I recently worked on the new U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters at St. Elizabeths in Washington, DC.  WDG was the Architect of Record as part of a Design-Build contract with Clark Construction.  The bridging documents were created by Perkins+Will.  As I reflect on the experience, there are many reasons for the project’s success, and many opportunities for lessons learned.

A project typically is divided into three areas: Core, Skin, and Interiors. I was the Project Architect responsible for the coordination of the skin.  To give a sense of scope, if the entire skin was laid out end to end, it would be six miles long.  The skin follows the contour of the site, stepping downward with the declining gradation as it looks towards downtown DC.

Looking Downhill


Looking Uphill

A major element of the skin is the “ribbon” curtain wall windows with vertical and horizontal fins.  The curtain wall has two major configurations.  One is a recessed area that is typically three stories tall with spandrel panels at the slab.

"Ribbon" Window and Curtain Wall Slots

The other is a curtain wall that is three to five stories tall and contains vertical fins that are arranged in a random pattern along the façade.  In some places, the curtain wall serves as the guardrails at the courtyard and the parapet at the roofs.

Curtain Wall and Vertical Fins

We also have curtain wall components that make up the glass elevators and the glass bridge. 

Glass Elevators

Lastly, there is the Main Lobby where we have a Cable Wall and the skylight. 

With a project this large, two of the most important elements that contributed to its success were teamwork and organization.  For the skin alone, WDG had a staff of five people, as well as seven consultant teams.  Contrast this to a standard project that typically has for the entire project (inside and out) five staff people and seven consultants.  The teams all worked together to ensure that requirements, such as blast, waterproofing, structural, to name a few, were met while keeping the overall aesthetic given to us by the Design Architect.  All of these pieces were moving at a fast pace, which made communication and good team relationships essential. 

Another mechanism that helped was using task lists and assigning responsibility for “portions” of the building to specific people.  We found that establishing an “assembly line” worked really well.  For example, the work flow consisted of two team members building the skin in the Revit model.  One person was responsible for the “ribbon” windows and the other was responsible for the curtain wall.  Two team members would then follow behind the builders and focus on detailing the skin in wall section, section details and plan details.  Lastly, one team member was responsible for the Lobby and Skylight elements, which ended up being a separate mini project.  This provided order in a sometimes chaotic environment.

Another area of importance was prioritizing.  With the scale and the time constrictions, it was not going to be possible to document everything.  We had to focus on ensuring that the design intent was well defined. Enough information had to be provided so that construction could continue during documentation, and that the budget could be adequately tracked.  This meant that abnormal and special conditions were not documented during the drawing phase, but were handled in the shop drawings phase.  This was possible because the project was Design-Build, so all of the players were involved from day one, attending the project meetings and understanding the parameters and requirements that had to be met.

Besides the scale of the project, another major challenge was the Revit Model.  I won’t even go into the hardware issues since that could be a blog entry in itself.  WDG, as the Architect of Record, started our documentation using the model we inherited from design architect.  At the time, this seemed like a great idea, because the model was already built.  In hindsight, it would have been more time efficient if we had rebuilt the model from scratch.  The model we inherited was a design model. It was not built to accommodate the structural and blast requirements.  It was a challenge to edit elements, since we didn’t know how they were built.  We frequently would rebuild the element.  Ultimately, the team went section by section and rebuilt the model.  By the time we realized that we needed to rebuild the model, we were approximately four weeks from a submission deadline…can you say STRESS!!

Revit Model

While this was a challenging project, there were so many positive things that I learned along the way.  The lessons learned and the relationships developed both externally and internally made all the challenges SO worth it.  I feel like the point is to always grow: to always be learning, to always feel challenged, and to always be exposed to new things.