by September 29, 2011 at 2:00 pm 1,877 0

University of Maryland Watershed House, Solar Decathlon, Troy Urman, Borderstan

Visitors wait in line last Saturday for the University of Maryland Watershed house at the Solar Decathlon. (Troy Urman)

From Troy Urman. Email him at [email protected].

Despite threatening clouds, crowds and mushy ground this weekend, I spent Saturday afternoon in West Potomac Park checking out a ‘green’ village. Really it was a collection of envelope-pushing, energy efficient houses that college students from around the globe have erected for the Department of Energy’s 2011 Solar Decathlon.

Saving the planet, one single-family home at a time. The 2011 DOE Solar Decathlon is happening right in our backyard.

This is the fifth incarnation of the event, first launched in 2002, designed to foster competition between collegiate teams to “design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive.” At root, this is an effort to bring ‘green’ to the masses. One fantastic by-product of this competition is the grooming of a generation of college students with hands-on experience in the green building industry and construction coordination.

Meet the Green Neighbors

Twenty small houses populate the grounds, arranged in a loose ‘neighborhood’ where visitors can walk amongst the diverse buildings and queue up at houses they want to tour. Some visitors wait for an hour or more just to see a favorite house — the University of Maryland’s Watershed is particularly popular, and is the competition front-runner (at the writing of this piece.)

Vote for your favorite house, check out all the houses, and stay up to date on competition score at

Each house competes on 10 separate criteria (this is a ‘decathlon’ remember), from Energy Balance to Market Appeal. Points are awarded in each category either subjectively or objectively — half are juried (i.e. Market Appeal) and half from hard data (i.e., net electricity production/consumption.) This year brought in an important new category: Affordability.

Many of the houses have ‘green’ written all over them — prominent solar panel arrays, butterfly wing roof lines and wood slats galore. Others are ultra modern in appearance (SCI-Arch/CalTech’s CHIP) or bordering on the mundane (Purdue’s INhome). Whatever the style, the variety itself proves an important point — there’s no such thing as a ‘green style.’ What makes a home Earth-friendly has little to do with its look, but everything to do with performance.

Due to the logistical challenges of a tight 10-day construction period and the distances many houses must travel to compete, nearly all of the houses arrived in large, pre-assembled parts on flatbeds and were quickly erected and finished on site — basically pre-fab construction.

Features such as elaborate glazing and mechanical systems were often fabricated off-site in controlled conditions, to avoid complications during construction. Some of the teams have the benefit of previous experience, and in my view, the competition as a whole has brought out increasingly better end results with each bi-annual competition. Fewer houses this year exhibited that shoddy, slapped together look I remember from many previous competitions. Some even look ready for move-in.

The Future of Sustainable Design

While touring the Team Florida FLEX House, I spent a few minutes chatting on the porch with a student lead for his team’s Market Appeal contest. Answering my annoying questions with ease, Chris Zalapi was knowledgeable about each aspect of the home’s efficiency features and vernacular architectural cues. Bringing his experience as an licensed engineer and green building consultant, he participated on the team while earning his MBA at University of South Florida.

Counter to what one might expect, Chris said the multi-University teams such as Team Florida (made up of four different Florida universities), did not necessarily benefit from their size when it came to fundraising. In fact, the management of so many designers and managers working together was a lesson in coordination throughout the project. These were just some of the challenges faced by the student teams, in addition to the difficulties of design by committee, procurement of materials and the physical labor of constructing a house!

Location, Location, Location

Temporarily overtaking the softball fields on Ohio Drive, adjacent to the Tidal Basin, the FDR Memorial and the shiny new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, these low slung houses and the buzz that surrounds them are well worth the walk. While there is shuttle available from the Smithsonian Metro Station, the wait was as long as the hike, so my buddy and I preferred to hoof it. Not a bad view and a quick stop at MLK, it was very worth the sweat.

Personally, I think the DOE did a disservice to all involved by hosting their pet PR venture this far off the beaten path. In fact, some teams dropped out due to the unexpected change in location. All previous events were hosted on the National Mall, giving the impressive hard work and innovation of the competing teams the spotlight they so deserved. Each time around, attendance has grown, with the most recent (2009) Solar Decathlon drawing some 300,000 visits through the houses.

