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9 Ways to Build Housing for People—from the Inside


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Image: Mariko Reed

By Julie de Jesus, AIA, LEED AP, IIDA, Associate / Interiors Lead

 

 

DBA has developed a suite of strategic design approaches, which we call “9 Ways to Build Housing for People.” These strategies are as much a driving force for DBA_Inside, our interiors studio, as they are for the architectural design team.

DBA_Inside focuses on the arrangement, flow, feeling, and effectiveness of our building’s internal spaces. From the start, we are guided by the “9 Ways” principles as we collaborate with the larger design team on each project to make sure everything works to support a high quality of living for residents. The same strategies that connect a building to the life of the surrounding city can be used to help connect residents to the life of the building.

1. Reweave the Urban Fabric

This strategy is about enhancing physical connections and links. For interiors, this means making access to the new resources provided by the building—like a public library or a community-serving gathering place—clear and convenient. It’s important that community spaces are legible as such from the exterior of the building so that members of the public will know that they exist and how to access them. Visual connections are part of this “reweaving”—we look to give offices, conference rooms, and community spaces views out into the neighborhood, and to provide the larger community with glimpses into the life of the building.

Lobby of Edwina Benner Plaza. Image: Bruce Damonte

Glazed facade at Onizuka Crossing. Image: Bruce Damonte

2. Make Big Moves

A “big move” means creating a space that garners attention and encourages use. We create double-height spaces strategically, making sure they tie into the entry and the common spaces. This way, they serve as a marker of importance in the building, and people are intuitively drawn to them.

Another big move is to look for bold interventions that enliven spaces. When we were designing Williams Terrace, a senior housing project in Charleston, SC, we embraced the cultural significance of the porch. We were able to create generous exterior circulation that serves to easily link all of the spaces in the building and also function as an extra large porch to be shared by all the residents and work as an extension of their homes. Upon move in, everyone was given a rocking chair, welcoming them to inhabit that space.

Inside the porch at Williams Terrace. Image: Chris Luker

Central courtyard at Williams Terrace. Image: Chris Luker

3. A Little Goes a Long Way

This idea is about maximizing impact. Especially in affordable housing, we want to make the most out of our budget. We use premium materials in specific and concentrated places where they will be seen and experienced most often and by the most people, and we use color to bring brightness and personality to a space.

For La Fénix at 1950 Mission, affordable family housing in San Francisco, we broke the facade up with blocks of bright tile, locally made by Fireclay Tile. The tile continues inside to add both dynamic color and durability to the high-use entry space. The tiles then reappear at each residential floor where the colors serve the additional purpose of wayfinding. The contextual color variations, especially the signature Mexicali Rose, are a nod to the cultural heritage of the Mission district.

Material board for La Fénix at 1950 Mission. Image: David Baker Architects

Color adds energy, helps tie spaces together visually, and provides a sense of coherence. At Five88, the green chairs in the lobby tie into the green of the artwork and the green tones woven into the carpeting on the long corridors. For 222 Taylor, we specified blue chairs for some pop in the community room and reference the nearby mural.

Community Room at 222 Taylor. Image: Bruce Damonte

Bini's Kitchen with custom signage. Image: Mariko Reed

4. Activate the Edges

Outside, this strategy means placing people-friendly uses along the sidewalk and tucking more dormant spaces, such as driveways and mechanical zones, out of the way. An active use might be residential stoops or seating, or it might be ground-floor shops and restaurants. Our interiors team helps activate the edges by getting involved in the signage for shops and restaurants, either designing it ourselves, as we did at Bini’s Kitchen or preparing guidelines for effective signage that our clients can pass on to their commercial tenants.

Inside has edges too. We design buildings so that when you enter, you have a view through to an outdoor space. We create small pocket areas where residents can hang out with their neighbors outside their apartments. Similar to the market at 8th + Howard, the grocery store at 222 Taylor on the ground floor serves as a much-needed source of fresh produce for the Tenderloin neighborhood, a vital community resource. Unusually for a grocery store, the space has a large window that looks onto the residential courtyard, bringing in natural light and visually connecting the two spaces, one public-facing and the other more intimate.

Neighborhood market at 8th and Howard. Image: Bill Owens

Entry of Bayview Hills Garden. Image: Bruce Damonte

5. Be Welcoming

The entrance and entry sequence is crucial to making a multifamily residence feel welcoming. This is particularly important in affordable housing, where the entry vestibule requires additional layers of security. It’s important that residents don’t feel they’re entering an institution. So in the interiors, we work to balance security with porosity, providing a sense of openness.

For example, at Bayview Hill Gardens, affordable housing for formerly homeless families in San Francisco, the transparent entry and custom front door allows you to see through to the courtyard beyond as you are approaching and entering the building. Just inside, the entry lobby features a sculptural ceiling made of warm wood and a curvy reception window that is aesthetically friendly but also allows the receptionist to monitor the front door and to close and lock the window for privacy and security.

Entry at Bayview Hill Gardens. Image: Bruce Damonte

Central courtyard at Five88. Image: Patrik Argast

6. Cultivate Connection

Connection happens where people meet or cross paths. We organize the interior flow of a building to accommodate chance encounters that may lead to something more. We place common spaces for user convenience and also to help to build connections. For example, we co-locate elements such as the laundry, the mailroom, the lobby, resident lounges, offices and social services, and the courtyard so they become hubs of activity. This way, when you’re doing laundry or checking your mail, you’re more likely to encounter a neighbor and wave hello or stop to chat.

