Arthur Cotton Moore/Associates

Visionary architect Arthur Cotton Moore’s latest idea: an affordable housing project built out of old Metro cars.

Last month, The Washington Post floated a pretty wild idea: transforming discarded Metro cars into housing for the homeless. The man behind the notion is architect Arthur Cotton Moore, who happens to be a neighbor of ours here at the Watergate complex. So we walked over to his top-floor apartment to learn more.

A sixth-generation Washingtonian, Moore, 81, has been an avid urban recycler for decades. He’s restored historic spaces such as the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams Buildings of the Library of Congress, the Cairo Hotel, and the Old Post Office Pavilion and designed new ones like the Phillips Collection. The apartment he and his wife, Patricia, share overlook one such project—the Washington Harbour complex on the Potomac River.

Moore’s 1972 book The Powers of Preservation: New Life for Urban Historic Places highlights examples of his work in Washington, as well as New York, Charleston, Nashville, Winston-Salem, and Baltimore. One of his most celebrated adaptive reuse successes: The sequence of Canal Square and The Foundry along Georgetown’s C&O Canal, which Moore repurposed into a commercial square, office spaces, and a concert venue in the 1970s.

An author photo of Moore from his 1972 book The Powers of Preservation. (Arthur Cotton Moore/Associates)

The idea to retrofit the Metro’s venerable 4000-series cars, which date back to the early 1990s, into 1-bedroom, 1-bath units came to Moore after seeing news that the District plans to discard the cars this year. CityLab readers may hear echoes of this scheme in the storage-unit apartment trend, or in similar projects that adapt shipping containers into housing for the homeless (or trend-seeking Millennials). But Moore’s design demonstrates how the cars’ features make them far easier to live in than shipping containers.

An exterior view of a retrofitted Metro car apartment with solar panels on the roof. (Arthur Cotton Moore/Associates)

“With the usual solution of those shipping containers, you would have to cut holes in them, but there are lots of windows already in a waterproof aluminum shell in the Metro cars—there’s a built-in outside view,” Moore says. “There could be two units made out of each car, with the connecting doors between train cars repurposed as a front door to a unit. We would add four concrete footings where the wheels would be, welded to a series of anchor bolts. The cars are already heavy and aerodynamic enough that they could withstand strong winds.”

The retired cars, no longer carrying passengers, could bask in the sun for energy and function off-the-grid. “There could be solar cells on the roof and solar heaters for electricity and hot water,” Moore says. “They could be independent of utilities. They could heat and cool the apartment through a through-wall HVAC wall unit like I used to use in my painting studio.”

The versatility of the cars as housing units really comes through when you start to imagine a whole village of them. Behold the future CityLab commune!

Metro-topia rising! A rendering of a subway-car-based community (Arthur Cotton Moore/Associates)

Moore estimates about 400 people could occupy 86 cars in this space. The community would include two playgrounds, a medical clinic, social services, and security; in the center of the complex there’s room for co-op gardens.

Repurposing the cars as housing would offer significant savings over the current D.C. homeless projects, Moore believes. “A prefabricated bath space goes for about $700 dollars and a kitchenette could cost about $2,500 dollars,” he says. “Considering the cars are already paid for, this could leave a lot more money available for needs of the residents.”

Such a community, says Patricia Moore, “would give our homeless citizens a home, and the dignity, privacy, and safety they deserve."

But there’s the question of location. Where in high-cost D.C. would land be cheap enough to purchase without displacing people? One potential option: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington’s southeast.

An aerial view of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, east of the Capitol in 1988 (U.S. Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons)

The area has already been targeted for redevelopment, and it’s near a Metro stop. Moore believes this would provide a good chance to present an affordable component to the developing area. “Most developers that buy into an area say costs get in the way of creating affordable housing,” he says. “But so many teams have left RFK—the football team, the baseball team, and now the soccer team—it’s not worth a lot as a stadium.”

But RFK Metro-topia is just one of Moore’s many schemes for his hometown, as designs from a yet-to-be published book of pro bono publico projects in Washington prove. There’s the National Mall Underground, designed to provide parking and flood relief after a 2006 flood that reached federal buildings. He also has mock-ups of a development corridor stretching from the Capitol to the Jefferson Memorial that would restore Maryland Avenue to its prominent place in the 1901 McMillan Plan, and a pedestrian festival plaza with awnings that would cover the currently dismal looking L’Enfant Promenade on 10th Street. “We see things in the city and then the ideas take over,” Patricia Moore says. “The only limitation is the amount of time in the day to work.”

Arthur Cotton Moore redesigned Canal Square in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. (Jim Malone/flickr)

Moore also doesn’t shy away from criticizing a missed opportunity in his native city. From the dead space produced by the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building on Pennsylvania Avenue to his un-implemented 1987 plan to extend the Kennedy Center’s plaza with steps down to the Potomac waterfront, the designer says the driving force of his work is that architecture is fundamentally about issues. Sometimes it just takes a while for a idea to catch on.

“I suggested to the government in 1971 that the Old Post Office ought be turned into a hotel,” Moore says of the restoration project he once worked on, before the building reopened recently as a hotel bearing the name of a prominent New York City developer and politician. “I could not have anticipated who took over that project, but there it is, forty-five years later.”

UPDATE: This post has been updated with additional information.

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