Division One Architects is on a mission to bring modernism to the people in Washington, D.C., a city that is, architecturally speaking, fairly conservative. Modern projects are rare in D.C., and therefore difficult for most people to see, says one of the firm’s two principals, Ali Honarkar. “Our vision is that you can walk up to modern. That’s what we’ve been doing in urban row houses and infills.”

Best of the Year: Modern Engagement

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This award-winning project brings residential modern design to otherwise conservative Washington, D.C., throwing in some interesting design elements along the way.

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The 2008 Best of the Year project fulfills Honarkar and business partner Mustafa Nouri’s desire by transforming a unit in a 100-year-old city building that had been poorly rehabbed in the early 1990s. But it wasn’t easy for Honarkar, Nouri, and project architect Chris Brown to convince site neighbors as well as various historic preservation and advisory commissions that the project would be a success. Despite letters denouncing the planned structure as looking “like a VCR” and “going to a formal dinner party in spandex,” Division One Architects pressed on for 18 months to get proposals through.

The project originated as a $200,000 interior renovation, but “after talking with the client,” Honarkar says, “we realized there were larger issues. None of us was happy with the layout.” Luckily, the owner was able to double the budget, and the project grew in scope.

Three levels and a mezzanine occupy the 40-by-17-by-40-foot space that Honarkar refers to as a “little skyscraper.” Working with remodeler Ahmad Amarloui, of ACT Inc., in Alexandria, Va., the exterior was clad with Rheinzink panels (which will look like slate as they age). The judges commented on the risk of “putting something like this on a brick building”; they appreciated the challenge and liked “the sense of showmanship and drama.”

ACT crews gutted the interior and added myriad windows and skylights. The judges liked the use of natural light and how the light “cascades from space to space.”

The highlight of the renovation is the unique use of space for a bathroom. “This project has a wow factor, but it’s also functional,” the judges commented. “What’s beautiful is how complicated it is, and yet it doesn’t feel complicated.”

After removing the main bathroom from beneath the stairs to allow in more light, Honarkar joked that “it would be cool to hang the bathroom because there is nowhere else to put it.” The remark became a reality, with a room hanging from steel beams under the third floor, just above the kitchen island. Access is off the mezzanine. “The owner thought we were kidding,” Honarkar says. “But once we showed him the renderings, he liked the idea.” The plumbing is underneath the bathroom floor.

The kitchen, too, shows forward thinking with floating, wall-mounted cabinets by Bulthaup that “lighten up the space,” Honarkar says. “It’s the first time this system has been used in D.C.”

That Division One Architects was able to convey its ideas in the award entry impressed the judges. “It’s a fully documented project with a beautiful presentation,” they said. “The binder is great.”

Honarkar and Nouri continue to bring their modern sensibilities to the masses as their company transforms several multi-unit buildings in the same neighborhood as this winning project. “Now everyone loves it,” Honarkar says. “The Dupont Circle neighborhood house tour has asked if we can be part of the tour.”

Location: Washington, D.C.
DesignerDivision One Architects, Silver Spring, Md.
Contractor: ACT Inc., Alexandria, Va.

See list of all 2008 RDA winners.