A Capital Idea: In Washington, DC, the Silva Facade Inspires

Last month, the jurors of the first Porcelanosa International Project Award (PIPA) decided that apples should not be compared to oranges. Four of the five finalists in PIPA’s residential category were single-family homes, while the fifth project in that group—the Silva, a 172-unit rental apartment in Washington, DC—represented award-worthy design at a much larger scale. To level the playing field, architects Leonardo Cavalli, Michel Rojkind, Greg Truen, and Anabel Fernández Rubio created an accolade for the Silva alone. The 10-story building, which incorporates Porcelanosa products in the facade and interior bathrooms, was spearheaded by the global studio Grimshaw in partnership with Washington, DC–based CORE architecture + design as executive architect. Porcelanosa sat down with architect Dean Hutchison, CORE’s senior designer for the Silva, to learn more about this critically acclaimed addition to the capital city’s streetscape.

This is only the second time that CORE has served as a project’s executive architect—the studio usually oversees a building from conceptualization through construction. How does the executive architect role differ from design architect?

The design architect has a more macro job, looking at larger goals like how a building fits within the city. As executive architect, also known as the architect of record, we provide an understanding of how general ideas are best applied to a local market. With the Silva, Grimshaw created a framework and a design intent, and we realized that design intent through the drawings and the construction itself.


How did the studio get involved with the Silva, considering that it is not usually an executive architect?

This is a role we’ll take on when we feel like we’re going to learn something from it. We had worked with the developer, EastBanc, on some prior projects such as a local library and the expansion of a historic post office. They like working with us, and as they started putting this project together with Grimshaw they said CORE would be a great local architect. Given that request, plus our interest in seeing what we might learn from Grimshaw’s global experience and sustainability expertise, we agreed to take on the role.

Grimshaw had done some initial concepts of the Silva when CORE had joined the project team. Does the final product resemble those earliest phases of the design process? 

The project incorporates the existing Scottish Rite Temple, which is part of the Meridian Hill Historic District. The temple had a lot extension to its rear and joined with EastBanc to develop that property. That said, the way the new building responded to the old building was one of the foundational pieces of the design from the beginning. There has always been a connection to and dialogue with the Scottish Rite Temple.

That dialogue is clear in the continuity of color between the temple and the Silva.

We really wanted to interpret the materials of the existing temple, which are a limestone and bronze as well as craft mosaics that are almost hidden within the limestone. We used Porcelanosa to interpret the limestone in a modern way, and a bronze color for the windows and other accents along the building. We commissioned the local artist MasPaz to create an installation inside the vestibule that interprets the temple mosaics.

Most of the visible facade is made of Porcelanosa’s Krono Clay Nature porcelain panels, which you used as a rainscreen.

The facade uses 47,000 square feet of the material, in an off-the-shelf colors that blends beautifully with the limestone. The panels also worked out great from a technical point of view. We were able to maximize more of our floor area because the material is so thin—half an inch—and reinforced by fiberglass. We gained an inch or two in floor area, versus stone or metal. We also didn’t have to beef up the studs inside to accommodate a heavier option. The framing for the porcelain is supported back to the steel studs and you have insulation in the gap between the membrane and the cladding.

Asymmetrical oriel windows project from the Silva facade—the oriels feel hyper-modern individually, and collectively they lend the building a pulsating, musical quality. How does this other signature feature contribute to the dialogue between past and present?

When you’re inside the Silva, the most interesting buildings are located around the temple. The oriels shift an occupant’s view toward that street corner, as well as down the street to the Adams Morgan neighborhood. (There’s also a community connection, because someone walking up or down the street will see people in those oriels.) By projecting over the property line, the oriels maximize the rentable square footage inside the building, too. People have commented that the oriels make the apartments feel more open than you might get from, say, Juliet balconies.

How did the team come up with the Porcelanosa-finished rainscreen in the first place?

The rainscreen was always on the table. Grimshaw was clued in to Porcelanosa early on, while EastBanc and ourselves had used Porcleanosa for interiors. [The Silva team sourced Morse Beige Nature tiles from Porcelanosa for the Silva’s residential bathrooms and interior public restrooms.] Porcelanosa’s facades are relatively new to the United States and Grimshaw’s New York office had heard of it and suggested we look into it. It turned out to be more affordable than what you initially might think, because it’s a high-quality product. It was surprisingly in line with other products we might have considered.

Did Porcelanosa’s in-house design team help with detailing the rainscreen system?

The internal team was brought in early in the process, when they showed us how to use their material. When we were designing the rainscreen more specifically, they focused on minimizing waste without interfering with the design intent. Porcelanosa has a certain maximum panel size and the company’s internal team tried to work with that size. As designers, we aren’t often thinking of that material efficiency, so it was nice to have them to bounce off ideas. We also did a mockup early in construction, in which the team helped us tweak the pieces and how they came together before the panels went up on the whole building. It was a nice collaborative process all the way through.

Was it difficult to apply the rainscreen to the oriels?

We have these sharp corners on the building, to which the Porcelanosa panels were really well suited—you wouldn’t have been able to maintain that sharpness with a thicker material. Most of the corners are lap joints—that’s how thin the panels are. Only on a couple of the most prominent surfaces or most acute angles did we feel it was necessary to miter the panels.

After the mockup was completed, did the execution go smoothly?

We had a good relationship with the general contractor and the subcontractor. I had worked with the subcontractor previously, on a terracotta rainscreen. They really ran with this design and took the time to get to know the product. We did that mockup first and, once we got the actual pieces, they did full-floor dry fits. There are joints that go all the way to the top of the building, so that the building reads vertically. One hundred feet of joint has got to look right, and there are elements that want to push that joint out of alignment while you’re constructing it. Those full-floor dry fits, which let us figure out movements and adaptations, were critical to the success of the whole facade. And the subcontractor really was on board with doing that. Because of it we didn’t really have any hiccups.

Residents began moving into the Silva last August. How has the finished product been received?

We think it’s a great project, and it’s loved by the tenants. It reached 65 percent occupancy within just six months; people are dying to get into this building. The Silva also was one of those buildings where the renderings looked pretty nice, but in reality it’s much more striking than we could ever see on paper. It’s not trying to hide that it’s a modern building, but it’s amazing how well it fits within the neighborhood. That’s even been echoed by the preservation bodies that helped us get design approvals for this historic neighborhood.

Are any long-term impacts coming to light yet?

If the right opportunity comes up, we’d love to specify a Porcelanosa rainscreen again. We’ve considered it for a couple of projects that are still in preliminary phases. I’ve also done a number of walkthroughs of the building, and the property managers and developers as well as design professionals on those tours are responding really well:  they are excited about the rainscreen and they want to know about the panel product and how it works. Washington, DC, is going through quite the design renaissance right now. There is so much getting built. And a lot of does not fit the mold that people traditionally associate with the District.


To see more photos of The Silva, view the entire project gallery here!