David Baker Architects

South of Market: LEED-certified Folsom + Dore Apartments in San Francisco Combine Affordable Housing with Sustainable Features

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By Rich Binsacca
EcoHome Magazine
May 26, 2008


Folsom + Dore Supportive Apartments
San Francisco

Size: 79,100 s.f. (98 units + common areas)

Cost: $26.5 million

Completed: February 2005

Architects: David Baker Architects, Baker Vilar Architects

General Contractor: Cahill Contractors

Client/Owners: Citizens Housing

Consultants: Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing; Steven Winter Associates

Folsom + Dore Apartments applies green building practices to low-income rental housing in the heart of San Francisco.

If you’ve bought into the belief that building green, and especially to LEED standards, is only affordable at the upper end of the housing price spectrum, take a good look at Folsom + Dore Apartments in San Francisco. The 98-unit rental project on a half-acre brownfield site offers reasonable, long-term lease rates to a mix of low-income residents—including former homeless and disabled folks living far below the city’s stratospheric average income level—with a shining example of how sustainability extends far beyond a building’s shell and component parts.

The project’s “green by design” approach began with its site, the redevelopment of a parking lot fronted by an abused, brick-fronted warehouse and dry-cleaning operation. Located in the city’s historic and vibrant SoMa (south of Market Street) neighborhood, within reasonable walking distance to various public transportation options, the site afforded a reduction in the number of parking spaces per unit. The master plan includes only 30 vehicle spaces, supplemented by 28 bicycle stalls and a car-share pod as part of a citywide program.

That variance allowed the architect the freedom and footage to set back the building’s multicolored sections and provide balconies for several units. The design helps break up the building’s mass and makes it appear more like row houses than high-density (much less low-income) rentals, a critical element to its acceptance and integration into the neighborhood.

The building design also created outdoor corridors and courtyards that not only provide respites from its busy urban location, but also serve a functional role as breezeways to help passively cool the common areas and individual units. In fact, there is no mechanical air conditioning, saving significant initial and operating costs. In addition, heat recovery devices fed by waste bathtub drain lines supplement baseboard hydronic heating systems that deliver water and space heating in each unit to further reduce expenses and ongoing costs. Utility bills range from $18 to $23 per month per apartment.

EFCO commercial-grade fixed and operable windows feature high sound transmission coefficient, water- and air-infiltration, and solar heat gain coefficient ratings and low U-values to promote thermal efficiency, allow passive ventilation and cooling, and create more quiet and comfortable interiors.

The design-build team preserved the brick façade of the building to maintain a semblance of continuity, in part to soothe some neighborhood concerns about the project and also to front the new common areas, which include offices for on-site managers, a computer lab, and open recreation and indoor and outdoor gathering and play areas for residents. The enclosed 3,500-square-foot, street-level common area, specifically, combines commercial-grade insulated windows, finished concrete flooring (with fly-ash content), and compact fluorescent lighting.

The specs also include other near-requisite telltales of green building, such as no-VOC coatings, Energy Star–qualified appliances, recycled-content flooring, formaldehyde-free insulation, and even a 13-kw rooftop photovoltaic array (afforded by cost savings elsewhere in the budget) to supplement the utility grid for the common-space electrical load. All of this contributed to the project achieving a LEED-Silver rating.

Going green is nothing new to the building’s owner/developer, the non-profit Citizens Housing Corp. (CHC). Though Folsom + Dore was the developer’s first foray into a formal green building process, CHC has always believed that sustainable development is simply smart business.

“As the developer and the property manager, it’s important for us to maximize efficiencies in the process and the materials to achieve long-term durability,” says Scott Falcone, CHC’s development director.

Incorporating production and operational efficiencies is also critical to CHC securing financing for its projects. Folsom + Dore Apartments benefited from five financial sources, including tax credits and tax-exempt bonds, as well as about $14 million from state and local funds that set thresholds for energy efficiency and indoor air quality. “Meeting those thresholds increases our ability to access those funds in a very competitive environment,” says Falcone.

To access those public funds, the project also had to comply with low-income housing thresholds by offering 50 units for residents earning up to 60% of the city’s average median income, and 46 units for those earning a mere 27.5% of the area’s median income within the 98-apartment plan. (The remaining two units are for the on-site managers.)

CHC’s efforts, boosted by a grant from the federal Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH) program for additional consulting services to demonstrate “affordable green” at Folsom + Dore, also helped attract private financing to bridge gaps in the $26.5 million budget. “Most cost-benefit analyses for green investments show a [financial] savings and a faster payback for the lender because of the reduced operating costs,” says Falcone.

If the financial model penciled out, the reaction from the inhabitants is even more positive. Chronically ill residents report feeling healthier and more vibrant thanks to the fresh air and native vegetation in and around the complex. Though the building is professionally managed, renters have assumed responsibility to maintain common areas, and take pride in the building’s appearance and performance.