The most urbanistically interesting new house in Washington, DC, belongs to Jeff Speck, design director of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2007 and, before that, director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.
Four and a half years ago, Speck decided to find and purchase one of the many lots in the District that, because of their odd shapes, had remained undeveloped throughout two centuries of Washington development.
Pierre Charles L’Enfant, in laying out the capital in 1791, gave the city a network of broad avenues and narrower side streets, punctuated by grand intersections. Because L’Enfant ran diagonal avenues across a rectangular street grid, the cityscape ended up with many small, angular plots of land at those junctures — plots that have been difficult to put to productive use.
In 1928, planner Elbert Peets described the angled leftover areas as being “freighted with clumps of trees … like undigested fragments of primeval forest.” Even today many of them remain littered and barren, according to Speck, who now is an urban design consultant for cities such as Grand Rapids, Michigan; Davenport, Iowa; and Oklahoma City.
In 2004, when Washington real estate was booming, Speck started the process that led to his buying a triangular corner at Florida Avenue and 10th Street, NW, in a neighborhood he describes as having been Washington’s equivalent of Harlem during its glory years. Speck says his goal was to “build a normative 2,200-square-foot four-bedroom house [including a usable basement] on a lot totaling 552 square feet, demonstrating the viability of these neglected sites.”
Modern yet contextual
In light of his 10 years at DPZ, where he co-authored Suburban Nation with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and oversaw many traditional town designs, some might think that Speck would design his own house in a traditional style. On the contrary, Speck has Modern architectural tastes.
“I grew up in a Modern house” designed by an apprentice of Walter Gropius in a suburb of Boston, he says. “I’ve been drawing Modern buildings since I was seven.” Holder of a master’s in architecture from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Speck says, “My introduction to Andres and Lizz was Arquitectonica.”
Thus for himself and his wife Alice — they married in 2006 and now have a boy named Milo, born last June 24 — he set out to design a dwelling that would be Modern but would fit with its neighbors — mostly narrow two- and three-story brick rowhouses from the 19th century.
To maintain the existing streetwall, he gave the new house the same setbacks as those of the neighbors. As a result, the house has the shape of a flatiron with a 34-degree angle at its point, heading north.
Triangular rooms are rarely comfortable, Speck says. “It’s better to look at the triangle than to be in it.” Consequently, the pointed area contains a fireplace in the second-floor living area and other uses, such as storage, on the other three floors.
Tying the four floors together and setting the tone for the interior is a prominent, five-ton staircase of black steel, which was lifted in by a crane in six pieces. On the roof are a dozen photovoltaic panels. Other conservation-oriented features include a solar hot-water heater, radiant-heated bamboo floors, dual-flush toilets, and R-22 wall and R-30 roof insulation.
Speck persuaded the city to forgo its usual requirement of an off-street parking space, so there is no garage — not even a parking pad. “I got an office instead,” he says. The car that Speck owned when he moved from Miami to Washington has long ago been given up. “We’re only three blocks from the Metro,” he notes. “The area is bike-accessible. We do our shopping in the neighborhood. There are Zipcars everywhere.”
The key to producing livable quarters on a tight triangular site, in Speck’s opinion, is cantilevering. Balconies extend a few feet outward from the house’s 10th Street side. Indoor space is cantilevered over the sidewalk on the Florida Avenue side. Thanks to the cantilevers, Speck was able to create rectangular rooms, which function much better than triangular spaces would have done. Both of these required zoning variances.
“No space is wider than 12 feet,” he says of the resulting interior. “It’s a perfect small-room width,” which he says can be traced back to the existensminimum of early European modernists.
Contextual aspects of the house are immediately evident to people walking past. Some of the windows have proportions echoing vertical windows of the old rowhouses nearby. Others have more horizontal proportions, which relate to an industrial-style Howard University administration building just across 10th Street. The walls are clad in red brick, a traditional material for Washington houses. The part of the house closest to an adjoining rowhouse even has a couple of blind windows, repeating the rhythm of the old houses on the block. Some passersby have looked at the blind windows and assumed this was an old rowhouse that had undergone renovation.
Whether Speck’s experiment will coax others to carry out similar projects on Washington’s odd-shaped lots seems doubtful, unless people are willing to pay a premium to overcome the difficulties of these sites. Speck won’t disclose the cost, but he acknowledges that he discovered that “building on flatiron lots is not the way to build cheaply.” There’s a much higher ratio of exterior wall to interior space than in a standard rectangular rowhouse. (One compensation for the expense of the larger exterior surface is that the exterior was furnished with an abundance of windows; they make a 12-foot-wide room feel bright and airy.)
The process turned out to be a slow and costly because of the challenge of tracking down previous owners, the applications for variances, the unusual design, substandard water pressure and substandard voltage that had to be overcome, and the general difficulty of doing things in an inefficient old city. “From start to finish, it was a four-year process,” Speck says. “It cost $7,000 to get a gas line connection.”
A hard-core traditionalist might question whether buildings that come to knife-like points are the most pleasing urban solutions. Flatiron buildings from a century ago tended to have somewhat rounded ends, often with windows and ornament at the point, which softened their effect. But the Speck house seems to please people who pass by. They stop and run their hands over its red brick prow, just as people have been doing for years at the sharply angled stone point of I.M. Pei’s Modern-style East Wing of the National Gallery of Art downtown.
Speck has succeeded in demonstrating how an idiosyncratic contemporary house with an unusual shape can contribute to a traditional streetscape — by using setbacks, proportions, and materials that mesh with the neighbors and the urban structure.