Brick and metal transform a tired office block into a residential building worthy of its site.
Located on a slice of land adjacent to the Potomac River in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, the 1984 Sheet Metal Workers Union National Pension Fund building failed to live up to the site’s potential. “I’ve used this in a couple of lectures,” said Shalom Baranes Associates principal Patrick Burkhart. “I show ‘before’ photos and ask the audience, ‘What is this building?’ The answers include: ‘It looks like an urban jail.'” When the property came on the market, Maryland-based developer EYA seized the opportunity to transform the waterfront eyesore into a contemporary condominium complex. Clad in brick and metal paneling, with high performance glazing emphasizing views along the Potomac, the Oronoco balances a sleek urban aesthetic with sensitivity to Old Town’s historic fabric.
Because rowhouses dominate Old Town’s residential real estate market, “we thought there was a pent-up demand for one-level living for empty nesters,” said EYA senior vice president Brian AJ Jackson. The developers took a “less is more” approach to the conversion, opting for 60 large units over the 110 allowed by the zoning code. They kept the old office building’s stepped profile, creating penthouses on multiple levels, but carved out the center of the structure to make way for a courtyard. “The courtyard really gives the project a heart and soul,” said Burkhart. “It creates something that’s not inward looking, but outward.”
The Sheet Metal Workers Union building was “originally designed with fairly innovative sustainable ideas, for an office building,” said Burkhart—including the stepped terraces, on top of which were solar collectors. “But a lot of it didn’t work well.” One major deficit was the structure’s reduced window openings. During renovation, Shalom Baranes Associates focused on maximizing daylighting and views without sacrificing thermal or acoustic performance, selecting a variety of high performance products from Peerless for the building’s glazed areas. Given the Oronoco’s location along the flight path to and from Reagan National Airport, “the acoustic glazing is amazing,” observed Choptank Communications‘ Brent Burkhardt. “You hear very little from inside the building, yet you have a neat view of the planes.”
The building’s brick cavity wall offers additional benefits in terms of energy efficiency. “It’s our theme to blend in,” said Burkhart. “We decided to work with the brick aesthetic” that prevails among Old Town’s older residences. The architects broke the building into townhouse-scale bays, wrapping every other bay in metal panels from Alcoa/Reynobond. “It alternates between brick and metal as you go up the steps: brick, then metal and glass, then another brick element. That helps pull you up the height of the building,” explained Burkhart.
The LEED Silver Oronoco achieves the performance aspirations of its predecessor without neglecting the building’s visual appeal—and without taking unnecessary risks. Obtaining LEED certification “is always a little more challenging for residential designs,” said Burkhart. “Many of the points are developed simply through a careful selection of materials, instead of choosing more exotic measures.”