I hope this year’s remote location doesn’t hinder popularity and public exposure. And in the future, they’d be wise to bring it back to the Mall. But don’t let that stop you. Take a long walk or short bike ride down from Borderstan and choose your own favorite house. Tell us what you think. Or better yet, find something you can do in your own home to make a difference. Hurry though, before this exciting event wraps up this Sunday!

by September 14, 2011 at 11:00 am 7,231 3 Comments

Troy Urman, Borderstan, DC row houses

Vermont Avenue and R Street NW: The Borderstan area is full of classic DC row houses.  The vast majority in the city were built between 1890 and 1940. (Troy Urman)

From Troy Urman. Email him at [email protected].

You’ve seen it before — a gargantuan spaceship attacks the White House or the Empire State Building with a death ray and the aftershock ripples like a wave through the surrounding city, destroying everything in its path. Lights out. Gas explosions. Chaos in the streets. Then Will Smith or Bruce Willis shows up, punches an alien in the face and saves everyone…

The point is, when we imagine the post-apocalyptic United States, we think of a place without icons of culture or the fundamental mark of civilization: Infrastructure.

Where would we be without it? Our roads, power lines and water and sewer systems are connected in a web of support and necessary services. Pop culture has always had an eye on the post-apocalyptic, from Twilight Zone episodes during the cold war era, earth-shattering asteroid blockbusters and now the zombie craze. We’ve seen a mini-glimpse of this in 2011 — earthquakes and hurricanes knocking out power and flooding our streets. President Obama is again championing public works as a major focus of his jobs program.

Row Houses are Vital to Urban Infrastructure

I could go on about Pepco response times, DC Water pipeline bursts or ‘complications’ in construction permitting, but that’s a separate discussion altogether. I want to talk about a different kind of infrastructure, one that may not immediately come to mind, but is just as important as our interstates and plumbing — urban housing. More specifically, I want to talk about the row houses of DC and how they are an important urban infrastructure.

Find more information about this topic (and anything else imaginable!) online at the Library of Congress website. Find a fantastic overview of ‘Residential Architecture of Washington, D.C., and Its Suburbs’ by Pamela Scott, which references many publicly available resources in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room.

DC has myriad architectural assets — the White House, the Capitol building, historical monuments and museums — but when I first moved here (to the heart of Borderstan), I was blown away by the vast quantity and old vintage of the row houses.

These connected brick and stone buildings stretch through the streets, linking block after block and providing shelter for hundreds of thousands of people — a kind of man-made honeycomb. These are 100-year-old masonry walls and street facades that, with just a bit of upkeep, could last another 100 years. They are an impressive structural framework that adapts and changes over time.

Initially a British building type, row houses (alternatively known by many other names, such as terrace homes or brownstones) were fundamental to the urbanization of many American cities — Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, to name a few. While Washington’s residential architecture varies from ‘urban villa’ to apartment high-rise, the fire-resistant masonry row house has been a staple of our housing stock since Washington’s 1791 decree.

Due to their many benefits and ease of construction, the row home became ubiquitous in Capitol Hill and other parts of DC by the end of the 19th century. The vast majority you see in our city today were constructed between 1890 and 1940, sheltering the working and middle classes during a period of explosive population growth.

A Plethora of Uses

Row houses are ingenious in their unassuming design. Simple in their narrow footprints and plan layouts, they are very structurally efficient — floor joists spanning just 12- to 20-foot widths. The masonry party walls can also create environmental efficiency — gaining and losing less heat through less exposed area. Additionally, only one side of a row house faces the street — making this building type amenable to any style or design and limiting the ‘finished’ faces to a small area (read: cost effective).

A single four-story row house can morph into four separate condos — or an art gallery, bike shop, bar, burlesque club, restaurant, pet boutique, gift shop or stationery shop — or back into a single four-story house. A group of homes might be combined to create overlapping interior spaces behind what were originally separate properties. The interiors of these buildings can vary from eclectic Victorian to white-washed contemporary. The possibilities are endless. All the while, from the sidewalk these solid buildings maintain their interesting, dense, and residential character. They define our streets.

So, take notice next time you walk up 15th or 18th Streets NW, Logan Circle, or any of the countless side streets in our area where row houses define the character of the street. How old do you think they are? What’s your favorite style, color or unexpected occupant? Or, when you’re in a more neglected part of DC, consider those centenarians that might one day shake off their peeling paint and unkempt yards and awaken to a vital, pulsating urban scene. The bones are there, just waiting for their second life.

