Cover photo for David James Varner's Obituary
David James Varner Profile Photo
1960 David 2021

David James Varner

June 17, 1960 — November 13, 2021

DAVID JAMES VARNER
Distinguished architect, dies at 61
An exemplary practitioner, leader, and mentor, his outstanding career spanned more than 35 years working for some of Washington, DC’s most notable architecture firms.
David James Varner, a distinguished architect and leader in the Washington, DC architectural community, died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Saturday, November 13 at home in Bellingham, WA. During his 35-plus-year career, he worked for several prominent area architectural firms, including Keyes, Condon, Florance Architects, Bowie-Gridley Architects, Shalom Baranes, and the most recent being SmithGroup’s Washington, DC office, where he served as Director since 2015. Mr. Varner stepped down from that role in December 2020—he preferred not to use the word “retire.” In August 2020, he and his wife of 35 years, Marjorie, moved to the Pacific Northwest to start their next adventure.
Elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA) in 2017, Mr. Varner’s approach to architecture focused on an integrated design philosophy, one that partnered engineering and architecture side-by-side, particularly when it came to the transformation of existing buildings. This design thinking was key to the success of numerous award-winning, large-scale, and complex projects in the District. Of note is the renovation of Constitution Center, the largest private office building in Washington, DC, which was completed in 2010. Mr. Varner, as Principal-in-Charge, led the design team and secured the project win as part of a national design competition. As a result of the project’s elegant combination of architecture, engineering, state-of-the-art security, and a high-performance workplace, the project changed the architecture profession’s view of large-scale sustainable design. With the project’s success, the city renewed a major urban development with minimal environmental impact. The Mid Atlantic Construction News awarded the building its “Project of the Year – Renovation/Restoration” accolade in December 2010.
Mr. Varner’s ability to discover and celebrate the hidden environmental, economic, and design opportunities in existing buildings was unique. His drawing and communication skills enabled him to make design concepts accessible to clients and colleagues alike. Through inspired analysis and process, he transformed and expanded design boundaries to create new value for owners, communities, and cities. During the design competition for the new DC Water Headquarters (the building was completed in 2019), the client’s elevated design goals challenged the prospect of creating an efficient building structure amidst a complex network of critical below-grade infrastructure that could not be disturbed. Through Mr. Varner’s design-process leadership, the SmithGroup team innovatively combined a cost-effective long-span structure into uniquely efficient floor plans to create the winning solution.
During the competition, his team also discovered that the wastewater flowing through the site was a practical source of geothermal energy; it was utilized in the realized project to dramatically lower the building’s energy consumption and implement an innovative wastewater-thermal-recover system. This was the first time that this kind of system was used in a U.S. office building, and it helped the project attain LEED Platinum status. The headquarters is now an urban icon on Washington’s Anacostia Riverfront, creating a unique place that optimizes staff experience, functionality, and sustainable best practices, while also serving as a catalyst for the neighborhood’s economic development and a showcase for the utility’s commitment to sustainability.
“He leaves an impressive legacy of project and professional accomplishments, both at SmithGroup and in the broader Washington, DC community,” said Anthony Williams, DC Mayor from 1999 to 2007. “Always passionate about design and the built environment, David was a thoughtful mentor, an energetic leader, and a cherished friend to many.”
David James Varner was born on June 17, 1960, in Houston to Frank and Mary Anne Varner. He earned his Bachelor of Arts (1982) and Bachelor of Architecture (1984) degrees from Rice University in their six-year Preceptorship program. In 1986, he married Marjorie Foelker in Corpus Christi, TX, and they raised their two children, daughter Monica (born 1992) and son Mark (born 1995) in Arlington, VA.
Mr. Varner was an accomplished athlete his entire life. In high school, he was Texas’ state swimming champion in two events and a nationally ranked swimmer. As an adult, he continued to swim competitively with Masters’ groups in Virginia and Washington and continued to place nationally. His endurance and strength assisted him in every sporting endeavor he engaged, whether it be skiing, swimming in open-water races, or competing in triathlons. He and his wife shared a love of art, food, wine, architecture, and international travel, which he chronicled and captured with his skilled photography. A year ago, the couple moved to Bellingham, WA, drawn by the area’s natural beauty and endless opportunities to enjoy life. Mr. Varner embraced the local history of the Pacific Northwest and enjoyed hiking and sailing at every opportunity. His passion for design led him to continuously renew and rebuild the homes he lived in by transferring his integrated design philosophy from a commercial to a residential scale.
Mr. Varner led by example and was a mentor to many younger professionals and was always generous with his time—to colleagues, the architecture and real estate communities, civic, business, and community organizations, and friends and neighbors. His work on behalf of his profession extended well beyond project success. He was tireless in his sharing of strategies, techniques, and lessons learned as a contribution to architectural colleagues, clients, and the community, a sentiment expressed by his SmithGroup colleague David King, “David [Varner] only knew one way and that was to be truly committed [to each endeavor]. When he got involved in things, he gave it his all, that was a true mark of his leadership.”
Mr. Varner volunteered as a Mentor Group Leader through the Washington Economic Club’s “Scholars-to-Leaders” program, where he helped guide underserved college-bound District youth. Through the AIA, Urban Land Institute (ULI), and several other professional and civic groups, he devoted himself to helping others find success in solving complex problems. He engaged in a wide variety of programs that educated students and professionals on the value of design and how the architectural profession shapes their world. His leadership in the profession was recognized through his election to the Federal City Council as a Trustee, a position that inspires the advantageous collaboration of key business leaders in Washington, D.C. to solve challenging problems. His leadership was also recognized by his selection for ULI’s exclusive Redevelopment and Reuse Council, which was a direct result of his knowledge, experience, and capability to champion the wise stewardship of existing neighborhoods and innovative urban solutions. He was especially honored to be selected as a member of the Cosmos Club, an organization that accepts members based solely on their contributions to their field of expertise.
His family will miss his dry humor, voracious musical appetite, and his warmth and conviviality. Mr. Varner was preceded in death by his parents. He is survived by his wife Marjorie, daughter Monica, son Mark, and sister Melissa. Details and RSVP for a Washington, DC memorial service are available at www.davidvarnermemorial.com . In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the David J. Varner Fund for Mentoring Leadership, which has been established through the Washington Architectural Foundation ( www.aiadc.com/donate ). Personal remembrances can be shared with the family at www.westfordfuneralhome.com .
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Saturday, November 20, 2021

Starts at 11:00 am (Pacific time)

Westford Funeral Home & Cremation Services

1301 Broadway, Bellingham, WA 98225

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