HD Talks

Designing DC: Old Façade, Modern Amenities

Posted by on July 29, 2015 in Projects, Trends

By David Delcher, senior associate, BBGM

Washington, DC is a city full of contradictions centered on politics, of course, but also on its architecture, a blend of old and new design that creates a cityscape unlike any other.

Though renovating an existing building comes with a list of challenges—unknown conditions, an existing structure, and limitations on how the façade relates to the interior—renovating a historic hotel in Washington, DC presents its own unique obstacles. Because of the Height Act, passed in 1910, commercial buildings can be no taller than 130 feet, leading to low floor-to-floor heights that pose some design issues. Additionally, a variety of government agencies, such as the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Park Service, have purview over some historic locations in the city. Their oversight limits renovations to many buildings and can create complicated red tape that hinders the design process.


BBGM renovated the W hotel in 2008, retaining its opulent lobby while adding modern updates.

The historic W Hotel, formerly the Hotel Washington, was built in 1918 and is located on a prominent corner of Pennsylvania Avenue with views of the White House. When BBGM renovated the hotel’s interiors in 2008, the team retained the historic façade as well as the ornate lobby while making some much-needed updates.

As with most renovations to older properties, the integration of updated systems such as MEP, life safety, and lighting required innovative solutions. Hiding equipment and accessories is key to avoid building bulkheads or wall bumps. Many of these elements were incorporated from the lower levels up through perimeter spaces previously used for other purposes. The design solution to modifying existing elements meant creating new features that seamlessly integrated with the old pieces. For example, mechanical grilles were chosen for their decorative aspects versus functional characteristics.


The redesigned vestibule at the W hotel in Washington, DC.

BBGM is currently lead architect on the Watergate Hotel, a midcentury building whose historic importance is a well-known part of American history. Originally, the guestroom levels contained large suites that were created to align with the structural column bays; the building was designed where each room contained two bays of windows. During the total renovation, BBGM gutted the hotel and increased the room count by reducing the size of accommodations. This created a challenge at the transition to the exterior where the walls meet the mullions. The exterior mullion could not be relocated, which meant the interior layouts needed to coordinate with the exterior. The challenge was in creating rooms with logical layouts while also acknowledging the new rhythm of windows within the rooms.

DC is a city with a rich architectural history. Tourists flock to the nation’s capital to experience the past, while expecting all the comforts of the 21st century during their hotel stay—modern amenities within a historic shell. This duality provides architects and interior designers with both a challenge and an opportunity to exercise creative design innovation in America’s most historic city.

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