With one million members, the National Association of Realtors is the nation's largest membership trade group. Based in Chicago, the NAR has long rented an office in Washington for lobbying purposes. But in 2001, when the landlord told the association that it would have to move out at the end of its lease, the NAR decided it wanted to make a physical statement to reinforce its brand and presence in Washington.
After an extensive search, the NAR's Real Property Operations Committee chose 500 New Jersey Avenue, N.W., as the site for a $46.5 million office building. The Gund Partnership, Cambridge, Mass., won a juried design competition, and SMB Architects, of Washington, D.C., was appointed architect of record.
Considering who picked it, the site couldn't have been a worse choice: one of those triangular remnants formed by a diagonal street crossing the grid in L'Enfant's master plan, it could only yield a limited building footprint. Then there was the abandoned gas station on the property that would have to be cleaned up to remove the waste fuel in the soil. Not to mention the neglected National Park Service land that was now home to many homeless.
But 500 New Jersey Avenue had one overriding virtue: It was three blocks from the Capitol. Given the shortage of developable property near the nation's political nerve center, its location was all that mattered to the realty group.
Working within the limits of the site, Gund designed a sweeping, curvilinear glass curtain wall structure with a dramatic steel tower at its edge. The NAR was able to negotiate numerous variances from the District's Board of Zoning Appeals, including adding three stories to the original nine-story height, and permission to project four feet over the public lot line on both sides.
The nearby community at first opposed the project for fear that it would cause traffic and parking problems; in response, the Building Team constructed a model of the building and surrounding neighborhood, to demonstrate traffic flow, and added first-floor retail spaces and outdoor seating and plantings that the community wanted.
Well into design development, the NAR decided make the project the first newly constructed building in the District to win certification from the U.S. Green Building's LEED rating program. Local environmental consultant GreenShape joined the team, and numerous green features were implemented: energy modeling, daylighting sensors, locally produced materials, building recycling, and brownfield redevelopment of the gas-station site. Bike racks were installed, green tenant guidelines and pest-control practices were instituted. The NAR even obtained a variance to allow the first waterless urinals in a privately owned building in the District.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the project is that every major decision had to be approved by the NAR board of directors—all 800 of them. Talk about consensus-building!