Making Multi-Family Marvelous


David Baker Architects is creating some of the most innovative multi-family housing options in the country. Baker credits the firm’s successes to “our tremendous advantage of having a great track record with great clients who are willing to stretch their goals. They were willing to consider what were considered to be crazy ideas, but as we have built examples, we can talk people into them more easily.”

“We’re not proposing new social structures or floating buildings,” Baker continues. “We’re just doing nicer apartment buildings with a whole bunch of little ideas.” Those ideas might include the previously unimaginable decision to build a downtown apartment building without parking spaces (in a location that’s highly walkable and well-served by public transit), create a lush “decompression garden” in an interior courtyard, or install a rooftop garden that allows residents to have individual garden plots.

A recent example of Baker’s innovation in action (and a recipient of the 2011 AIA Housing Awards for Architecture) is the firm’s vibrant Armstrong Place Senior and Family Housing. Elevating what we tend to think of when we visualize affordable housing, Armstrong Place has such unexpected features as a vegetable garden, vibrant playground, stoops and balconies, and a “quilt wall” inspired by African textiles. It has transformed what was once an industrial city block into a true neighborhood. When asked how the community reacted to the somewhat unconventional project, Baker responded, “People are happy that something is happening here. They’re reasonable. Disadvantaged communities aren’t used to being empowered and have a much broader aesthetic. It’s not that they’re unaware, they’re more open.”

The issue of density, which often becomes a NIMBY issue in many neighborhoods, didn’t come into play. A multigenerational community is being served here: there are affordable, urban townhomes to keep growing families in the city, as well as family townhomes adjacent to senior apartments to prevent seniors from living in isolation. The 116-unit senior building is LEED-Gold and features retail that serves its community. And the complex is steps away from San Francisco’s “T” streetcar line, which brings residents to downtown within 15 minutes. It’s a terrific example of the positives density can offer.