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In 1811, Congress confirmed through legislation a promise made by our founding fathers to care of our infirm and retired military servicemen and women. In return for risking their lives in the service of their country, the country would care for them as they aged. Two facilities were created: a home for destitute Navy officers, sailors and Marines in Philadelphia (1831) and the US Military Asylum in Washington, DC (1851). In a continuation of this ongoing legacy of care, DiMella Shaffer was selected in 2009 through the highly competitive GSA Design Excellence program to design for the Washington campus a new commons building with long term care and memory support services for the residents.

Historic view of The Soldier’s Home campus with the Sherman building on the far right and the Lincoln cottage to the left.

BACKGROUNDAfter 145 years in Philadelphia, The Naval Home was moved to Gulfport, Mississippi in 1976 to the campus of a former naval academy. After it was determined that the original facility could not be cost effectively renovated for continued use, it was sold as surplus. In 1991 the Naval Home combined with Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Washington to become the newly created Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH). Over the last 20 or so years, the organization has evolved into a modern retirement community for our servicemen and women. After Hurricane Katrina catastrophically damaged the Gulfport facility in 2005, the existing residents were relocated to the Washington, DC campus, temporarily utilizing some of the excess capacity that existed there. The rebuilding of the Gulfport facility would ultimately impact our project’s chosen delivery model, which I will explain in more detail below.

The Sherman Building with the Lincoln Cottage in the foreground (2009).

After World War II, the campus in Washington expanded significantly to meet the needs of retiring and infirm veterans by constructing the massive Scott and Sheridan buildings in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They were constructed in the dormitory style of double loaded corridors and double rooms. By the 1980s a declining population of WWII veterans and competition from private retirement homes left the AFRH with excess capacity in buildings that were difficult to renovate based largely due to their construction type. This excess capacity in the Scott Building proved valuable in housing those displaced by Katrina’s destruction, but even the AFRH projections for future population showed excess capacity well into the future. As senior care evolved over the years, the home had opened a long term care facility on the south campus which they now wished to bring to north campus in order to consolidate functions and take advantage of the real estate value of allowing private development on the south campus. This would also enable them to update the facilities to be more in line with contemporary senior living preferences and amenities.

An historic site with a health care focus has many constituents and all of them needed to be involved in the planning for future accommodations. The Armed Forces Retirement Home was the owner and user group, and they hired the General Services Administration as the project manager. The core part of the site contains a National Historic Site, a National Historic Landmark, and the Lincoln Cottage, which is a National Monument. The Lincoln Cottage is famous for having been President Lincoln’s escape from the humidity and political pressure of downtown Washington and it is believed that he wrote the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation while in residence.  The site is overseen by the National Capital Planning Commission, Commission of Fine Arts and the DC State Historic Preservation Office, all having a desire to respect the historic resources and pastoral landscape. Restoring the views to downtown that were lost when the Scott Building was constructed would become an integral part of the discussion in the siting of the new building. The 272 acre Washington DC campus of the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH), a former dairy farm, is located 3.5 miles due north of the U.S. Capitol Building on the highest elevation in the District of Columbia.  To the southwest, a valley provides views to the Washington Monument and downtown Washington.

Campus plan prior to the demolition of the Scott Building.

ARCHITECTURAL CONTEXTThe core of the campus is a quadrangle, landscaped both formally and informally, and defined by the major building facades of the Sherman, Sheridan, and Scott Buildings and by the smaller-scaled Lincoln Cottage, Admissions Building, Quarters 1 and Quarters 2 on the west. The core campus has three building scales: 1) two-story cottages along MacArthur Drive and Eisenhower Road, including the Rose Chapel,  2) three and one-half story nineteenth century administration buildings like Sherman and the Grant Building, and 3) seven-story twentieth century dormitories like the Sheridan and Scott Buildings. The nineteenth century structures have masonry bearing wall construction and utilize stone, brick and stucco-covered brick as predominant materials. Slate, standing seam copper roofing and cast iron railings are other materials that are prevalent in these structures. The twentieth century structures utilize limestone-clad masonry walls. These limestone panels, larger in scale and utilizing flush details, reflect the style difference in construction from the buildings of the earlier eras. The informal orientation of the cottages reflects the time when they were built, sited along the natural contours of the ridges when the campus was more pastoral. The three-story administration buildings are formally aligned along a north-south axis which runs south to the hospital complex and on to the U.S. Capitol. The twentieth century Sheridan and Scott Buildings were conceived as the first phases of an aggressive growth strategy that was not particularly sensitive to the nineteenth century structures.

The Scott Building being demolished to make way for the new Commons.

FINAL CONCEPTThe Design Excellence program requires the architect to develop three options for review with the stakeholders and architectural peer reviewers. All of the background information outlined above influenced the final solution, from the building location to the scale of the materials. The extensive programming efforts determined that replacement of the 1949 Scott Building made the most sense moving forward, allowing the AFRH to right size the campus bed count and deliver the appropriate amenities for the current generation of military retirees. This opened up a site on the main quadrangle with expansive views overlooking the campus landscape and the Washington, DC skyline beyond. The consensus coalesced around a building that would occupy only a portion of the site of the former Scott Building and therefore open up the Lincoln Cottage view shed.

Concept sketch and final site plan.

The selected scheme uses the building to form a strong formal edge to the south side of the quad, recognizing the symmetry and the existing north/south-east/west geometry of the dominant buildings on the campus. A simple but distinct three-story building form on the quad side establishes a scale relationship with the other larger historic structures. The building’s main entrance faces the quadrangle and recognizes the historic emphasis given that space for entrances of all major buildings on the campus.

