David Baker Architects


Navigating the Hills of Affordable Housing

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Last spring, BUILD sat down with San Francisco-based architect David Baker while he was in Seattle to speak at the University of Washington (UW) Department of Architecture. David’s work has received more than 160 architectural design awards and honors, including six national AIA awards, and in 2010, he received the Hearthstone Builder Humanitarian Award, which honors the housing industry’s thirty most influential and innovative people of the past thirty years. With his breadth of experience living and working in San Francisco, we got a peek into David's path and passion towards affordable housing and urbanite living (find part 2 of the interview on the BUILD Blog).


BUILD: What’s it like being asked to speak at UW, where they didn’t accept your application as a student?

David Baker: It’s pretty funny, isn't it? At the time I applied, I was in transition—I was a total hippie. The world was going to change, and it did, but in a different way than I was expecting. Before applying to graduate school, I attended a free school in western Michigan which didn’t give grades, but I had to build a house as part of the program. I also got a union carpenter's card, strangely enough. One day, I went down to the union hall because they were hiring, and I told them I could do the job. I didn't go through an apprenticeship—I just showed up on-site knowing next to nothing. That was my theory: Why let ignorance stop you? I think I know more now. I hope. A few years later, I met with the dean at UW. I had a nifty portfolio, and I had done a bunch of interesting things, which he thought was great. But while I had good test scores, I had no grade point average from western Michigan, and the UW graduate school didn’t accept me. In the modern education system, people become good students, but it's important to remember that academic life ends at some point.

ARCADE Magazine.

B: How did your firm get its start in affordable housing, considering the stiff competition?

DB: In architecture school, I joined a couple of friends from the University of California at Berkeley to participate in a student design competition for an office building with housing. We spent all summer on it and came in second place. The firm judging the competition liked our work and recommended us for a project in San Jose. It turned out they needed energy consultants, not architects, but we took the job anyway. There was a housing component along with the project, which got us in the door. After that, I started my own business and worked as an energy consultant for a few years straight out of school, which was a really dumb thing to do—you don't know how to run a business straight out of school, and you haven't apprenticed. It's better to learn from someone, which is what IDP is all about. Our firm won a housing competition with an awful developer—it wasn't good. There also wasn't any certification for the energy consulting we were doing, and people could figure out pretty quickly how to do it on their own. Later, I spun off and designed cafes, eventually gaining a reputation as a cafe and small-retail architect. Around that time, affordable housing was undergoing a transition. Under President Reagan, government-run HUDs were to be no longer, and they went into the hands of private non-profits, establishing tax credit for affordable housing. This benefited non-profit developers, who existed in the private sector. They were much nimbler and market-driven, while HUD housing was expensive, encumbered by regulations and had few quality-driven goals. Because the developments were so awful, nobody wanted HUD housing in their neighborhoods.

The Bridge Corporation, a non-profit developer, started talking to some of the architects who worked on affordable housing projects. The developers would negotiate great fees for the work and paid their architects well, but the architects weren’t allowed to design any unnecessary elements into a project’s program, such as balconies. They eventually talked to me. Because I was innovative and less expensive than others, I was hired; after a couple of projects, I was suddenly an expert at multi-family work, which wasn’t my plan but simply an opportunity that arose. For a while, multi-family housing was sort of looked down on in the architecture profession, but it's a very important housing type. It’s significant to the urban fabric, and it's uplifting that the notion of good design in multi-family housing has come back.

B: What actions should a young firm take to begin competing for affordable housing work?

DB: It's just like anything. In cities, marketing and community engagement are the same thing. Find your local non-profit or advocacy organization and serve on the board of directors. The other way to do it is to work for a firm that designs affordable housing and spin off your own practice when you’ve established client relationships.

B: Some of your work establishes living spaces for the homeless. What is it like to design for those who previously did not have spaces to call their own?

DB: We have this key-giving ceremony. At the Richardson project, there was a seventy-year-old man who was given his key. He looked at it and said he had never had a key before in his life, and he burst into tears. The experience can be quite profound.

B: Your website highlights data that includes a project’s density, the parking per unit and square footage allocated to daycare facilities. What measures are most indicative of a successful project?

DB: Every project is a really complex story, and we’re constantly trying to raise the bar. People used to think we were insane for advocating that retail spaces be located under housing, and now it’s the norm. We’re currently confronting the amount of parking required for most projects. There are other things to do to a building besides put parking in it. It's not only expensive, it includes an opportunity cost. Even when the parking is underground, the ramps, gates and garage doors create unpleasant experiences and detract from an active, urban streetscape. The question is—how long will we keep doing this? In ten to fifteen years, people will ask why we put in all these garages. On too many projects, parking is equated to essentials like food, water and air: "If I don't have a parking space, I will die!"—which is untrue.

