highest rents. Our play became to carve out 120,000 square feet on the top of the building and make it aggressive, Trophy Class space.”

Trophy Class tenants demand things, like floor to ceiling glass and 30 by 30 grids; on the top three floors, the first two bays were cut back and built on a 30 by 30 grid. A glass curtainwall provides 360-degree views of the downtown neighborhood. The lower floors were targeted for high-end class A office space and remained on the 20 by 20 grid with good access to natural light.

“We looked at the bottom floors—three through eight—as space for tech and creative firms,” Corrado notes. “We weren’t so worried about the column grid because those types of tenants would want open-office floorplans and flexibility in the workplace. We liked the idea that there could be cross-collaboration between different groups of tenants and that there would be a certain demographic of client that might say, ‘we’re a law firm that wants to be in the same building as a tech company.’ You get those collisions between people at different types of companies, and that’s proven to be exactly what’s happened.”

STRUCTURAL CHALLENGES

The main entrance needed to be moved from its somewhat hidden location on the southern façade to the much more prominent K Street side of the building. The new lobby is double height, encased in a structural glass curtainwall. This established a new identity for the building and enhances its connection to nearby Mount Vernon Park.

A combination of wood, concrete and steel finishes complement the industrial interior environment. There is lounge seating, curated artwork and a monumental stair with wooden slats that flows to a third-floor co-working loft.

Building the new 2 1/2-story lobby was not an easy task. Because of an elevation difference from the original entrance, the first floor needed to be raised 5 feet. Also, to achieve the open feeling the designers were seeking, a centrally located column had to be removed and replaced with a massive transfer beam on the ninth floor, which would support floors five through eight.

“On the structural side, SK&A was a key player on the team,” Wright says. “We took out a column in the lobby, and we also needed to take out a column on the sixth floor as part of a tenant lease. They were vital in finding ways to structurally modify the building without breaking the bank.”

Another structural challenge derived from the desire to include retail into the scheme. To accomplish this, the existing courtyard was infilled. However, because it is located over occupied hotel event space that would not allow structure to pass through, the design utilized long-span steel trusses that support the new third-floor roof and the second floor below. Two-story steel columns that support the trusses were dropped through openings in the existing slab by a crane to minimize disruption to the hotel space below.

“Planning with the operating hotel below was very challenging,” Wright recalls. “The costs for just compensating for event space rental and associated room nights would have been astronomical, so we had to find ways to do this project with the hotel running beneath us. We would meet with the hotel and discuss what would be high noise activities and they would review their events booking schedules and look for windows to work with. This was probably the biggest challenge because it impacted everything else.”

THE BEST BUILDING

All the hard work and outside-of-the-box thinking paid off, and the finished product is a completely transformed building with a remade envelope and upgraded, energy-efficient mechanical system. Anthem Row was fully leased nearly a year before construction was completed.

“The person Tom and I report to likes to say, ‘What’s the best building? A fully leased building,’” Wright says. “For us, getting a law firm to move from Pennsylvania Avenue, two blocks from the White House, to this building was validation that we did the right thing. People who come in think it’s a brand-new building. It has the amenities, feel and character of a new Trophy Class building.”

“It’s been an exciting project,” Corrado says. “We did what we set out to do from the very beginning, which was to revitalize this building and make it fit the neighborhood that has grown up around it. We are happy with how the building looks and how it is functioning.”

“For us, in our office, this is where our passion lies,” Wright adds. “Taking these buildings and their embodied energy and giving them a second life. But it takes more than us having a vision. It takes an owner with a vision and a broker to help sell that vision. You can’t underestimate the importance of a good team.”

Retrofit Team

OWNER AND DEVELOPER: The Meridian Group
ARCHITECT and METAMORPHOSIS AWARD WINNER: Hickok Cole
GENERAL CONTRACTOR: Clark Construction
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Hickok Cole Lifestyle
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: SK&A
MEP ENGINEER: Girard Engineering
WATERPROOFING AND ENVELOPE CONSULTANT: Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc.
LIGHTING CONSULTANT: SBLD Studio
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: ParkerRodriguez Inc.
PROPERTY MANAGER: Cushman & Wakefield
LEASING SERVICES: JLL

Materials

EXTERIOR BRICK: Platinum Norman Brick, C-410 Mortar from Calvert Masonry
GLAZING: VRE1-54 from Viracon
EMBOSSED AND LASER-CUT ALUMINUM PANELS: 399C8660 Fluropon Classic II from MetalTech-USA
STONE: Crystal Black Granite, Scarpaletto Finish, Engraved Chinese Characters from Lorton Stone LLC
LOBBY WOOD SLAT WALL: Ash Woodgrille System from Architectural Surfaces Inc.
STONE FLOOR: Tundra Grey Marble, Honed, from Lorton Stone
WALL FINISH: Troweled Concrete Wall Finish, Color 1612, from Get Real Surfaces Inc.
LIGHTING: Lohja Chandelier, Brushed Black Nickel Finish, from Cameron Design House
CEILING: Sound-absorbing Plaster System, Classic Fine Finish, from BASWA Acoustic
BLACKENED STEEL GUARDRAILS, PANELS AND TRIM: Ted Turner Co. Inc. Architectural Metals
BACKLIT FEATURE WALL: Laser-cut Aluminum Panels, Blackened Steel Finish, from MetalTech-USA
CONFERENCE ROOM CARPET: Full Volume, Tandem from Tandus-Centiva
PENTHOUSE EXTERIOR TERRACE CONCRETE PAVERS: Matrix M#1676 from Hanover Architectural Products
STOREFRONT GLAZING: VRE1-54 from Viracon

About the Author

Allan Barry
Allan Barry writes about architecture and sustainability from Chicago.

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