Plans are afoot to transform the former Intelsat headquarters, the futuristic aluminum and glass building at 4000 Connecticut Ave. NW, into the first in a chain of global, private schools, a move that demonstrates the lasting value of good, sustainable design.
Former Intelsat headquarter. Source: wikimedia commons.
The complex was designed by Australian modern architect John Andrews in 1980 and constructed in two phases between 1982 and 1988 as the headquarters for the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat). The design merged modern principals, high-tech architecture, and energy efficiency into a building dubbed the "Space Age crystal palace," composed of interlocking cylinders and octagons. Andrews designed the Intelsat headquarters to be "smart." According Benjamin Forgey, writing for the Washington Post in 1985, the building,
"Was designed, through and through, with passive energy saving in mind, and from floor to ceiling the whole operation will be monitored and controlled by computers. (This is what makes it, in the parlance, a "smart" building.)...If all works out as planned, more than 57 percent of the energy consumed to light, heat and cool the structure will come from natural sources."
Although the Intelsat building is only 30 years old, the D.C. Preservation League nominated the former headquarters to be listed as a landmark on the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites. The nomination explains:
"Its distinctly Modernist architectural vocabulary, emphasizing primarily glass and metallic silver finishes, gives it a “Space Age” appearance befitting its original function as the headquarters for the world’s largest satellite communications organization. The modular, segmented design also serves to deemphasize the building’s overall bulk and to stress its conformity to the natural contours of the site."
The nomination hearing has been indefinitely delayed, but Intelsat's sustainable design may actually help preserve its exterior architecture. In fact, the building envelope is part of what attracted education investor Chris Whittle. According to the Washington Post, "Whittle is fixated on details: the double-thick glass walls to let light into classrooms but muffle noise...'We’re not for a ‘fancy’ school,” [Whittle said]. 'We’re for a well-designed school.'" To that end Whittle has engaged Renzo Piano to redesign the interior, while leaving the exterior as is.
Section showing the ideal air flow. Image from the October 1985 Architecture Record.