B: There’s been a lot of recent media attention on micro-housing, in NYC and other major cities in the United States. You’ve built several of these projects in San Francisco. Is there a density tipping-point at which micro-housing becomes effective? Or is it a model appropriate for all cities?

DB: Every community has people for which micro-housing makes sense. They’re good-sized units compared to world standards. San Francisco’s Chinatown has SROs (single-room occupancy) that are fifty square-feet and are used for family housing—and a lot of those folks would probably be unhappy in larger places. In addition to the cost savings of a smaller space, it’s also about making a mental shift. This idea that a suburban home is "better" rides on the assumption that people who live in them love to go to Home Depot and spend their weekends doing yard work. Having a house with a yard requires spending a lot of time and money taking care of it. Living in an apartment, you don't have to do that.

B: Do the American suburbs have a future?

DB: I think the suburbs are great. But they're a less desirable product, from a capitalistic view point. People are paying less to live there because it's not as desirable. An apartment in the city versus a suburban house—which is better? It's a moot discussion. Each have good qualities. And maybe people move to the suburbs because they want gardens, but in the cities, even that's changing. Seattle's a leader in the biophilia movement.

B: As a self-proclaimed bike expert, how are we doing in Seattle as far as bike lanes and public transportation go?

DB: My impression of Seattle is that you have to be fairly hardcore to bike here. People in San Francisco think the hills are an issue there, but they’re more like bumps. Unless you know somebody at the top of a hill, you never have to go up one, whereas here in Seattle, you have to climb. In Seattle, cyclists have all the gears, they’re prepared for rain, they wear reflective jackets and the distances they travel are a lot greater, too. We rode up from the Ace Hotel to have dinner at a friend's house, and it was a forty-five-minute ride. In San Francisco, there are no forty-five-minute rides, which is crucial for most cities. In Amsterdam, for instance, property values decrease beyond a five-minute bike ride from Central Station. The Dutch don't go and get a bunch of gears, special biking clothes and a really nice bike to ride around for twenty miles. Because they’re only riding a mile or two on average, they can wear normal clothes.

B: What’s on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?

DB: The Inspector Chen Series by Qiu Xiaolong, which is a scholarly whodunit set in 1990s China with all of its dichotomies.


B: The video about your office suggests a calm environment of bicycles, tea, and group lunches. Is working at David Baker Architects really this serene?

DB: It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty nice. We have chair massages, free food, and only 2 out of 23 people drive to work now. There’s an important social movement going on in the office lately. We have a lot of younger people in the office and they want to be in an open studio environment where they can see everybody and have opportunities to collaborate. They don’t seem to like the notion of being isolated in separate offices. Back in the day, people would fight over which chair they got, now the younger folks don’t seem to care as much about those things. But even in an open studio plan people can become isolated from one another–you don’t have to be a big company to fall into this trap. You can have five people over here and they won’t know anything about what the five people over there are doing. You want to encourage teams to talk to one another. I used to run around the office and say, “Hey, they’re dealing with the exact same problem on this team, you should go talk to them.” Now, more people are doing that. A few weeks ago on a Friday, we had an office happy hour and people were sitting around talking about unit buildings at six o’clock. The entire office was doing this and I didn’t even organize it.

B: With the amount of competition to win affordable housing contracts, how much time/budget of the design is spent just securing this work with the all of the Request for Proposals, Request for Qualifications, and presentation process?

