David Baker Architects


Builder's Choice PDF IconDbp-10'04-builder-choice

See all Press
By Kathleen Stanley
Builder Magazine
October 2004

Project of the Year: Northside Community Center + Mabuhay Court

Public access to park.

Rain chain sculpture and entrance to center.

By just about any standard, the Project of the Year for 2004 is an unlikely star. It has an odd name: Northside Community Center + Mabuhay Court. It's in California but not in a part of the state that usually racks up design awards. And it's for low-income seniors, a constituency that doesn't often garner a lot of attention. On paper, it's the kind of project that comes across as noble, for sure, but not necessarily a knockout.

But then you see it and learn the particulars, and its unlikely star billing starts to make sense. Mabuhay Court is just what a successful project should be: It's complex and full of design touches that make a great community. In short, it's a good place to live. And isn't that the ultimate goal for any residential construction?

First, the particulars. Mabuhay, which means “good fortune” in Tagalog, the language of its predominantly Filipino tenants, is a project that combines two separate uses: 96 low-income, senior rental units and a new, 16,000-square-foot community center. It's located adjacent to Japan Town, a historic neighborhood near downtown San Jose. It was designed by David Baker + Partners, Architects, a San Francisco firm that's known for its work in the world of affordable housing. And it was developed by a partnership that included the City of San Jose and San Francisco–based BRIDGE Housing Corp., California's largest nonprofit developer of affordable housing.


Back in 1995, the City of San Jose prepared a master plan for expanding the 3,250-square-foot Northside Community Center, a vibrant neighborhood gathering place, and adding senior housing on city-owned land that had once been a maintenance yard. Working with a seniors community organization, David Baker + Partners proposed integrating the separate elements by expanding the housing site into the air rights over an addition to the existing seniors center. “That allowed us to lower the density to three floors and to extend the project into a greater footprint,” says project architect Kevin Wilcock. The three-story housing structures not only blend in better with the surrounding neighborhood, but they were also more economical to construct than a four-story building.

The 96 apartments, which rent from $300 to $750, are a mix of studio and one-and two-bedroom units. Many of the apartments have private balconies and porches linked to walk-up stoops, which mimic the neighboring homes. Parking is provided in surface lots and in a half-level depressed concrete garage. All the units are adaptable for the disabled.

That's the big picture. But Mabuhay makes its mark in the details, the often economical touches that distinguish it from other, more pedestrian projects. The walk-up apartments all have their own front entries, something the architects fought for. “Typically, a one-point entry that's controlled and secured” is employed at complexes such as this, says Wilcock.

Stained wood and other natural materials were used throughout; concrete was also stained, for more interest. Sun shades extend over some of the windows to add shadow and texture to the elevation (and lower the AC bill). Trellises help break up the streetscape, as do strategic applications of paint in warm earth tones. Courtyards offer residents common spaces that are places for social interaction, areas Wilcock calls “gathering knuckles.” Interior corridors get windows at the end so that there's always a glimpse outside. And throughout the 2.19-acre site, there are pieces of art—some sort of focal point—that draw people into the courtyards, down a hallway, or over to the community center.

“We typically don't have a lot of money to spend on these projects, so we tried to focus the special events, the moments in the buildings, into a few special places,” says Wilcock. “We tried to keep the rest of the project very simple and straightforward.”

CATEGORIES: Project of the Year; Active adult community (grand); ENTRANT/ARCHITECT: David Baker + Partners, Architects, San Francisco; BUILDER: L + D, San Jose, Calif.; DEVELOPERS: City of San Jose; BRIDGE Housing Corp., San Francisco; LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Pattillo + Garrett Associates, San Francisco; INTERIOR DESIGNERS: Design Mesh, Orinda, Calif.; David Baker + Partners, Architects

Community center.

Grand: Magnolia Row
Byy Nigel F. Maynard

Interior detail.

Interior detail.


At $300,000 to $425,000 per unit, Magnolia Row may not seem like affordable housing. But when you consider that the project is located in the San Francisco Bay area and consists of two-and three-bedroom townhomes, affordable seems like an appropriate term. “The units are inexpensively priced, but they are market rate,” architect David Baker says.

Even though the units are affordable, Baker detailed them with finishes that are normally found in higher-end homes. “It is a simple concept,” the architect says. “We spent the money on the interior where it shows.” Consequently, the units have hardwood flooring, granite countertops, and undermount sinks. An open-riser staircase adds a nice detail to the interior and becomes a focal point at the entry.

A hybrid of urban lofts and residential townhouses, the project bridges the gap between industrial and residential neighborhoods. The façades are punctuated by large window openings and low-sloped roofs that echo the nearby warehouses, but the scale of the buildings, lap-board siding, and exterior gardens blend with the adjacent Victorian homes.

