700 Sixth Street: A Strategic and Adaptive Blend

Fall 2011
Akridge moved forward with development in the emerging downtown Washington, D.C. Penn Quarter neighborhood, banking that it would be fully transitioned when the building delivered.


In July 2009, 700 Sixth Street opened with a ribbon-cutting celebrating not only the completion of a project but a vision brought to life. Washington, D.C.’s Mayor, officials from the city’s economic development and environmental agencies, the project’s Tokyo investor, and its lead tenant, law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, were all in attendance.

Before breaking ground two and a half years prior, developers, architects and owners had repeatedly reworked the building design and pro-forma in response to a changing market. Amidst steeply rising construction costs between 2005 and 2007, the team refined development strategies, reviewed new building technologies, evaluated trends in architecture, and witnessed a growing interest in sustainable features. The team determined that success would be predicated on two factors: the continued progression of the neighborhood and a unique product.

700 Sixth Street sits midway between the White House and the U.S. Capitol in a neighborhood called Penn Quarter. This part of the city has undergone a significant transformation as Washington development has moved eastward, beginning in the mid-90s, from the well-known office addresses of K Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The development opportunity for 700 Sixth Street arose as Akridge was assembling land for its Gallery Place project adjacent to The Verizon Center during the early years of this revitalization.

700 Sixth Street exterior closeup

The project team refined the building’s architecture for four years before breaking ground in 2006. Photos Courtesy of Alan Karchmer

A combined lot encompasses both 700 Sixth Street and Gallery Place, which therefore share zoning requirements. Because the one-million- square-foot, mixed-use Gallery Place project satisfied that zoning’s residential and retail components, 700 Sixth would be developed as a traditional office building. The measuring point for the building, taken from the Gallery Place portion of the site, allowed for a full 12 stories of rentable space in height-restricted Washington.

While Penn Quarter still lacked the optimal density of service and restaurant amenities, the neighborhood was changing rapidly. Over the course of 700 Sixth Street’s development, neighboring luxury residences sold out quickly, new cultural attractions and celebrated restaurants opened, and office buildings began to attract Class A tenants. As the neighborhood’s transition progressed, the development team endeavored to keep the architecture appropriate, while worrying that it might be too sophisticated for the area. By the time 700 Sixth delivered, would the neighborhood be ready? Should we build to the current character of the neighborhood instead? Development Manager Dodd Walker, likened the ultimate strategy to a football play. “We decided to throw the ball down the field, far out ahead of where the market was, betting that the neighborhood would be there when we delivered.”

What’s Old Is New Again

700 6th Street Lobby

Architects added volume in the lobby by expanding it to three stories and incorporating two airy glass bridges.

With the building’s density and use established, the team turned its attention to aesthetics. Architects at Washington-based HOK looked for ways to distinguish the building by combining strong contemporary features with traditional Washington architectural elements and materials. The trend in D.C. prior to groundbreaking was toward all-glass buildings, but 700 Sixth Street is surrounded by many enduring Washington buildings clad in the limestone and granite that evoke the power and permanence of the capital city. So although the team had watched glass boxes go up across the city during the 2005 building boom, it elected to hold to a traditional yet contemporary design motif, working to ensure the building delivered the same interior feel an all-glass building provides while incorporating rich, classic materials. The resulting design includes two limestone towers, limestone cladding on the first five stories, a contemporary glass curtain wall in the center, and intricate metal details in stainless steel throughout. “The heavily articulated 700 Sixth Street design is both timely and timelessly familiar. It’s a limestone building in a glass box world,” said Akridge Vice President, Bob Schofield.

Inside the building, the design challenge was a familiar one for Washington developers and architects: create internal spaces with appropriately high ceilings while maximizing rentable square footage under strict height restrictions. The team worked in a tight urban envelope and focused on openness, successfully and economically conjuring volume in the lobby by expanding it to three stories and incorporating two airy glass bridges. Entering the building from Sixth Street, visitors find themselves on a glass bridge surrounded by an expansive space lined with French limestone, which extends from the lower level below to the second floor above. In the elevator bank at the back of the lobby, lighting and a reflective silver leaf ceiling help illuminate the area. The building achieved finished ceiling heights of 8’6” on office floors and 10’2” on the first floor, allowing an option for retail tenants.

Building amenities were designed in meticulous detail. A favorite among the building tenants is the rooftop terrace, where a wooden roof deck allows dramatic views of the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol. A granite-topped bar, dedicated lighting, catering facilities and restrooms make the rooftop ideal for events. The fitness facility on the first floor, which was significantly expanded in 2010, has also been well-received by tenants and leasing prospects.