DB: 90% of what we do is repeat work with established clients. Non-profit developers typically work with stable qualified architects like ourselves. However, cities like to be fair, so they open it up to all the people in the world. The problem is there’s a lot of incompetent people out there. Inexperienced architects would win the job and then had to deal with the entire learning curve of the work and process. This is one of the main issues that HUD faced. They’d hire architects who couldn’t really deliver. But non-profits are a business and they want to work with people who they know have competence. They don’t want to constantly educate architects on the process each time. Whenever the economy gets bad, we will go after jobs but competing for work isn’t our strong suit. We’ll sometimes get called in to submit alongside seven other architects and we usually respond, “Well, I’m sure one of those seven architects will be really happy getting that job, but we don’t have time to pursue this.” It’s actually a great marketing strategy. Other times we’ll offer some work initially, to see how we all get along. With the amount of red tape, boxes to check and bureaucracy involved in affordable housing, how do the construction costs compare to market rate work? It’s the same. The majority of the cost of building is the building. And they are fixed primarily by codes. If you take all the frosting off the cake, you still have the cake; it’s 98% of it. The market-rate people will spend more on finishes but the structure is primarily the same. Since the affordable housing groups rent their projects rather than sell them on the market, they probably build less robustly than they should. Making a lockset that doesn’t fall off in three years costs more than one that does – and there’s a significant cost to items like that. But the affordable housing groups deliver on time. There was one developer who came in and he said, “You know, the first thing I learned from my former boss was: Never design anything you’d live in yourself because if you do, you’ve spent too much money.” Whoa! I told him I couldn’t see how this was going to work. We always design things we’d live in ourselves. That’s our metric. I just thought it was shocking that he’d say, “I don’t design housing this way because I’d make more money.”

B: What is the permitting and approval process like in San Francisco?

DB: It’s slow. In the Charter of San Francisco, everything is appealable. There is no right to do anything. This means the environmental review process is lengthy and expensive.

B: State and city agencies tend to be on the more conservative side of design. How have you achieved so many design-forward projects working with these groups?

DB: Strangely enough, the planning department is the biggest road block to design-forward projects. You’ve got to be contextual to get approval. Somehow the ideas of “New Urbanism” have influenced the neighborhood plan and buildings are supposed to have a base, middle, and top. But the neighborhood folks who originally wrote the plan are now advocating for Stanley Saitowitz modernism. The planning department pushes back and criticizes the designs because they aren’t broken up into 25’-50’ segments, and the don’t have a base, middle, and top. The neighborhood communities and planning department are at odds with one another.

B: How do you deal with the nostalgia of traditional architecture in San Francisco?

DB: At a meeting in Potrero Hill, we were proposing a fairly modern building to the neighborhood. Someone at the meeting stood up and asked why the building wasn’t designed in the Victorian style. My response was that it’s a really big building and the Victorian style depends on scale. Someone else stood up and commented that it should look like a Victorian… if it was 1890, and then proceeded to reprimand the original commenter. The attitudes about traditional versus modern architecture are changing at the community level.

B: Is there a place for design review boards in architecture?

DB: While design review boards raise the bar and often make the bad design slightly better, they also tend to wipe out the really good stuff. Sometimes it seems like they give more grief to people who are doing interesting things than those who are doing the bad stuff.

B: What has your experience been like with the community review boards in San Francisco, known for making decisive aesthetic judgments?

DB: The process protects design from bad development decisions. We were working on a project in Union City and while the developer was a non-profit, they would cut out good design even if the project was under budget. They had an idea of cutting costs by making the windows smaller. We told them it would look terrible, but they brushed our comment aside. So we rendered the two schemes up –one with the full size windows and one with the smaller windows for the design review board to compare and make a decision. When the board asked what happened to the windows the developer answered that they made them smaller to save money. The board’s response was, “No you didn’t.” And that was that. So design review boards can be a good thing. If nothing else, it instills in developers the idea that they need to hire good architects so that their projects will be approved by the boards. Building as cheap as possible isn’t going to fly.

B: Back in 1992, you contributed your forecasts for 2020 Visions. As 2020 is now only a handful of years away, what do you make of your predictions today?

DB: We came up with some ideas that were totally crazy, like housing in the freeway. I’ve been in this game so long that some of those ideas, once considered crazy, have become standard practice, like micro-housing and hybrid vehicles. Five years ago I talked about parking garages becoming obsolete and cars that drive themselves. The first few times I said it, people were like, “Sure…Ok…” and would back away. Now, you can’t pick up a magazine without hearing about it. Especially with Google’s technology, people accept the automated car. 

B: How does social media play into your firm?

DB: We’re active on social media and it’s really important now. I like new things, so we do all that stuff like Twitter. I’ve always been attracted to learning new things, and even early on in the firm we set up a website.

B: What can architecture students do to become more valuable to the industry?

DB: They can learn how to draw. Also, students should learn that architecture is a great profession. It pays reasonably well, and you have the advantage of creating something. No matter what you do in architecture, don’t pity yourself.

David Baker founded San Francisco-based David Baker + Partners in 1982, and in 1996 was selected as Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Honored as one of the 30 most influential people in the affordable housing industry, David’s work has received more than 160 architectural design awards and honors, including six national AIA awards. His firm has gained a reputation as an award-winning, sustainability-minded office where drivers are outnumbered by cyclists.