Although our nation’s capital has its share of monumental architecture, row houses are an important urban infrastructure for DC and they will continue to be so for decades to come.

by September 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm 1,545 0

WMATA, DC METRO, Luis Gomez Photos

Take the Metro reader survey at the WMATA website. (Luis Gomez Photos)

From Troy Urman. Email him at [email protected].

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has released a draft of the soon-to-be-updated Metrorail map and is seeking public comment. See the new map and take the survey on the WMATA website.

The new map incorporates hints of the Dulles extension, changes to Blue and Yellow service, as well as myriad graphic changes.

This is only a draft for the map, which will surely see changes in coming months. It sill looks like the 35-year-old original, but updated. I think the shortened station names, smaller icons and geographical corrections are vast improvements.

The Washington Post has a story about the map and their version of the map includes some explanation of the changes.

What do you think?

by August 24, 2011 at 8:00 am 2,249 3 Comments

Logan Circle, Church Street NW, 14th Street NW, Luis Gomez Photos

1400 Block of Church Street NW. (Luis Gomez Photos)

Borderstan welcomes Troy Urman who is writing about architecture and urban planning in the Dupont-Logan-U Street area. His new column, Borderopolis, runs every two weeks.

From Troy Urman. Email him at [email protected].

I think there is a dirty word hiding behind arguments over plans for new construction in our neighborhood. It’s not necessarily building heights, parking counts and aesthetics that riled residents are concerned about. It’s the ‘D word’ — Density.

To clear the air, I think we all need to ask ourselves: Is density my enemy?

Like many in my generation, I was a child of the American suburbs and an era of cheap gasoline. I came of age believing I would one day find happiness in a single-family home on a half-acre in a quiet suburban development. I would surely have plenty of room to park my SUV and a lawn large enough to host an impromptu helicopter landing.

Like many, I erroneously interpreted the American Dream to mean lots of space between me and my neighbors — low density. I have changed my mind.

It was not overnight and I won’t claim it was pain free, but over time I’ve traded the sprawling suburbs for the city. Not only are there innumerable benefits to living in a city (culture, diversity and employment to name a few), there is ample evidence of the serious environmental, economic, health and social costs of the car dependent lifestyle that suburbs require.

Now I live in a condo building, I commute on foot and I only worry about my car on street-cleaning days. I can get to the gym, shop and meet my friends without even getting in my car or searching for a place to park. It’s liberating! How is this all possible?  Density.

Walkability is one important factor in how desirable a place can be to live, work and play. I’m happy to point out that D.C. was just ranked one of the most walkable U.S. cities by Walkscore. Their methodology, while not perfect, relies on calculating the number of groceries, shopping, banks, and other amenities within a walking area.

Simply put, the more stuff within walking distance (read: dense), the better.

In my opinion, two excellent local examples of well-executed high-density residential development within walking distance of lots of amenities are between 14th Street NW and 15th Street NW. The 1400 block of Church Street NW is a quiet one-way street lined with condo buildings in a modern industrial style.

The 1400 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW is a string of more traditional looking buildings, well-screened by a leafy canopy of mature trees. Despite appearances, each of these blocks is very dense. These surprisingly tall buildings — up to nine stories — contain hundreds of neighbors, customers, and tax-payers within a stone’s throw of employment, shopping and entertainment. All adding to the vitality of the city in a tight footprint.

As the natural growth of our fantastic city continues, we simply cannot sustain outward sprawl into endless suburbs. We must become more dense. Major corridors like 14th Street will continue to develop due to their economic and social capital.

While context, character and aesthetics are essential considerations, we will unquestionably experience growing pains — allowing higher buildings and more new neighbors than initially seem comfortable. Especially the area of Dupont, Logan and U Street — ripe with open land and so close to the city center. See recent changes of heart regarding development at Wallach and 14th Streets NW on BeyondDC. It is better to look ahead and consider the long-term vision of a street than make begrudging progress, one block at a time.

Keep this in mind while we watch the empty lots and storefronts now being excavated in Borderopolis, many vacant for four decades or more. Because when the dust clears, our new neighbors move in, and the many new shops, restaurants and a YMCA all open for business, we will all benefit.

Yes, parking might be more scarce and some new residents may have to read up on Urban Etiquette for a pointer or two, but it’s a small price to pay to live in a vibrant city.  This is why density is not your enemy.


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