Baker did not neglect the exteriors, however. Painted fiber-cement siding creates a tough exterior that will withstand the elements, and a painted trellis over the entry adds visual interest. Concrete wheel strips (instead of full pavement) and a garden break up the street frontage.

CATEGORY: Townhouse, less than 2,000 square feet; ENTRANT/ARCHITECT/INTERIOR DESIGNER: David Baker + Partners, Architects, San Francisco; BUILDER: Branagh, Oakland, Calif.; DEVELOPER: Pocket Development, San Francisco; LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: GLS, San Francisco

Builder Tip: Simply Elegant
A tight budget doesn't mean that a project has to be boring, says architect David Baker. Magnolia Row, for example, was inexpensive to build, but it includes simple details that give the units a high-end feel. Painted fiber-cement siding is a straightforward and affordable way to add interest, an open-riser staircase changes the entry experience, and the wheel slivers in the driveway help soften the street elevation. These items are economical to add but make a big difference, Baker adds.

Grand: Linden Court

Article by Nigel F. Maynard

Street side gate.


THE LINDEN COURT DEVELOPMENT is another example of high-design affordable housing that appears to be taking hold in this country. This one, designed and built in collaboration with existing residents, shows what can happen with a little ingenuity and planning.

Linden Court, which is located on an acre-and-a-half site, is a Hope VI replacement for a dilapidated affordable housing structure. The program called for a new project to accommodate 70,000 square feet of living space, including a three-story apartment building, 16 three-story townhomes, and public facilities such as community, office, laundry, and computer rooms. Architect David Baker's challenge was giving the developer the needed square footage while making the density feel as spacious as possible.

Baker organized the buildings around a main courtyard that provides public gathering spaces for residents. Townhomes are located on one side and apartments on the other, with street-side entrances that connect to the main public space. All units access smaller courtyards that bring in light and air, but Baker also designed gates and fences using Polygal poly-carbonate panels and sawtooth steel mesh to help create additional light penetration. These materials also provide visual depth. “It's a nice fence because the site is dense, and we wanted to open it up as much as possible,” he says.

Unlike affordable housing of a different era, the project has well-detailed exteriors. “We wanted to create nice exteriors because if the community looks good, the people will feel good about where they live,” Baker says. He also wanted the shells to be durable, so painted fiber-cement siding and vinyl windows should hold up to the elements well into the future.

CATEGORY: Apartments (rental); ENTRANT/ ARCHITECT/INTERIOR DESIGNER: David Baker + Partners, Architects, San Francisco; BUILDER: Roberts-Obayashi Corp., Danville, Calif.; DEVELOPER: BRIDGE Housing Corp., San Francisco; LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Pattillo + Garrett Associates, San Francisco; INTERIOR DESIGNER: Design Mesh, Orinda, Calif.

Builder Tip: Money Saver
Operating costs such as utility bills are often the most expensive portion of a housing project, architect David Baker says. Over the life of the project, that could add up to a lot of money for Linden Court's owners. BRIDGE Housing Corp. will not have that problem, however. A solar electric system runs indoor and outdoor lights in the public areas. “This is a good way to save money because operating costs are key,” Baker says

Merit: SOMA Strudios and 8th + Howard Apartments

Article by Nigel F. Maynard

Elevation view.

Entry gate at night.

DESPITE ITS AFFORDABLE housing intent, this mixed-use project in the South Market section of San Francisco is designed better than many market-rate residences. The 74-unit complex features studios as well as one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments and has six community rooms and a child-care center. Semi-public courtyards provide areas for resident functions, while a car-share pod (where one can rent a car) offers an alternative to those who do not own cars. Instead of designing one continuous, overpowering façade, architect David Baker defined the building with painted fiber cement and stucco for a pleasing street elevation.

CATEGORY: Mixed-use community; ENTRANT / ARCHITECT / INTERIOR DESIGNER: David Baker + Partners, Architects, San Francisco; BUILDER: Cahill/Lem Joint Venture, San Francisco; DEVELOPERS: Citizens Housing Corp., San Francisco; Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp., San Francisco; LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Adrienne Wong Associates, San Francisco

Special Focus: Lenzen Square Apartments

By Zach Blattner

Poolside view.

WITH ALL UNITS RENTING FROM $897 TO $1,371, SAN JOSE, Calif., teachers now have housing options that are comfortable, modern, and, most important, affordable. The building also has a spacious pool and fitness center, a computer room, a conference room, and a children's play area.

CATEGORY: Workforce housing; ENTRANT / ARCHITECT / INTERIOR DESIGNER: David Baker + Partners, Architects, San Francisco; BUILDER/DEVELOPER: Core Development, San Jose, Calif.