David Baker Architects


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By Jane Kolleeny
Architectural Record
February 2006


These multifamily housing projects offer attractive alternatives to the unchecked development of single-family communities. All of these projects embody a socially responsible approach to design, either by virtue of their use of sustainable technologies or by responding to the needs of low-income residents. Each project expresses a modern sensibility, often working with a modest budget.

Curran House

Jammed with weary looking buildings along blocks of drug dealers doing business, San Francisco's Tenderloin isn't a neighborhood where you'd expect to find children. But large numbers of Asian immigrant families now live there, drawn by proximity to the downtown shops and restaurants where many newcomers find work.

In 2001, when the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC) had a chance to build housing from the ground up, the nonprofit, which manages 1,600 apartments in 21 buildings, knew the population it should serve. "There are 4,000 children in the Tenderloin," explained Donald Falk, TNDC's executive director. "There's a tremendous demand for family housing, and very little exists."

Curran House, a 67-unit complex where 38 apartments have two or three bedrooms, opened in 2005. It rises from a lot that's long and relatively shallow, wedged between aged apartment buildings on three sides. Zoning set the height of one side of the lot at 85 feet and the other at 120 feet, with a 20-foot setback from the street at the sixth floor. Parking spaces were required despite proximity to subway and bus lines. "This is the hardest floor plan we've ever done—a Rubik's Cube puzzle where we had this volume and had to slide the units in," said Curran House architect David Baker, FAIA who has made a specialty of high-density and often low-cost housing.

Baker's first move to solve the puzzle came when he convinced city planners to waive the upper-floor setback requirement, allowing the space to be used in vertical notches running the length of the building. The central bay, for instance, was pulled back 12 feet to allow for an entry plaza with a palm tree. He also won a variance to eliminate the parking, allowing two small storefronts and a basement office for TNDC to fill the space. The recessed bays add literal relief to the block's tight wall of mid-rise structures.


Curran House sends the message that families should live in buildings that offer a sense of comfort and respect—regardless of income.

Interior lobby.

From the street, Curran House resembles a three-dimensional collage. Along the sidewalk on the north side, protruding bays are cloaked in dark green stucco punctuated by square windows in a zigzag pattern, while the south side has vertical strips of -yellow stucco. For extra variety (and extra space), balconies pop out from 20 of the apartments.

The clean lines of the building aren't just for show: they work with the building's column and shear walls to define efficiently laid-out, family-size units. Indeed, for all the intricacy of a plan that results in 223 units per acre, the apartments themselves feel relaxed; the two-bedroom apartments are 1,050 square feet, with extensive closet space in the master bedroom, as well as storage cabinets tucked between the kitchen and the living room.

Though fairly plain, the apartments have small touches that set Curran House apart from the subsidized norm. One or two panes of glass in each unit are translucent, or tinted red or green—not enough to seem lurid, but just enough to add visual texture. And recycled ingredients were used wherever possible, such as linoleum corridor floors made of linseed and sawdust.

Unit interior.

Roof floor plan.

The biggest surprise of the project is its significant amount of open space—a distinct rarity in the dense Tenderloin. The broad lobby with stained concrete floors has a rear glass wall, which rolls up like a garage door to a courtyard designed by Andrea Cochrane that includes a shallow fountain and extensive landscaping. "Residents should have space that's calming and life supporting, because it's really harsh out there," Baker said, referring to the often-edgy Tenderloin scene. Baker also stressed that such landscaping, on a tight budget, wouldn't be possible atop an underground garage. The dirt would be too shallow, restricting the greenery to potted plants. He called the trade-off an example of "putting the quality of life over the quality of parking."

There is a roof deck as well, which Baker pulled into the daily life of the residents with two quite different functions: a glassed-in laundry room dubbed "the penthouse" which runs along the south edge of the building, and 12 deep metal tubs large enough to accommodate family gardens.

Viewed strictly in terms of design, Curran House adds syncopation and color to a neighborhood where too many blocks are marked by a grim monotony. But the most impressive accomplishment is the gracious humanity once you step inside. Curran House sends the message that families should live in buildings that offer a sense of comfort and respect—regardless of income.

Rooftop with garden and views.