Formal north façade with main entrance on the quad.

While the north façade is formal, the building program and pastoral setting to the south enable the massing and south facing façade to become more informal. The most prominent feature is a two-story porch with roof top garden that encircles major commons spaces within the building and provides for a generous view to the south and southwest both from inside and out. The curved porch and more loosely organized elements to the south respond to the informality of the nineteenth century cottages along the ridge to the west of the site.

Rendering of informal south façade facing the meadow and views of downtown.

The materials and scale of the historic context have been considered in the selections for the new building. The building is clad primarily in smooth modular variegated limestone, reflecting the prominent use of stone on the adjacent campus buildings. Alternating thin bands of the same stone at a regular rhythm forms a subtle modular pattern that becomes more apparent as one gets closer to the building. The scale of the pattern approaches the scale of the larger stone blocks on the historic buildings. Below the window sill of the quadrangle level, the exterior material changes to a split-faced limestone which is not only a different texture, but a different color. This material is then carried down to grade, forming the expression of a base which is a consistent architectural element on the historic buildings. Projecting limestone sills and a cornice are introduced into the stone façade to recall historic detail in a contemporary expression.

Textural sunscreens and Limestone detailing at one of the courtyards.

As the central amenity building of the entire campus, the “new” Scott Building serves as a place to convene for dining, socializing, physical fitness, educational pursuits, musical interests, spiritual needs, and business transactions. The building is organized with its largest activity spaces on a broad ground level and they include the media room, mail center, fitness center, swimming pool, physical therapy center, multi-purpose room, lounge, servery and dining room. Two exterior courtyards were incorporated into this floor to infuse natural light into these spaces. Activities that tend to be quieter are located on the first floor and include a game room, a computer lab, music listening room, artist colony, library, and meditation space. A very unique and significant space, the Hall of Honor, is positioned on the main corridor leading from the quadrangle to a balcony commanding a view of Washington, DC. The Hall of Honor is a space where the history of the Armed Forces is on display and where the community celebrates both life and death together.

The Hall of Honor.

Left: Pool   Right: Library

To keep the 150,000 square foot building as compact as possible the organizational strategy placed the Health Care Center above the Commons. Key to the design is the “small house” concept in which residential units are clustered in groups of 12 around common living and dining rooms. There are three of these residential houses for long term care residents on the third floor and two similar residences for memory support residents on the fourth floor. All five houses are organized to allow staff to flow freely within the building and to allow residents ample access to secured outdoor terraces facing south, formed by the roofs of the larger footprints on the lower floors.

Ground Level.

Quad level.

Second Floor Long term care.

The interior design concept follows a residential model rather than an institutional one with gypsum board ceilings, domestic scale furnishings and fabrics with the focus on the word “home.”NEW ASSISTED LIVING FACILITIESDiMella Shaffer led the AFRH through a design process that required re-thinking what the community could be, as opposed to what it had always been. This process led not only to the creation of the “new” Scott Building, but also to the creation of a true assisted living facility within a wing of the Sheridan Building, meeting the needs of those requiring something in between independent living and long term care. The southwest corner of the second and third floors of the Sheridan Building, which is closest to the Scott Building, was renovated to provide two satellite dining areas, living rooms, conference rooms and game rooms, each for twenty-nine bedrooms. A new elevator tower was added as well as a second underground corridor to efficiently circulate residents, food and service between the Sheridan and “new” Scott Buildings.DELIVERY METHODAs I mentioned above, the replacement of the Gulfport facility would influence the delivery method for our project. In order to move as quickly as possible to replace Gulfport, Design/Build was chosen by AFRH and the GSA as the preferred delivery system. Completed in 2010, it allowed the former Gulfport residents to return home, thereby freeing the Scott Building for demolition to make way for the new project. While delivered on time and budget, the AFRH did not feel that they had enough control over the design and quality of the final product as they had hoped. At the request of the AFRH, the GSA established the Bridging Method as the delivery process, where DiMella Shaffer, as Bridging Architect, provided the approved building design in Bridging Documents, which were then used as bid documents to select a design-build partnership for construction. DiMella Shaffer was responsible for confirming the AFRH program and creating a design that gained the approval of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, the General Services Administration and the National Capital Planning Commission, which by definition also included the design approval of the Commission of Fine Arts, and the completion of an Environmental Assessment (EA) and Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI).  Design approval of the Commission of Fine Arts required the review of all actual exterior stone materials, stone coursing, metals, metal paint color, exterior lighting, landscape materials, and even planting species. This level of detail was equivalent to the Design Development/Early Construction Document Phase of traditional design delivery methods. The Bridging Documents ranged from schematic concepts to fully developed designs for various components of the facility in order to control the design and quality.  For the New Commons and Health Care Building, the architectural and landscape design documents were fully developed designs inclusive of exterior and interior finishes, significant details, color palettes and furniture layouts. Cooper/Carry, the Architect of Record on the design/build team professionally executed DiMella Shaffer’s design. Hansel Phelps was the contractor on the design/build team.

The project has won numerous awards including an award for the Best Institutional Facility from the Maryland /DC chapter of NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association, an Honorable Mention from the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Design-Build Institute in the health care category, and lastly an Award for Construction Excellence from the Associated Builders and Contractors in 2013.

The New Commons and Health Care Center for the Armed Forces Retirement Home Washington was a key step in the home’s long range plan to modernize and fulfill their mission to provide affordable state-of-the-art care to our nation’s retired service men and women. Now known as the “new” Scott Building, the New Commons and Health Center was an opportunity for us to give back to these amazing men and women who continually command our deepest respect and gratitude, and to contribute in a small way in helping our nation fulfill its promise.