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Suburbia Transformed: Tysons, Virginia

Image © Gensler

This post originally appeared on the blog jordangoldstein.net.

Several months ago, I spoke on a Bisnow panel that discussed the future of Tysons, Virginia, a suburban town that is rapidly becoming more urban. Tysons is clearly a town in the midst of a dramatic transformation. With Metro opening up in the spring and a host of high-rise development projects underway, Tysons is about to be suburbia transformed. It’s an experiment in what happens when the urban fringe extends and meets the suburban edge. The blurred lines create tremendous opportunity for the growth of an innovative and dynamic live/work/play environment.

As the only architect on the panel surrounded by six developer-clients, it was a great context to talk about the design challenges facing commuter towns like Tysons that are becoming more urban with the introduction of mass transit and higher density development.

Working with Macerich and Hines, we’re leading this urban transformation with a 22-story office building that is fast becoming the gateway to Tysons. Tysons Tower, when complete, will be the tallest office building in Tysons. More significantly, the Tower is anchor to a mixed-use development with direct access to the new elevated Metro station and beltway Hot Lanes.

Through the design of Tysons Tower, we’ve tackled a host of design challenges that will likely be encountered by others as Tysons continues to grow and suburban communities like Tysons continue to urbanize.

Here are three issues to consider in the case of Tysons:

1) Multiple Ground Planes

When we started the design of Tysons Tower in 2009, we quickly realized that the introduction of Metro would create a design challenge unlike any that we had seen in our DC area projects. With elevated tracks and station platforms far above the roadways, we would need to address two ground planes. There’s the ground plane that is the current network of roadways and sidewalks that serves as the base of all of the existing buildings in Tysons. Then there’s the new elevated ground plane that will be at the Metro level. In the case of our Tysons Tower site, that meant a lobby that would welcome pedestrians that come straight across a pedestrian bridge from the Metro and also those that walk-in from the ground level.

Our solution at Tysons was a 55-foot high by 100-foot long glass-enclosed, grand lobby with two entries: one at the raised Metro level and another at the base adjacent to the road. Escalators and shuttle elevators connect both levels and both entry experiences are memorable paths into the building.

For Tysons’ future, this is a major design issue, especially along Route 7 where the elevated tracks create an east and west side of the tracks.

2) Embracing the Object Building

Designing for the new Tysons offers architects and developers a chance to rethink the object building: one in which all sides of the building are clearly visible and the building can fully interact with the community. In other words, the object building has space around it that allows for greater appreciation of the building architecture and how it addresses the site. We rarely have this scenario in downtown DC, where buildings are more frequently infill or corner sites that have no more than two facades to address the street.

Rather than deliver contextual buildings that become old news from the second they’re completed, architects have an opportunity to design buildings that inject energy into their surroundings and engage the community in these new urban areas. If done right, the object building can weave together form, materials and program to tell a compelling story and be a contributing factor in the brand statement of the new urban town.

When I began the Tower design process with our team, we spent time looking at the architecture that defined the current Tysons. The area was crowded with non-descript low and mid-rise buildings that lack character and felt more like a series of strung together suburban office parks. The new Tysons is envisioned as a vibrant live-work community. Tysons Tower, with its tailored lines and shimmering glass-wrapped skin, is meant to stand apart from this existing canvas. Perched on a raised podium and cantilevered out toward the beltway, the Tower is the object building that uses its base to connect with Metro, with the mall and create an outdoor plaza.

3) Create an Adaptable Building

My Gensler colleagues and I have been talking a lot about this concept recently.

An adaptable building is one that is flexible inside and out so that tenants can transform their own environment to their liking over time. While new buildings can build in flexibility, old buildings can be repositioned as more open, adaptable spaces that are easily transformed by tech companies, start-ups and other tenants that need to morph as they grow.

In Tysons Tower, the building form is derived from two rectangular bars set at different angles with a tightly planned core in between. Within these rectangular bars, columns are pushed to the outer edges of the rectangle, resulting in wide-open bays of space that are easily planned.

A key strategy for flexibility is a structural system that uses post-tensioned beams as a primary structural support with lightly reinforced concrete slabs between. In doing so, the area between beams can be opened up, allowing connecting stairs between floors and multi-height spaces to be added with greater ease. Intelsat, an anchor tenant in Tysons Tower, took advantage of this and has high bay multipurpose rooms planned for upper floors and a monumental stair that slices through most of their levels.

Tysons Tower will be complete in June. If you’re driving around the beltway in the DC area, you can’t miss the Tower. Take the off ramp and check out the Tower and Tysons in transformation.

Read more about Tysons Tower, recently featured in the Wall Street Journal.

Image © Gensler

Jordan Goldstein is co-managing director of Gensler’s Washington, D.C. office, where he leads award-winning projects in mixed use, hospitality, retail, education and brand strategy. Jordan’s work spans the globe with current projects in China, Thailand, and Washington, DC. A firm believer in the power of design education, Jordan is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania where he teaches a course in product design. Jordan was also named as one of the “40-Under-40” national industry leaders in Building Design & Construction magazine in 2006 and by the Washington Business Journal in 2011. Contact him at jordan_goldstein@gensler.com.

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