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OCTAVIA / SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA



COLLABORATORS: Group I, Inc.

PROGRAM: Mixed-use residential and commercial complex on multiple City-owned development sites; RFP response to the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development

SIZE: 71 units, 60,000 sq. ft.

COMPLETION: January 2007 (competition)

NOTES: Exposed cast-in-place concrete as envelope and primary structure, aluminum- and steel-framed storefront glazing and sliding door systems, wood brise-soleil

PROJECT TEXT: The development team will be presenting proposals for sites M, N and V. The design for the present site, described below, is intended to complement the others, yet each is capable of standing alone as a part of the urban fabric. While the grandest effect of urban ensemble may be achieved by building all three projects together, and good arguments could be made for why this would be preferable from an urbanistic standpoint, none would be individually compromised if the other sites were awarded to different teams.

The proposed design makes a virtue out of the unusualness of the site’s proportions, using its extreme narrowness and slope to leverage a superior response to the city’s objectives: it “provides the maximum feasible number of housing units, including housing units affordable to low and moderate-income households,” with “innovative urban infill architectural design,” that employs “creative, outstanding architecture to complement Octavia Boulevard.” By such means the proposed design emphatically “raises the standards of housing design for the Excess Parcels and infill sites throughout San Francisco.” In addition, this proposal “utilize[s] creative ideas for housing and other uses on an irregular parcel,” while “respect(ing) the cultural, architectural and aesthetic context of the neighborhood.”

The project is generally organized into two slender profile concrete slab buildings set back from the inside lot line but up against the sidewalk along Octavia and extending from Haight to Market, stepping down the slope. The two buildings share a common elevator bank and entry lobby between them, midway down the sloping block. Both buildings feature a continuous retail base (12’ and 15’ ceiling heights, with floor to ceiling glazing on the street elevation) above subterranean storage, mechanical and very limited parking areas (12 spaces supplied, far less than the 35 allowed under the guidelines). The parking levels are accessed from a single point off Haight by one-way-at-a-time ramp system along the interior of the lot in the backyard setback area, keeping the entire car experience well away from the pedestrian activity along Octavia and Market. Above the retail base are five and eight residential levels respectively. At the roof level of both buildings is located public outdoor space for the residents.

The design adheres to the mandated height limits as it steps down Octavia to Market, however it consolidates the average height of each building in a façade treatment that overlays the finer scale of the east-west streets with the larger scale of Octavia itself, where the sides of the narrow lots are exposed on a broad frontage. In this way the design intends to offer the advantages of both a grand scale viewed from a distance with a finely grained level of detail that may be appreciated by pedestrians up close.

Out of necessity due to the unusual configuration of the site, and by choice to promote more consistently affordable units, the proposed design features the micro-urban-living-unit (MULU) strategy pioneered by this team in San Francisco with the recent Book Concern Building Development at UN plaza. The unit mix is varied, with four varieties of two-bedroom units, all two levels, three varieties of one bedroom, of which two are multilevel, and two varieties of studio. 42% (30 out of 71) of the units are two bedroom and 83% (59 total) of the units have exterior decks, none of which are counted against the total public outdoor space (6400 sq. ft.), which is all supplied on the green roofs of the two buildings. All of the unit types are arranged along a double-loaded access corridor open on either end, with all rooms completely glazed on one side for maximum exposure to light and air. The two-level units enjoy double height areas and the added benefit of greater zoning control, unusual for such small spaces.

The proposed design will be constructed of a few simple, real materials. Primary among these is cast-in-place thin slab fly ash concrete, used for structure and finish throughout. A number of advantages accrue to this material selection—historical, social, durability, character, economy, environmental. A building built from such material must stand out proudly in the neighborhood of stucco and wood as a statement of belief in the worthiness of its development, asserting that it is no cheap, fly-by-night developer special, but a real, quality building, intending to be around for awhile.

San Francisco and the Bay Area boasts a proud tradition of modern architecture, the best examples of which were built in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies in the béton brut concrete system, by Paffard Keatinge-Clay, Luigi Nervi, Joseph Esherick, William Wurster and others. In the present design this history is proudly recalled not only by the fact of its materiality but also by its form and massing, which exhibits the plasticity and dignified character particular to the material. Refusing to treat the concrete as merely a structural system to be covered up, the design instead emphasizes its unique, ever changing surface quality, varying its handling from rough board-forming at its “rusticated” base to the smooth interior surfaces of steel formwork and plywood-formed exterior planes above. The honest durability of the material benefits both the owners and the community, ensuring a lasting sense of quality to the development, requiring little expensive or time-consuming maintenance, insulating neighbors from each other and the elements with effective sound control and environmentally friendly thermal mass.

Complementing the concrete is a façade system of dark anodized aluminum and painted steel storefront and mall-slider type glazing. Wood sunscreen louvers and interior finishes add warmth without compromising the integrity of the whole, and in combination with the painted sidewalls of the unit’s integral outside decks, bring out noble historical associations reaching back to Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute and Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation.

