The traditional approach to commercial office development in an urban center conjures the premonition of farmer Ray Kinsella, played by actor Kevin Costner, in the 1989 film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, he will come.” In the film, Kinsella's conviction — that plowing his Iowa cornfield to create a baseball field will draw the ghosts of legendary players and save the farm—proves prescient.
Of course, life rarely unfolds like a movie, especially one with ghosts. In Washington, D.C., like many highly competitive real estate markets, simply “building it” is no longer enough to attract multiyear tenants or the top-performing knowledge workers who populate their ranks, says Brad Mason, vice president of commercial development at global development and construction firm Skanska.
Even before the pandemic, wooing top law firms or lobbying groups to the District's central business corridor required more than the promise of a good location and tall windows. Prospective tenants wanted concierge-level services, integrated technology, enhanced privacy and security, and an emphasis on well-being and sustainability.
Skanska was already aware of the heightened expectations of the newly empowered professional class back in 2019, when it purchased an available parcel from JBG Smith just blocks from the White House and Dupont Circle. On the formerly vacant site at 1700 M St. NW, where a previous owner had demolished two office buildings, Skanska along with project designers Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), Siemens, and Arup envisioned a new kind of building.
“We recognized that the glass box, as designed, was not going to work for this site,” Mason says. “We [needed] to give up a little bit of density, but we needed to do it in a very smart way.”
The end result is 17xM, an 11-story smart office tower, scheduled for completion in early 2024. Targeting LEED Gold and Fitwel certifications, the building has already achieved WiredScore Platinum certification by its eponymous New York–based certifying agency. Notably, it is also the first office building in North America to achieve certification by SmartScore, a fee-based building standard developed by WiredScore (buildings can be certified prior to completion up to 18 months after occupancy, whereupon their design and operation are reassessed).
When complete, the 334,000-square-foot building will be visually provocative, featuring the largest exterior green wall in D.C. and an articulated facade with 8-foot-tall insulating glass windows and a champagne-bronze curtain wall that transitions to recessed cedar wood frames inset with oak panels at the 17th Street entrance. Arguably, the most unconventional aspects of the project are inside. A robust network of smart technologies—including occupancy-based HVAC and lighting controls, environmental sensors, fault detection and diagnostic software, and an automated building management system (BMS) by Siemens called Desigo CC—are intended to keep tenants happy and comfortable while alerting operators to energy usage and predictive maintenance needs.
Guided by SmartScore, 17xM's design approach emphasized user functionality and technological infrastructure, the core elements of the SmartScore scorecard, says Will Brouwer, a product manager at WiredScore. The point-based standard allows owners to pursue certification at four progressively stringent levels (Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum). 17xM achieved a Gold rating, a distinction Brouwer attributes to a strong technology team that incorporated smart technology into the project early on and kept an eye on how it would serve tenants.
“The concept is you're designing for who your customers are,” Mason says. “What is the work experience? What is the entry sequence? How do people arrive at the building?”
An inside-out design begins with the tenant experience
Spatially, the driving impulse behind 17xM's so-called “inside-out” design was a desire for the building to democratize the work environment, says Kahlil Francis, a development associate at Skanska. During the project’s three-month project design competition, Skanska called on multiple architecture firms to develop conceptual building layouts. KPF’s winning concept, a K-shaped design with flexible floor plates from 10,000 to 80,000 square feet, aims to increase the number of perimeter offices per floor and ensure that natural light reaches inside the core.
“We're going away from the historic norm where you might have five or six sizes of offices, and it was always about who was the big rainmaker, who was going to get the corner office, the double-sized office,” Mason says.
Not only are the floor plans more egalitarian than what might be found in a typical office building, Francis says, but the design process was also more collaborative. Early on, the design team invited the executive team and summer interns of international law firm and future anchor tenant Gibson Dunn into visioning sessions. In one role-playing exercise, stakeholders assumed the identities of potential tenants—attorneys, urban planners, hospitality workers, lobbyists—with the goal of customizing the design to suit their perceived needs.
Chris Taylor, a locally based associate at Arup, says these workshops and planning sessions—key to developing a program to support SmartScore certification—led to insights about the evolving relationship between space and technology. For example, the ongoing digitization of case files at Gibson Dunn eliminated the need for a massive law library. That space could then be utilized for conference rooms, amenity areas, or cut-out staircases to create double-height ceilings and terraced overlooks bridging the third and fourth floors, and the ninth and 10th floors.
Participants also discussed the appeal of a space that is adaptable to the changing needs of tenants, which can be driven by both economic conditions and generational shifts in workforce, Mason continues. The top firms want the top talent out of the top law schools, he says, and part of how they attract them is with their physical space.
The building with a brain
At the heart of 17xM is Siemens' Desigo CC, an integrated BMS that pulls together data from HVAC and lighting systems, IoT sensors, dynamic 3D building maps, energy meters, and life safety alarm and security systems. Christopher Smith, an account executive in Siemens' D.C. office, says building engineers typically use Desigo CC in a limited capacity, as a graphical user interface to monitor and control HVAC systems. In this project, however, the system's interoperability with IoT devices will allow it to serve a more prominent role as the digital nerve center for 17xM’s entire building.
