D.C. Water headquarters exterior
COURTESY ALAN KARCHMER

A Water Utility Office Designed to Rival Most Museums

SmithGroup achieves an engineering miracle in the Washington, D.C., Water headquarters.

It is telling that three years after opening, a curvy, glass- and aluminum-clad office building that SmithGroup designed for the District of Columbia’s sewer and water utility is still accumulating honors.

Last month, a Metropolis jury named the headquarters (it’s specially engineered to partly sit above, but not rest on the city’s main pumping station) the Northeast Regional winner of the Planet Positive Awards for its impact on people and the planet. Previously it had earned a Fast Company Innovation by Design Honorable Mention and two 2020 American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) citations, one for architecture, and another for sustainable design. Those, along with accolades for the concept before it was built, predate its climactic certification this year as a LEED Platinum project by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

“It’s a unique response to a challenging site,” says Dayton Schroeter, a SmithGroup principal and design director who served as the project’s architect.

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“We created a solution-driven process. It was about being vulnerable to whatever the final outcome was going to be.”

Dayton Schroeter, principal, SmithGroup

D.C. Water headquarters interior circulation and seating.
At the new D.C. Water headquarters, employees meet and chat in multifunctional common spaces with sweeping views of the river their work protects. COURTESY ALAN KARCHMER

It’s also uniquely engineered: The building’s concave shape accommodates an existing two-story pumping station on one side. And positioning the 150,000-square-foot headquarters around that station’s two story structure also placed it above the rest of its waste-water operations, which are buried below grade. So the architects had to design the headquarters to structurally “float,” using a 200-foot-long truss that supports the building’s entire back half. “[The pump station] below grade extends in every direction,” says SmithGroup vice president and lead design principal on the project Sven Shockey, as he explained how the station and several century-old brick sewer mains connected to it had to be protected.

Like the sewer lines, the team’s various sustainability schemes seem to have stemmed out from this plan.

The shape that accommodates the pumping station also creates rounded wings, which enable the building to passively shade itself, and maximizes river views and daylighting deeper into the space. Steps for “floating” the building over the station also supported SmithGroup’s resilience goal of raising the overall site one foot above the 500-year flood plain.

D.C. Water headquarters interior windows
Two thirds of the city’s waste water flows through the site beneath the new headquarters. COURTESY ALAN KARCHMER

With two thirds of D.C.’s waste water being pumped beneath the new offices, designers were able to apply new sewage waste energy exchange technology (SWEE) to turn the flow into a medium for transferring or absorbing heat to warm or cool the new building’s interiors.

The skin’s tinted glass is cantilevered three feet off the curtain wall, like sunglasses to provide an additional source of shade and protection from heat gain.

“We created a solution-driven process,” Schroeter says. “It was about being vulnerable to whatever the final outcome was going to be.”

D.C. Water headquarters Siteplan
A roof plan shows its green areas and the building’s unique shape. COURTESY SMITHGROUP

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