Families, kids and couples are strolling along a boardwalk on a sunny autumn Saturday afternoon in Washington, D.C., while a military helicopter zips overhead. The wooden walkway arcs out over the Anacostia River several feet above the water, set back from a low concrete riverbank. The wide river and distant fall foliage are visible on one side of the boardwalk. On the closer shore, nearly at the water’s edge, a shiny new building of sparkling green glass dominates the view. The structure is the new headquarters for DC Water, the utility that serves the nation’s capital and surrounding counties in Virginia and Maryland. The people on the boardwalk are likely unaware that two thirds of the metro area’s raw sewage is being pumped through this very spot.
The Anacostia has long been known as the forgotten river. Neglected and misused, the polluted waterway has been plagued with trash, silt and sewage for centuries. In recent decades, the barren urban landscape along its banks was a wasteland of abandoned lots, strip joints and dance clubs. As the city’s population rapidly grew in the first decades of the new millennium, this largely empty part of Washington offered opportunities not available elsewhere. Just a block to the south, Nationals Park was the first big construction project in the area. The World Series-winning baseball team moved into their new home by the river in 2008 and the a rush of development soon followed.
In the midst of this newly minted neighborhood and situated at the river’s edge, DC Water’s striking new headquarters building opened in 2018 on nearly three acres of land already occupied by two sewage pumping stations. Michael Stevens is president of Capitol Riverfront, which promotes business and community in Washington’s fastest-growing neighborhood. “From an economic development standpoint, we were very happy that DC Water chose to locate their headquarters here,” he says. “It’s a brilliant design. And it's reflective of the investment they’re making in the river.”
Visitors to the building's lobby can see the pumping station at work and learn about the work of DC Water.
The Main Pumping Station, the older and larger of the two, is a registered National Historic Landmark and began operation in 1908. Its brick Beaux Arts design was inspired by the City Beautiful movement that flourished at the turn of the last century. The central idea behind the movement was that civic architecture ought to be monumental and inspiring, not for its own sake, but to promote moral and civic virtue among the citizens of major American cities. That meant that even a sewage pumping station could play an important role in the betterment of improving the lives of the urban population. The O Street Station, the smaller of the two and also made of brick, was built in the 1960s. It is as plain as its neighbor is striking.
As much as 5 million gallons of Washington’s wastewater passes through these two buildings every day from nearly 2,000 miles of sanitary and storm sewers. From here, it is directed four miles downriver to DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest facility of its kind in the world. Close to 300 million gallons of wastewater a day are treated at Blue Plains with a capacity of 1 billion gallons a day at peak flow. Wastewater arrives not only from the District but from neighboring counties in Maryland and Virginia as well.
Relocating office staff to the new administrative headquarters freed up space for expansion at the treatment facility while bringing a scattered workforce together in a more accessible location, making it more convenient for both employees and customers. DC Water’s own estimates predict the move will save close to $40 million over the next 30 years.
The main pumping station provides an architectural counterpoint to the new headquarters building.
Criticized for valuing aesthetics over social reform, the City Beautiful movement has been nearly forgotten. But many of its underlying principals endure. With varying degrees of success, civic architecture is often still designed to be monumental and inspiring. The DC Water headquarters proves that state-of-the-art infrastructure can be beautiful, and that a utility’s structures need not be strictly utilitarian. The new building may or may not be monumental, but it is certainly inspiring. Designed and built to a high standard of sustainability and aesthetics, the structure embraces and embodies its mission of clean water and environmental stewardship.
The $55 million, 167,180-square-foot, LEED Platinum headquarters incorporates several features designed to maximize efficiency. Its curving glass curtain wall not only provides expansive views of the river but also allows sunlight to penetrate deep within the building, reducing lighting costs. Tinted, automatic window shades provide relief from the sun’s glare as needed. Mechanical rooms, stairs and elevators are kept to the north side where there is less sunlight. Each of the building’s floors extends two feet out from the floor below, providing passive shade, which reduces the need for air conditioning while still allowing low-angle winter sun to penetrate. Areas of the curving structure that are susceptible to too much sun are covered with additional exterior panels that extend three feet from the façade. The panels work like sunglasses, limiting light and heat while acting to reduce energy costs. The six-story structure is topped with a deck and vegetated green roof. Rainwater is collected in a 1,700-gallon cistern, filtered and used to flush toilets.
The nearly three-acre site chosen for the new building presented unique challenges to design and construction teams. Since the two pumping stations could not be moved or even shut down during construction, the new building was built over, around and structurally independent of the smaller station. To accomplish this, a 200-foot-long, five-story truss supports half the new building, spanning the pumps.
The native plantings on DC Water's green roof reduce stormwater runoff.
The O Street pumping station, incorporated into the new structure, is now also tasked with heating and cooling the building. Heat energy from wastewater is transferred to an independent clean water loop. This clean water is in turn pumped to a heat-recovery chiller which can produce hot or cold water. Fan-powered units in the ceiling provide heating or cooling to the office space as needed. Combined with the building’s energy-efficient outer skin, the structure uses half the energy of a typical office building.
Located as it is in a vibrant new neighborhood, the DC Water headquarters building had to strike a balance between security concerns and aesthetics. The elevated boardwalk over the river allows pedestrians to traverse the waterfront without being too close to the building. Security stations and perimeter fencing ensure that only employees and those with business are allowed inside.
But once inside, visitors are treated to a bright, spacious lobby with views of the river. Informational displays are printed directly on the long white interior walls to educate and inform about the treatment of water as well as the whys and wherefores of the building itself. Large windows, also superimposed with informative text, allow a look inside the mid-century pumping station. Further along, a stainless-steel tank is suspended from the ceiling. This is where the collected rainwater is stored until needed. The utility’s motto “Water is Life” is everywhere.
Next door, the Beaux Arts Main Street pumping station continues to simultaneously serve and inspire the public. The same is expected of its gleaming new neighbor. “We’re a part of the redevelopment of this part of town,” says Matt Ries, the sustainability director at DC Water. “Our vantage point over the Anancostia River and surrounding neighborhoods reminds us every day that our impact goes beyond the pipes and pumps of our traditional infrastructure.”