The lobby at Five88 is one of our favorites. Its glassy entry flows through a covered seating area and mailroom and out into an open-air courtyard. Residents have an opportunity to get to know those living alongside them in a convenient space they use everyday. It also celebrates different interior spaces and helps them become an essential heart to the project.

Open air lobby at Five88. Image: Mariko Reed

7. Enlightened Circulation

We try to keep corridors short—perhaps interrupted by seating zones or other social spaces—and to include windows and daylight whenever possible. When you’re walking down a corridor, views out to other spaces help orient you in the building and keep you from feeling isolated. And natural light is key—whenever we’re designing corridors, our first question is, where is the natural light? Can we maintain access to it throughout the span of the project?

We spend time and care on staircases as well. We want them to have a strong relationship to the lobby and the corridors they link to, be easy to find and pleasant to use. We specify materials and finishes that enrich the experience. We even elevate even fire stairs—which the building code requires for emergency egress—and try to make them feel comfortable and usable. 

Ground floor corridor at Edwina Benner Plaza. Image: Bruce Damonte

At Edwina Benner Plaza, we connected an outdoor central staircase to wide corridors with daylight at the ends. The natural light, generous proportions, and colorful graphics help the circulation zone feel like a comfortable space worth spending time in, rather than just passing through.

Central courtyard showing floating corridors at Edwina Benner Plaza. Image: Bruce Damonte

8. Get Personal

We believe every building should reflect the character of the community, with qualities that make it feel unique. One way we can bring this principle to the design of the interior is to create elements that reference distinct aspects of the exterior, reinforcing the unique identity of the building with details throughout.

Undulating facade at 555 Larkin. Image: David Baker Architects

For 555 Larkin, a 108-unit affordable housing development we’re designing with Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, we turned to DBA_Workshop, our in-house fabrication shopto create a ceiling treatment for the lobby. The building has a distinctive wavy brick façade, so we decided to pick up on that, developing a wood ceiling “cloud” that comes down the wall and transforms into a bench. It brings in the distinctive wavy-form of the building’s brick façade, but in a different material. Because we’re creating this feature in-house, and because we started it early in the construction process, it’s surprisingly affordable (see 3. A Little Goes a Long Way!).

Wooden "cloud" inside 555 Larkin. Image: David Baker Architects

9. Art For All

Art can have so much impact, bringing in color and making spaces feel warm, homey, and exciting—and finished. Art is often the final touch that signals that a building is ready for its residents. We start thinking about art from the beginning, and we work to make sure it doesn’t get value engineered out of the project by the end.

Early on in our interiors and FF&E (fixtures, furniture, and equipment) conversations with clients, we’ll include art pieces or designate potential locations for art in the building. Our approach may differ based on the location or the budget for the project. For example, Foundry Commons includes some original artworks from the busy art studios across from the site. We often work with Creativity Explored, a San Francisco-based nonprofit gallery and studio that supports artists with developmental disabilities. Creativity Explored offers original works as well as a licensing program that gives us flexibility with the scale of the works, allowing for a larger-scale art piece or art program than would be accessible on a tight budget. The lobby mural at 222 Taylor, affordable family housing in San Franicsco, is a licensed image created by Creativity Explored artist Jennifer Bockelman. We enlarged it as a supergraphic to saturate the elevator lobby with a wash of color. 

Mural by local Creativity Explored artist Jennifer Bockelman at 222 Taylor. Image: David Baker Architects

For the lobby at Five88, we commissioned steel sculptures by local artist Isaac S. Lewin to hang on the exposed concrete wall. We had the sculptures powder-coated a bright green so they would stand out against the concrete wall. The dimensional forms are a vivid and bold presence that add a real sense of energy to the space.

Steel sculpture by local artist Isaac S. Lewin in Five88 lobby. Image: Mariko Reed

People live in cities to be in community—hopefully communities that foster harmony. There is a lot that can be done with the interior spaces of a building to make people feel welcomed, comfortable, seen, and connected. Whether we’re focusing on the outside or the inside of a building, we hope our design decisions help make residents’ and neighbors’ lives easier, richer, and more engaged.

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Julie de Jesus, AIA, LEED AP, IIDA, is an Associate and our Interiors Lead at DBA. You can contact Julie here.

 

Neighborhood market at 8th and Howard. Image: Bill Owens

Material board for La Fénix at 1950 Mission. Image: David Baker Architects

Mural by local Creativity Explored artist Jennifer Bockelman at 222 Taylor. Image: David Baker Architects

Community Room at 222 Taylor. Image: Bruce Damonte

Open air lobby at Five88. Image: Mariko Reed

Steel sculpture by local artist Isaac S. Lewin in Five88 lobby. Image: Mariko Reed

Central courtyard at Williams Terrace. Image: Chris Luker

Ground floor corridor at Edwina Benner Plaza. Image: Bruce Damonte

Central courtyard showing floating corridors at Edwina Benner Plaza. Image: Bruce Damonte

Undulating facade at 555 Larkin. Image: David Baker Architects

Entry of Bayview Hill Gardens. Image: Bruce Damonte

Entry at Bayview Hill Gardens. Image: Bruce Damonte

Entry of Bayview Hills Garden. Image: Bruce Damonte

Bini's Kitchen with custom signage. Image: Mariko Reed

Glazed facade at Onizuka Crossing. Image: Bruce Damonte

Wooden "cloud" inside 555 Larkin. Image: David Baker Architects

Lobby of Edwina Benner Plaza. Image: Bruce Damonte

Central courtyard at Five88. Image: Patrik Argast

Inside the porch at Williams Terrace. Image: Chris Luker

Image: Mariko Reed