David Baker Architects


Stepping into the Q Zone

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The Q Zone features prominently in the ideas behind "Making a Great Ground Floor" in the SPUR Urbanist.

What is it that makes urban environments so engaging? As architects we wonder about this all the time, and we think we've found part of the answer in what we've dubbed the Q Zone — the place that exists at the intersection between a building's facade and the public right-of-way. This zone is wonderfully differentiated, ever changing, and endlessly adaptable. Quirky, you might say. Hence the Q.

The Q Zone differs from context to context, use to use, neighborhood to neighborhood. Sometimes it's used to create a wider sidewalk, at other times it contains landscaping. For restaurants, it can be a great place for outdoor seating. For retail, the place to tell a story, through signage or displays, about the shop's point of view. And for residential buildings, it might be the site of a front stoop that navigates an elevation change, connecting residents with the neighborhood while still maintaining a sense of privacy. All of these elements soften the edge between the building and the public right-of-way, make that edge physically and visually welcoming, and most importantly add personality and character to the environment at large — just the thing that makes successful urban places so coveted and that adds value to any project.

It's easy for architects to focus solely on the aspects of buildings we’re most familiar with—how big the shops are, how high the ceilings are, where the service entrances are. But while those things certainly matter, in our experience it's the moves we make in the Q Zone that really bring our buildings and their surroundings to life.

Image: David Baker Architects

For a multifamily rental housing project at 388 Fulton Street in San Francisco's Hayes Valley, we created a Q Zone by setting the retail ground floor back from the relatively narrow sidewalk. We then widened the sidewalks wherever possible to give pedestrians more room to mingle, a move that was especially successful on Fulton Street, which is relatively quiet in this area and thus an ideal meeting point.

The Richardson Apartments retail entry is set back from the corner. Image: Matthew Millman

Right across the street from 388 Fulton, at the Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments at 465 Fulton Street, we used the Q Zone to encourage and accommodate everything from entries to seating, advertising to socializing. We also differentiated the retail entrances by setting the ground floor back, issuing an invitation to passersby to stop in.

Lively retail at Richardson Apartments. Image: Matthew Millman

The residential entry at Richardson Apartments gets a little breathing room. Image: Bruce Damonte

But it's at 300 Ivy, also in San Francisco's Hayes Valley neighborhood, that we really maximized the Q Zone. The project included shops, a courtyard entry, and on-grade residences at two different scales of sidewalk and street. On the Grove Street side, where the sidewalk was already quite wide, we added plantings both to the public right-of-way along the side of the building and to the strip between the parked cars and passing pedestrians.

Sidewalk plantings and stoops on Ivy Street. Image: Bruce Damonte

By contrast, the Ivy Street side is set on a small alley with limited flexibility, so we pushed the planting into the public right-of-way in order to create a buffer for residents. This did require us to narrow the sidewalk to four feet in width, but as it's a quiet street with little foot or vehicle traffic we felt it was a smart trade-off. We also planted trees in between the parking spaces on Ivy Street, which added immense value both to the streetscape and the units themselves. 

Image: Bruce Damonte

A lively cafe corner at 300 Ivy Street. Image: Bruce Damonte

Finally, at the corner of Ivy and Gough we pulled back the corner of the building significantly, adding planters that separate outdoor restaurant seating from the sidewalk and giving the restaurant's entrance a more protected feel. The result is a much nicer space that patrons enjoy—and that can command a higher rent.



Daniel Simons, AIA, LEED AP, is a Principal at David Baker Architects. Daniel has focused on the field of multi-family housing, including both affordable and market-rate projects, and uses his extensive knowledge of green building practices and progressive city planning to minimize the buildings’ environmental impact while improving the quality of life for residents. You can reach him at danielsimons@dbarchitect.com.