This project is as much an urban design proposal as an architectural one. It takes its cues in this regard from the City’s General Plan goals to “reconstruct the physical fabric of the neighborhood” and “promote innovative urban infill architectural design.” The chief means of attaining the first of these goals is a deep respect for the planning guidelines for the area, while the second is achieved by thinking originally about the intentions behind those guidelines and reflecting that in the strong, forthright formalism of the proposal. Many of the urban design features are built into the zoning for the area, so this project cannot claim them exclusively, but it does enter into the spirit of these established guidelines with great enthusiasm, intending to be exemplary of the highest intentions of this city mandate and showing how such guidelines do not restrict design quality but enhance it. Chief among these must be counted the increased density and non-auto orientation of the transit district, which this project embraces wholeheartedly with its proposal of a greater than expected quantity of units and drastic restraint with respect to parking. Complementing these advantages are a continuous base of pedestrian friendly retail, convenient bicycle facilities, durable low maintenance construction and interesting variety of spatial and formal scales.

The planning guidelines are focused on ensuring that such relatively large projects as this do not create dead spaces or holes in the neighborhood, which in this case means healing the divisions created by the demolished freeway. The guidelines mandate among other things, for example, the “provision of convenient neighborhood services” through “active ground floor uses,” with “retail functions focused on the corners, where features and entries emphasizing the corner.” This describes the present project’s street frontage completely, which is organized to connect the street life of Octavia with that of Market, using its continuous, topographically varied retail base to draw the Market crowds around the corner and up the hill into the neighborhood. As well, the guidelines encourage a “diversity” of housing types to knit the community together, and compensatory provision of a “standard rear yard setback” to loosen that knitting to tolerable distances. The project provides both, even though the rear-yard setback is not required by the RFP on this unusual site, in order to maximize light and air to the project’s own varied unit mix as well as its neighbors.

Beyond these planning considerations, the design establishes itself as a continuous part of the neighborhood fabric through its form, which, while “increasing the density” of the housing stock by its judicious use of the available building envelope, is divided into “separate buildings to break down its apparent mass.” Further, through its complex layering of glazing systems and sunshade louvers, the design is “articulated vertically and in proportion with the dimensions of the site.” Generally following the slope of the street down to Market, the design recognizes the importance of this site’s unique location within the fabric by exerting a strong presence at the corner, where it marks the intersection with a projecting urban-scaled placard visible up and down the larger street. In this area the planning guidelines discourage parking and auto-oriented streetscape effects, though parking spaces are highly desirable from a development bottom line perspective. The design has gone to lengths to mitigate the presence of the minimal parking it does supply to meet the project’s pro-forma, including elimination of curb cuts and access points from all frontages accept Haight, the placing of all parking areas below grade in favor of an active ground floor uses (retail) along Octavia and Market, and the provisions for bicycle parking and storage at key pedestrian access points to the site.

The best case to be made for environmental sensitivity is offered by design: good design withstands the test of time; its quality, layout and flexibility mean that it will not force the expenditure of resources for its demolition and rebuilding or extensive renovation. It is the intention of this design to be that good; further, the design will demonstrate this by achieving LEED certification. Consequently, the project displays many environmentally friendly features, related to urban design, space planning, material usage, user controls and energy efficiency.

Many of these attributes are addressed by the urban design guidelines, which envision the area as a dense, pedestrian-dominant community, with easy access to public- and alternative forms of transportation and conveniently located services and amenities. The project supports these goals with its disproportionately large number of units, retail base, convenient bicycle facilities and restricted parking. Beyond this, the design includes many elements more exclusively related to environmental concerns. Most visually apparent among these are the wood louvers adorning the facades, which mediate the western sun and control night sky light pollution. With extensive operable double-pane glazing behind these louvers that introduces views, natural daylight and ventilation into all rooms, the project will be climatically tunable and fully user-controlled. The use of energy efficient light fixtures, predominant use of task lighting and light wall colors to bounce light (exposed concrete where available) further amplify these advantages.

In California water conservation is a particular issue. This project addresses it head on, with the use of water-efficient fixtures throughout and a grey water irrigation system for its drought resistant urban plantings. In addition, a “green roof” public outdoor space, featuring native plants, assists with stormwater management and building cooling with natural temperature control, while providing habitat for regional animal, bird, insect species—as well as oxygen exchange and air purification.

The design’s use of materials will be similarly sensitive to environmental concerns. The scheme emphasizes materials with a high recycled content, such as partitions, gypsum board, as well as the buried freeway foundations, which might be recycled to provide the gravel aggregate for some of the fly ash concrete; in the same vein, extensive use will be made of materials that adhere to a "cradle to cradle" concepts—that can be recycled and are easily taken apart—as well as rapidly renewable materials like bamboo and cork and wheat board. Mindful of the desire to avoid cutting down trees for the project, the featured wood louvers may be reclaimed wood or FSC certified wood. Low VOC paints and carpets will be used throughout.

While the development team is interested in producing a “green” building, it is felt that the building’s sense of urbanity should take visual precedence, so the design holds back from presenting itself as a poster child for environmentalism. Instead of festooning itself with photovoltaics, for example (though this could become an option for the future), the design opts for a lower key—but no less environmentally effective—approach. From this perspective, the wood louvers role as a complex urban façade of scale-giving treatments is as important as their responsibility to screen light.