School of International Service

School of International Service

The new building is located at Nebraska and Massachusetts avenues.
Prakash Patel / William McDonough + Partners

American University’s School of International Service (SIS) was founded at the urging of President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the height of the Cold War. It is this country’s premier training ground for young idealists looking to cut their milk teeth in the world of multinational relations. Located at the intersection of Nebraska and Massachusetts avenues in Washington, D.C., each year the school enrolls some 2,500 students from all over the world who are interested in international security, communications, development, economics, peace and conflict resolution, and good old red-white-and-blue foreign policy. It is the largest and most prestigious division of AU—a private research and liberal arts higher education institution—but until very recently SIS had no facility to merit this privileged position. The school’s original home was too small and the student body was spread out across the campus. The campus itself offered no central meeting space, no “living room” for the university at large where students could mingle and exchange ideas.


Interiors are arranged around a three-story atrium.

With an eye toward killing both of those birds with one mighty stone, university leadership hired William McDonough + Partners and local firm Quinn Evans Architects to design a facility that would provide a suitable home for SIS, and create a nexus where all of the institution’s wandering gametes could bump into each other. A parking lot at the southeast corner of the campus quad, next door to the existing SIS facility, was the perfect location. In addition to needing 75,000 square feet of classrooms, offices, meeting spaces, and a cafe, the university requested a below-grade extension of the adjacent Bender Library and plenty of underground parking. Of course, it also wanted the new building to meet the highest sustainability standards, a task for which the design team was well suited.

The site presented the primary challenge in fulfilling these demands. D.C.’s height restrictions meant that to accommodate all of the square footage, the team would need to use the entire footprint, creating a wider, squatter building than McDonough + Partners usually likes in order to facilitate optimal daylight penetration. In answer, the team arranged the program elements in a three-storied horseshoe shape around a central, glass-enclosed atrium that opens onto the quad. That, however, gave rise to another concern. Since the building’s entrance had to be both prominent and inviting, the designers worried that this north-facing facade would appear gloomy and dark. To head off that eventuality, the team angled the atrium’s skylight so that it directs southern sunlight to illuminate the northern glass wall.

The atrium skylight is angled to the south.

Daylighting motivated other aspects of the design as well. High-performance perimeter glazing was optimized to allow maximum daylight penetration. Exterior shades block high-angle sunlight to mitigate heat loading, and interior light shelves bounce indirect daylight deeper into the offices and classrooms. While the SIS needed privacy for its work, the designers also provided transom windows to keep the light moving into the enclosed corridors.

This daylighting strategy cut down on the need for electrical lighting during the day, but the building goes further than that in its quest for energy sustainability. The team outfitted the roof with a 3,200-square-foot photovoltaic array, as well as a solar hot water system. The HVAC system is similarly designed. During the winter, a solar system preheats fresh air as it is drawn in at the perimeter. The ventilated air winds up eventually in the atrium, where it is exhausted through vents in the skylight. To further cut down on heating and cooling energy demands, the atrium itself—primarily a place through which people pass without lingering—is not fully conditioned.

The new building also manages storm water responsibly. Localized surface water flows into a below-grade leaf filter system and a swale garden rife with native and adaptive plantings. Both features slow and filter the effluent before it enters the city sewers. There is one cistern that collects water from the rooftop for use in the building’s toilets. Another cistern collects water from the gardens and paved courtyard for the irrigation of the landscaping.

Left to right: Floor plan, Community, Energy, Water, Light & Air. Click to enlarge.

Of course, McDonough + Partners applied its usual cradle-to-cradle protocol in its material selection. However, in this case the client helped the firm to broaden its horizon even further. The architects consulted the students and faculty throughout the design process. One result of this interaction was that rather than focus on obtaining as many local materials as possible, the firm looked globally. Spurred by the school’s international mission, the goal became not to just minimize embedded energy through the transport of building matter, but to find communities around the world who might benefit from the economic stimulus that the construction of this structure could create.