Lofty Ideas Transform Retail Space Into a Workplace
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 16, 2001
Washington is not a loft kind of place. The Industrial Revolution sort of passed the city by (despite the dreams of its eponymous founder), so not a whole lot of loftlike factories or warehouses were constructed here.
The scarcity of large-scale industry saved the capital city much grief. Washington didn't get rusty like Rust Belt cities did, and was not decimated by industrial abandonment. But the lack of big lofts does disappoint dot.com executives and their architects searching for buildings to convert to new -- and very different -- uses.
High-tech companies like old lofts because they are spacious, flexible and relatively inexpensive. Furthermore, lofts fit the electronic industry's mythic self-image of no-frills, creative entrepreneurship. Architects are attracted to the challenge of loft conversions for some of the same reasons -- you can do just about anything with all that space and, usually, there is plenty of interesting stuff (old trusses and the like) to play against.
And so it was that Discovery Communications, when it sought a new home in Washington for its technology and design divisions, did not find an industrial loft. Its scouts did, however, come upon an almost perfect equivalent: an abandoned big-box retail outlet in a low-rent district on the wrong side of the tracks in Silver Spring.
Located at the intersection of East-West Highway and Newell Street, across from a vacant Canada Dry bottling plant and maybe half a mile from central Silver Spring, the building had seemed weirdly out of place when it was a Caldor outlet. It went up in 1995, and was deserted by the discount chain three years later (along with six other stores in the metropolitan region). And the architecture was very strange -- an enormous windowless box.
In place of windows, Caldor's architects had attempted to give the exterior some life by placing window-like rectangles at regular intervals. These were formed with light beige bricks, in contrast to the orangy bricks of the walls. The effect was surreal, as if real windows had been bricked over. The building looked abandoned even before it was abandoned.
But the absence of windows hardly deterred the Discovery folks. You can break through walls to make windows. The attraction was inside -- 25-foot-high ceilings, widely spaced structural columns, more than three acres of flexible space. Eureka!
Architects from the Washington office of Gensler, one of the world's largest architecture companies, were called in. Chris Banks, the design principal for the job, was excited. She had come to Washington a few years ago from the firm's office in San Francisco, where loft conversions are commonplace. This would be her first such opportunity in the Washington area.
Discovery Communications, with employees spread out in half a dozen locations in downtown Bethesda, needed space for its mainframe computers and about 375 people. "We didn't want a corporate look," says Patricia Lute, director of corporate communications, "and we wanted a destination place -- we knew it would be a hard sell, moving people to Silver Spring."
Banks and her Gensler colleagues responded by designing one of the most offhandedly stylish white-collar workplaces in the Washington area. They added as many high windows as they could to the building's long facades, of course, and built a steel-and-glass bridge to connect with a parking structure across the street.
But it was the inside that counted most.
Do the high concrete ceilings and exposed ducts suggest a direction for the design? Yes, they do, decided the designers, wisely declining to cover up all that messy but interesting network of trusses, pipes and ducts with conventional dropped ceilings. Instead, the Gensler team added to the complexity by snaking miles of clustered electronic cables through the air in overhead trays that resemble suspended stainless steel ladders.
Are backyard garages the legendary epicenters of high-tech inventiveness? Fine, let's design conference rooms with real roll-up garage doors, the architects decided, and give them a contemporary edge with translucent plastic panels. An abundance of corrugated iron for office and conference room walls continues the stylish metaphor.
Is the space inside this huge box too undifferentiated to be truly functional and attuned to human scale? Of course it is, the architects agreed, and proceeded to break the space into smaller office clusters with attractive, hexagonal workstations. Not incidentally do the spindly, creature-like aesthetics of this modular office system -- the Resolve system by Herman Miller Inc. -- complement the overall design.
The architects took full advantage of the ceiling heights to give sculptural profile to various office elements. Most surprising is the free-standing conference room with windows in its red-painted, corrugated iron walls, and a steeply pitched roof. It looks like a baby barn or silo.
If this description makes the place seem too stagy and toylike, I hasten to say that while the effect is comfortably playful, you would never mistake this for anything but a serious workplace. Arguably, all offices ought to be a bit playful, just as all work ought to be a bit like play.
(Still, the pool table in a corridor may be over the top. It is no mere symbol -- or was not intended as such. In fact, workers in this facility -- average age 34 -- have proved too tempted, Lute says. Because of the distinctive, interruptive crack of ball striking ball, she reports, the equipment has to be locked away during much of the workday.)
"If you are going to be in a space on a daily basis," says architect Banks, "it is really important that you feel good when you are there, and that the space has an interest that doesn't die. From week to week and month to month there always ought to be something fresh to see." Amen to that.
In other words, office design can serve both productive and humane ends. At the Discovery Technical and Creative Center -- the building's formal name -- this dual concern for efficiency and agreeability extends beyond the picturesque forms, attractive (if ordinary) materials and smart floor plans.
Details large and small contribute significantly -- perimeter offices are limited in number to allow as much natural light as possible to reach the open office areas; suspended metal lighting canopies over those beehive workstations are both effective and pleasing to look at; attractive conference rooms -- 29 of them -- are scattered about; "privacy" telephone niches provide needed escape, and drawer storage units are just the right height to double as working surfaces for impromptu design sessions.
Actually, the list could go on for some length -- but the point is made. Not all offices should look like the new Discovery facility, but all office workers would benefit if their places of work were designed with the same care and verve.
Discovery Communications and Gensler are to be congratulated for transforming a preposterous architectural white elephant. Furthermore, the revived building is just the first installment. A new corporate headquarters is under construction nearby, in the heart of downtown Silver Spring. When it opens in 2003, it will set that heart beating again.
After a couple of decades of foolish plans and broken promises for Silver Spring, it is about time.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company