Keeping Pace with Sustainability

700 6th Street Lobby ceiling

Incorporating the upgrades that would earn enough LEED points to move the building from uncertified to Platinum added less than one percent to the total project costs.

While architectural designs went through multiple iterations, the building’s sustainable components were also continuously reviewed. From early in the design phase, the team focused on creating a highly eco-friendly office building, but found that available technologies were changing at a rapid pace, and that the financial viability of green features was changing as well. The popularity of LEED had not yet taken hold in Washington, so market demand could not be accurately ascertained, but the team received an early grant from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for construction of a vegetated green roof. Since sustainability was a priority from the beginning of the planning and design process, incorporating the upgrades that would earn enough LEED points to move the building from uncertified to Platinum added less than one percent to the total project costs.

The original design’s considerable efficiencies, especially in energy consumption, were fine-tuned through a series of design review meetings that included the Akridge property management team. The goal of these collaborative meetings between the property management, development and construction teams was to ensure that the building would meet the demands of office tenants while operating in the most efficient manner possible. The building’s sustainable features include:

  • Energy-efficient controls such as occupancy sensors that reduce lighting in restrooms, stairwells and garage during off-peak hours and when the spaces are not in use, combined with energy efficient lighting and an optimized energy management system that results in an estimated 12 percent reduction in electric demand, compared with buildings of similar size.
  • A system of metering devices that monitors and optimizes electrical consumption by equipment such as fans, pumps, air handling units and chillers. The building operations staff can analyze metering data and adjust monitored items to optimize the energy usage in both the base building and tenant spaces.
  • Water-conserving fixtures such as waterless urinals, aerated faucets and showerheads, and dual flush valve toilets. The amount of potable water used for flushing is reduced by more than 40 percent (compared with a typical building of this size) by using these features. Additionally, the use of native and adaptive plants in the building’s landscaping means irrigation needs are minimized.
  • Use of construction materials that included more than 20 percent recycled content, were locally or regionally procured (more than 20 percent from within 500 miles), and incorporated certified wood from sustainable forests. More than 90 percent of construction debris was recycled during this project.
  • A green roof that reduces the city’s heat island effect while it provides roof insulation in the form of vegetation, which in turn reduces storm water pollutants. Because Washington has a combined sewer system, high volumes of storm water combined with the normal sewage load can overload treatment facilities, wreaking havoc on the nearby Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The sustainable roof has the capacity to store excess rainwater, mitigating runoff volume while absorbing pollutants that might otherwise run directly into waterways.
  • Proper ventilation and air quality control that result in a healthier work environment. 700 Sixth Street provides occupied spaces with 30 percent more outdoor air than is required by American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) standards. Because providing conditioned air is an energy-intensive process, carbon dioxide sensors monitor spaces to determine when increased ventilation is needed. Occupied spaces receive 100 percent new conditioned fresh air every hour.
  • A transit-oriented location on the same block as a three-line Metrorail station and within easy walking distance of dining, shopping and cultural facilities, which reduces the need for building tenants and visitors to drive. Additionally, 10 percent of parking capacity is reserved for hybrid or electric cars and car sharing vehicles.

Weathering the Economy

700 6th Street client space

The client space floor is made of wood from old Shenandoah Valley barns. Other sustainable building elements include a green roof and a system of metering devices to optimize electrical consumption.

The development of 700 Sixth Street encountered changing and challenging economic conditions between the project’s conception in 2004 and its delivery in 2009. During that time, the market stagnated while construction pricing skyrocketed by 25 percent, jeopardizing both the architectural features and the sustainable components that had been designed into the building. The developer had to determine whether to compromise some of these defining attributes or assume that they would help achieve the desired leasing results. Ultimately, the team decided to preserve the building’s caliber, and 700 Sixth Street went forward as a trophy-class development. It was a strategy that paid off in a soft market, where the building distinguished itself among tenant prospects and was more than 90 percent leased within 15 months after delivery. This success in turn contributed to the asset’s overall desirability as an investment, and the property was acquired by a major real estate fund in June of 2011, generating attractive returns for the original investors.

After five years of diligent design review and improvement, followed by a year and a half of successful and efficient operation, 700 Sixth Street is making a mark in Washington with its unique blend of thoughtful architecture and forward-looking sustainability. As occupants build out and settle into the building’s offices, the Penn Quarter neighborhood is growing and thriving around them. Now in the hands of the property management department, 700 Sixth will be continually evaluated for opportunities to adapt to tenant needs and increase energy efficiency as new features and technologies become available. With market conditions continuing to change and green office buildings continuing to evolve, the job of creating a smart development is never done.