To spearhead the project, the Tower Companies found like-minded design firms in Bing Thom Architects, based in Vancouver, Canada, and Sasaki Associates, a USGBC Silver-level member company based in Watertown, Massachusetts. The internationally renowned planning and architectural firms pride themselves on creating community-centered urban spaces, and they collaborated on a plan that was both environmentally progressive and seamlessly integrated with the surrounding urban landscape.
According to Ling Meng, Bing Thom’s design director, the greatest challenge in crafting the Blairs Master Plan was not the project’s city-sized scope or LEED Gold aspirations, but its two-decades-long timetable.
“Over time, the spaces can be improved and modified, but we wanted to make sure the essence—the integration of mixed-use facilities with the community, the accessibility, the public spaces—will always be there,” says Meng.
In looking at the existing site, Meng saw a 1960s-styled community with a large supermarket and massive parking lot in the middle, but little integration with the surrounding community. With public transportation less than a quarter mile away, it was, in his words, “the perfect site” to develop an integrated, mixed-use space.
The property’s 45-ft gradient inspired a vision of a walkable European hill town within Silver Spring, with every social amenity accessible by foot. The plan also envisioned a community that was anything but insular, with a layout that encourages locals to pass through the Blairs on their way to the Metro, engaging with the community’s retail, restaurant, and entertainment offerings. “It’s everything we talk about when we talk about transit-oriented principles,” says Meng.
Alan Ward agrees. Ward is principal at Sasaki and a renowned urban planner and landscape architect. His past projects include the historic redesign of the landscape at the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool. He and his team worked with Bing Thom during the urban planning and design phase of the Master Plan, and they met extensively with Silver Spring county officials to determine appropriate rezoning, building and outdoor space sizes, and common space elements that would enhance the communal life in downtown Silver Spring. Once those spaces were defined, Ward’s team then fit the buildings with the site’s unique topography and led the design of the site’s landscapes, from locating recreational spaces, water features, and gardens, to selecting and placing sustainable vegetation native to the nearby Piedmont Forest.
The result is an outdoor environment that includes more than 100 local species of vegetation. The plantings are strategically located to recapture rainwater runoff from buildings and the surrounding landscape, reducing annual demand for irrigation by 60 percent, or 84,000 gallons of water.
And while the green features and resource savings are impressive, Ward is particularly proud of his firm’s collaboration on the Master Plan’s transit-friendly elements. In the long run, those may arguably result in the greatest impact on the health of the surrounding environment and community residents.
“When you create a site that encourages pedestrian and transit use, and it’s a redevelopment of a site that creates more density in closer proximity to mass transit, that is the bigger story,” says Ward.
With the Master Plan in place, the Tower Companies tapped two more industry heavyweights to design and build the Pearl, the first of four residential buildings registered for LEED, which opened in February. Baltimore-based Design Collective, Inc., is a national leader in mixed-use urban planning and design, and Clark Construction is a prolific contractor with more than 68 million square feet of LEED-certified projects in its portfolio. Both companies are USGBC Silver-level members.
Spearheading the Pearl’s design meant picking up where the Master Plan’s vision left off, a challenge that felt familiar to Michael Goodwin, senior principal at Design Collective.
“On a number of projects, we’ve found ourselves inheriting a masterplan that we did not author,” says Goodwin. “But our approach is more holistic than some of the firms that are just mixed-use or planning firms. We analyze the masterplan to understand its goals, look at what it’s trying to achieve, and improve upon it.”
From the start, Goodwin says, his firm understood the Blairs Master Plan’s vision of residential buildings that were not just LEED-certified, but fully integrated into the existing urban landscape. With an interdisciplinary team that included urban designers, architects, and environmental graphic designers, Design Collective developed the Pearl as a progressive, multi-tiered building with portions of the building 5 stories, 8 stories, and 14 stories high. Design Collective’s modification to the approved zoning improved on the Blairs Master Plan’s goal of maximizing residents’ access to, and views of, the outdoors while minimizing the solar impact on adjacent homes and businesses.
Goodwin’s firm also collaborated with the structural engineer to determine that fully submerging the parking garage was economically feasible since the first layer of existing soil would need to be removed anyway to support high-rise construction. The approved zoning had 4-stories of above-grade parking wrapped by residential units. Design Collective’s new design brought the outdoor/social amenities that would have been on the roof of the garage down to the ground level, further diminishing the impact of cars and improving the Tower’s vision for access to green spaces and promotion of a healthy lifestyle.
Before construction could begin, the Tower Companies had to tear down the 60-year-old Blair Towers. In keeping with Sonny Abramson’s community-centered approach to development, residents were offered units in the adjoining Blair Apartments building. The developer also paid for moving expenses, which might explain why more than 40 percent of them have chosen to stay throughout the construction process.
And when it came time to build Design Collective’s vision of the Pearl, the nationally ranked Clark Construction was more than ready. The Bethesda-based contractor has more than a century of experience building everything from museums to mixed-use residential communities. And with more than $3.2 billion in annual green projects, the company is well versed in the products, designs, and site practices required to achieve LEED certification.