Desigo CC communicates wirelessly via the open BACnet protocol with an IoT-enabled network of more than 100 Enlighted sensors, says Michael White, director of national business development and a senior engineering technologist at Siemens, which owns Enlighted. The sensors, which are hardwired for power to dimmable LED fixtures, can detect room usage and occupancy flow patterns, energy consumption, ambient light, and environmental conditions. Desigo CC then uses collected data to adjust light, airflow, and temperature levels dynamically based on algorithms established by facilities managers.
While lobbies and hallways are typically preset to binary on/off conditions, designated zones and rooms—such as a shared conference room in the 12th floor penthouse—can be controlled on a more granular level. They can, for example, precondition app-reserved spaces to the desired environmental conditions calibrated to the expected number of occupants. If a user says, “I want to use the conference room at noon, and I'm going to have 50 people in there,” Smith explains, “the building automation system knows, ‘OK, I need to actually start throwing some cold air into this space around 11:30 a.m.’”
The Enlighted sensors at 17xM will, in effect, work double duty. Their core function is controlling the lights, “but they're also providing [occupancy] data to us and ultimately, the owner of the building,” Smith explains. “At the end of the day, we want to tell [Skanska] if their investment in amenity areas was a good investment or not. If no one's using [the amenity spaces] or more people than they anticipated are using them, it can drive a decision on how to modify this building or future buildings.”
Another benefit of the Desigo CC system, White says, is that the data it stores can be shared with a fault detection and diagnostic system—part of the Siemens’ Building X platform—to alert owners of early-stage problems in building systems before they become costly or dangerous. Similar software used in other buildings, WiredScore’s Brouwer says, has led to a 20% to 40% reduction in energy and maintenance costs through extended equipment lifespan and performance.
With 12,000 square feet of publicly accessible, first-floor retail space, 17xM also has to ensure the privacy and security of its upper-floor tenants, Smith says. A Bluetooth-enabled mobile app by the Italian software company Synapses called BlueGPS will link to a broader access control system and help manage circulation and use of shared spaces. Credentialed users with BlueGPS installed on their smartphones will be able to book rooms, order food, summon destination dispatch elevators, and gain touchless access to turnstile-secured areas managed by the Siemens SiPass system.
Privileged clients can even enter the building through a porte-cochere entrance in the rear of the building. “Let's say the law firm has that VIP client that's flying in from New York,” Mason says. “They can assure [the client will be] getting ushered into a black car at Reagan National [Airport]. We can geolocate this location and send them to the back of the building. So it's very discreet, it's very bespoke.”
Ultimately, the team wants to make the occupant entry sequence as touchless and convenient as possible, Mason says. “So we're investigating ways in which we can reduce the number of fobs and cards that you have to carry around.”
Early hallmark of success
Achieving SmartScore certification is rigorous. Skanska's evidence filings, including architectural drawings, solution-provider screenshots, and photographs for each scorecard criteria, totaled more than 300 pages. But the submission process is getting easier, according to Brouwer, thanks to WiredScore’s growing accredited professional network. And the SmartScore standard appears to be gaining traction among developers trying to lure companies—and their employees—back to ailing downtown districts with the promise of exceptional tenant offerings. “We're definitely receiving increased interest in [SmartScore] up and down the Northeast coast,” Taylor says.
Rare for a speculative office project, 17xM was 50% leased before it broke ground in November 2021. Gibson Dunn signed on to a 16-year commitment for more than half of the office space prior to construction. In April 2023, the global wealth management firm UBS signed a 12-year lease for 23,466 square feet.
The building will help tenants solve two significant challenges, Siemens’ White envisions: “ESG and getting people into the building and attracting talent. … Office buildings are being held to a much higher standard than they were before COVID. And so this building is going to help … attract and retain workers—high-paid workers.”
One reason Skanska was able to secure commitments from its anchor tenants, Mason says, is that 17xM was largely built to suit their needs in the aforementioned co-creative design approach that was, until recently, rare for commercial office projects.
“In a traditional build, you have your MEP, your architecture firm, these different teams, and there'll be a lot of tension,” Brouwer says. “Everyone has a different kind of vision. Where certifications—not just SmartScore—generally help is aligning people on a common vision to deliver that best in class asset.”
For all the purported benefits of smart buildings, the fact that 17xM is the first SmartScore–certified office building in North America says something about the challenges implicit in designing and developing buildings to such benchmarks. The standard is young, with its first scorecard launched in April 2021 and version 2 now applicable to all building submissions; its advocates have a long way to go to convince building owners and tenants of its value.
“It really is, at the moment, still about enabling leasing teams to offer supply-side differentiators,” Brouwer says. These include improved comfort and convenient building access, as opposed to resiliency and performance, “which are more tangible to tenants in LEED and the WELL Building Standard.”
Yet, if 17xM continues to attract tenants successfully and lives up to its promises for operational efficiency, it could become a model for developers and building engineers in the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond. “We’ve talked about this for 2.5 years,” Smith says, “and these next four months are crucial as to whether we'll be able to recreate this strategy in this region and around the country.”