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Jeff on Building a House of Washington

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Jeff - 400

“I am a city planner trained as an architect. One principal characteristic that distinguishes Washington, D.C., from most American cities, and most European cities, too, for that matter, is the rectilinear urban grid overlaid by diagonal streets creating all of these awkward, strange street corners. If you read the urban historians who discuss Washington, D.C., they see it as a real disadvantage to the design of the city.

“What is interesting, though, if you look at what the urban planner Haussmann did in Paris and the outcome of his slashing avenues through the medieval street network of Paris, there are actually a lot weirder building lots in Paris than in Washington. But, the design mentality of post-Haussmann in the late-1800s, as opposed to the mentality when D.C. was designed in 1798, meant that people were more willing and interested in making weird-shaped buildings on weird-shaped lots. Thus, when D.C. was being designed, a lot of these lots sat empty.

These weird leftover lots in D.C. give an architect the opportunity to do a building with an exciting shape without violating the shape of the lot.

“Now in design, there is a lot less admiration of pure forms. Symmetry is out. Why have a square building when you can have a rhombus or a parallelogram or something that is kind of funky? These weird leftover lots in D.C. give an architect the opportunity to do a building with an exciting shape without violating the shape of the lot.

“I wanted to make a house that was of Washington and couldn’t really exist anywhere else. I went looking for a very sharp triangle. My wife and I rented a Zipcar, mapped out the flatiron lots around town and visited every one. And, this was the one that seemed the most available, but it still took a year and a private detective to find the owner and another year to clear the title. Even though our house occupies the footprint of what was historically here and I just wanted to fill the same lot, it took three variances and nine months to do that. According to the zoning laws, I was also required to build a garage on site, but I didn’t have a car. Parking a car on site would have meant replacing a public good, street parking, for a private good, my own parking space, and I didn’t want to do that. I spent months fighting that too.

“The key issue in D.C. is that the current zoning code does not take into account strange lots. If you wanted to build a traditional urban row house on a lot in D.C., you would not have a problem, which puts D.C. far ahead of most American cities. It is these weird left over blocks where you have the problems. I am no longer surprised when I see how long it takes to rehabilitate empty lots here because the tax burdens and title problems associated with a lot of them make it really difficult to actually do anything.”

Learn more about what Jeff is doing in D.C. and around the world to promote smart growth and sustainable design here. See his house here.

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