On March 12, 2014, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform advanced a bill proposing to make the first changes to the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, a federal law establishing height limits on Washington, D.C. buildings. The height restrictions were implemented in response to the construction of the 164-foot Cairo Hotel in 1894. The original Height of Buildings Act, passed by Congress in 1899, limited building height to 90 feet on residential streets and 110 feet on business streets. It also made an exception for buildings on business streets 160 feet wide – such buildings were permitted to be 130 feet tall. The 1899 act was amended in 1910 to add the restriction that the height of any building would be limited to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet up to a maximum of 90 feet on residential streets, 130 feet on commercial streets, and 160 feet on a small portion of Pennsylvania Avenue. Thus, a building facing a 90-foot -wide commercial street could be 110 feet tall.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform voted to submit H.R. 4192, introduced by Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-CA). and co-sponsored by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, (D-D.C.) to the U.S House for consideration. The bill will slightly amend the Height of Buildings Act of 1910 to clarify the rules regarding “human occupancy” of certain penthouses above the top story of a building. At present, the Height Act prohibits the use of the penthouse level (i.e. roof) for needs other than mechanical structures.

The height of a building as calculated by the Height Act does not include roof top structures used for mechanical needs within the total allowable height. However, if structures on the roof top (such as a pool house associated with a roof top pool) are constructed for human occupation, the structure is included when calculating the overall height of the building under the Height Act. As a result, developers, architects and designers currently have to lower their building designs by an entire floor to allow for some human occupied space on the roof, if the building is to reach the maximum allowable height. The bill proposes replacing existing language establishing an all-out ban on other uses for such rooftop mechanical penthouses with language stating “and, except in the case of a penthouse which is erected to a height of one story of 20 feet or less above the level of the roof, no floor or compartment thereof shall be constructed or used for human occupancy above the top story of the building upon which such structures are placed.’’

By allowing usable, human occupying space at the penthouse level, proponents of the bill argue that there will be no real impact on the overall height limit and it would not change the “human scale” of the current landscape within the city. The current allowable height within the downtown area of the city prohibits “people’s enjoyment of some of the city’s greatest spaces and most striking views”

The modest changes are a response to a larger debate over whether to amend the century-old height restrictions in the D.C. Heights Act to allow for private sector building enhancement.