High-Rise Construction: Combining Safety and Beauty

Anyone who lives or works in Fairfax County has become familiar with a common feature on the horizon: the tower crane. These massive construction machines may delight young kids, but adults sometimes have practical questions about the tall buildings emerging in our community.

“We shape our buildings; afterwards our buildings shape us.”  — Winston Churchill

The cranes in Reston and Tysons are the most dramatic sign that parts of our county are changing into a more urban environment. Before these new high-rise buildings are built, years of planning go into making sure they are safe for the occupants and the community.


Ensuring Safe Structures

Reston StationSometimes the sheer speed with which these structures come out of the ground begs the question: Are these structures safe?

The county’s building plan reviewers and inspectors ensure that new construction in the county is built in the safest manner possible, following the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code and the Statewide Fire Prevention Code. These codes provide the specific rules builders must follow to protect people and property.

A building permit is required by state law, granting legal permission to start construction on a project. To obtain the proper permits, the county reviews the proposed building plan to ensure that designs submitted for construction comply with the state code. Once construction begins, county inspections are required to ensure the project continues to adhere to the building code.

For high-rise buildings, special inspections by outside professionals with this expertise are also required by the building code. The Fairfax County Special Inspections Program was established in 1973 after the collapse of a 26-story concrete building under construction.


Fire Safety in High-Rise Buildings

Capital One buildingIn Fairfax County, 329 buildings qualify as high-rise buildings. The number of floors is not what determines whether a building is a high rise. It is determined by how accessible those floors are to Fire and Rescue Department vehicles. According to John Walser, a battalion chief with the Fire Marshal’s Office, many of the code’s special requirements for high-rise buildings have to do with the increased risk from fire and the delay firefighters may experience in getting to the fire.

Walser notes that fire prevention in high rise buildings has three main layers:

  1. Contain fires: Special construction methods are used to help keep the fire contained to the apartment or suite in which it has started.
  2. Sprinklers: Automatic sprinkler systems that activate when they reach a certain temperature are mandatory in new high-rise buildings.
  3. Coordinated evacuation: Much thought goes into how the occupants in a high rise get evacuated, since the size of the stairs makes it impossible to get everybody out at one time.


New Arrivals to the Skyline:

Here are a few examples of new high-rise buildings in our county that are beautiful – and safe – additions to our county’s skyline.

  • The Boro towers
    • The 18-acre site in Tysons was approved in early 2016 and construction is well underway. Next to the Greensboro Metro Station, this development will be mixed-use residential, retail, entertainment and office space. One of the apartment buildings will be 32 stories; another is 25 stories.
  • 1900 Metro Plaza
    • A 16-story office building is almost completed and is situated at the Wiehle Metro Station in Reston. Designed by world-renowned architect, Helmut Jahn, it is supported by non-traditional, non-straight columns, which form an X on the exterior of the building. The adjacent building, BLVD, is a 21-story luxury apartment building that opened in 2016.
  • Capital One
    • The redevelopment of Capital One’s headquarters in Tysons made news recently because a new event center and a Wegmans is part of their deal with the county. Construction is already underway on the bank’s new 32-story headquarters. At 470 feet, this building ranks as the second tallest in the D.C. region behind the Washington Monument, which is 555 feet.


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