July 17, 2009
  Division1 Architects’ Lacey Condo Celebrates DC’s Moment with Communal Luxury
A building that acknowledges the values of public civil servants—with style

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

How do you . . . design a condominium that offers abundant outdoor space on a constricted urban site and encourages resident engagement and interaction?

Since last fall, when the Washington political establishment began floating storied Wall Street institutions financial lifeline after lifeline, a bit of the prestige of directing the world’s largest economy migrated southward down I-95 from New York. Add this to DC’s rapidly revitalizing (and gentrifying) neighborhoods and the ever-present Obama buzz, and the cultural life of the city may yet be ready to outgrow its New York-induced inferiority complex. All of this means that there probably isn’t a better time for Division1 Architect’s Lacey condominium building. With this shift in power and prestige comes an openness to high-design luxury bordering on hedonism—already established in certain other cities that have unexpectedly found themselves as supplicants to Washington’s public money trough. No longer must workaholic policy wonks trudge home to bland motel-corridored, quasi-retro brick, cookie cutter apartments. Now is the time for hallway atriums, roof decks, and sliding glass bedroom doors!

Taking things forward
The Lacey, which opened two months ago, is located in the vibrant and lively Shaw neighborhood of Northwest D.C., a gentrifying community that predates Harlem as a center of African-American history and culture. It’s the most rigorously detailed, definitively Modern example of what is becoming a beachhead of contemporary residential design for the 20- to 30-something professional set in an otherwise preservation-focused city. Its site is blessed with rich topography and buildings that assert their own strong personalities. The Lacey is near the base of a hill that lifts the surrounding neighborhoods out of what was a colonial-era swamp. Attached to the condo’s north façade is the Florida Avenue Grill, a venerable neighborhood landmark established in 1944 by the condo’s namesake: Lacey Wilson. An early African-American owned business, the restaurant was one of the few businesses in the area to survive the 1968 riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Wilson’s son Lacey Wilson Jr. sold the restaurant and its parking lot to developer Imar Hutchins several years ago with the intent to build a condominium on it. The pitched-roof, row-house-style restaurant exudes neighborhood familiarity in a changing urban context. Across the street, further up the hill to the north looms Cardozo High School, designed by the St. Louis architect William Ittner in a grand Collegiate Gothic style and completed in 1916. The Lacey mirrors Cardozo’s topography. From the street, a retaining wall demarcates Cardozo’s campus grounds, and the school itself creates another vertical demarcation further north. Likewise, the two-story Florida Avenue Grill has the four-story Lacey hovering above it, creating street valley walls on both sides.

Clearly, the Lacey does not mirror the neighborhood’s formal design language. Its unabashedly Modern steel and concrete create a sharp contrast with the buildings that surround it, and this definitive statement is what makes it work.

“Us showing respect [for the neighborhood] was to move forward and think forward,” says Ali Honarkar, Assoc. AIA, of Division1 Architects. “We had to come up with a building that had its own personality and stood on its own.”

Familiar space
The 26-unit Lacey is a bold, boxy presence in a neighborhood of pitched roof Federal Style row houses. It’s a horizontal rectangle with a mechanical-looking steel staircase appendage grafted on the south façade. This staircase runs from the top of the building down to the ground, recessing into the profile of the building at the base so that it cantilevers outward. Its airily screened steel grate structure balances the heavy concrete of the rest of the building. The east and west façades of the building are covered in clear and frosted glass panels with black mullions in varying proportions. Balconies are inserted at irregular intervals into the curtain wall to break up the composition and create varying layers of depth, as rear balcony walls are glass as well. Panels of Viroc (a façade board made of Portland cement and wood particles) are used to impersonate exposed concrete. The rear western façade has several slightly cantilevering balconies that further take a creative and compositional hand to the curtain wall. Back on the front eastern façade, four dual-level first floor duplex units have their own landscaped front patios with stairs to warming, walnut front doors, which bypass the building’s lobby.

Though the material choices here may be different, Honarkar’s intent was to create the same front-porch space recognizable to any resident of a neighborhood of century-old mid-Atlantic row houses that puts public life in the street and makes urban living vivid and engaging.

“We wanted to give something back to the community,” he says. “This is an urban building. It doesn’t hide what it is.”

Accountability and transparency
Inside, the 24,000-square-foot building is organized around a central light-filled atrium that runs the full height of the building. Walkways alternate between the east and west side, one per floor. The units are all white walls with light colored maple hardwood floors and sliding glass room partitions. Smaller one bedroom units are located on the second and third floors, and larger penthouse units are on the top floor.

Though the building is only four stories tall and is on a constricted urban site, Division1 managed to give the vast majority of units a dedicated outdoor space of their own—a patio, balcony, or roof deck. There are two common roof decks accessible to all, and the views to Washington’s monumental core and beyond will be a prime selling point for the building. Finding these kinds of spaces on this site without repetitively stacking balconies wasn’t always intuitive and required a resourceful design eye. When a small square of space below grade that was supposed to be landscaped wasn’t able to accommodate a tree, Honarkar turned it into a patio that’s open to they sky for a cellar-level unit.

For a building that pitches its serious design pedigree as a luxury feature, (its budget was actually a rather modest $7 million, which probably puts it in a different class than Manhattan confections by Herzog and de Meuron and the like) it’s not concerned with perpetuating the typical notion that extreme privacy is the greatest signifier of design quality. The Lacey’s well-to-do residents are not sealed away in hermetic chambers of glass, hardwood, and light. Throughout, the Lacy encourages visual relationships with neighbors and the surrounding city. It offers views through, beyond, and between partially glass walled units, especially where the steel staircase appendage weaves into the rest of the building. Roof decks also provide views into others’ living spaces. The interior atrium offers views across all floors so residents can see their neighbors coming and going. “We wanted neighbors not to hide from each other,” says Honarkar. “We want them to engage.”

It’s a concerted push for community in a changing neighborhood that would probably be unrecognizable (save the Florida Avenue Grill) for anyone around when the restaurant was new. This design-instilled sense of enlivening communal voyeurism takes the building beyond the simple amenity-stacking that doesn’t do anything to get residents to connect. (A gym so residents can jog on a treadmill, silently plugged into a television via headphones. A businesses center so bleary eyed office workers can scan and e-mail documents long into the night.) This implicit focus on community interaction makes The Lacey a more public and civic building, governed by the rules of public transparency (at the Lacey—quite literally—with glass and the ability to see neighbors) and accountability (which comes with neighborly familiarity). That makes it the more appropriate for Washington, D.C., where the cultural dialogue is largely set by civil servants and elected leaders for whom no political crusade can sustain itself without a community of support.

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