David Baker Architects

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By Meghan Drueding
Residential Architect
August 2004

 "I think it's important to be committed in a consistent fashion. That's why I don't have a car."

David Baker weaves social consciousness through his life and work.<span style="font-style: italic;"> Image: Danny Turner</span>

Even in affordable housing such as 8th + Howard, Baker finds room for custom touches like a glass-and-steel entry gate. <span style="font-style: italic;">Image: Cesar Rubio</span>

With the goal of a walkable city in mind, Baker designed ground-floor retail into Curran House. Where appropriate, the firm encourages unbundled parking.

David Baker FAIA doesn’t own a car. It’s not because he doesn’t know how to drive one, and, as the head of an in-demand San Francisco firm, it’s not because he can’t afford to buy one. No, Baker got rid of all three of his cars a few years ago to make a point.

As a vocal advocate of pedestrian-friendly downtowns, he believes excessive auto use causes environmental degradation, traffic congestion, and national dependence on foreign oil. What better way to back up his argument than to divest himself of his own four-wheeled vehicles? He now rides his folding bike to work, takes the BART underground rail system to the airport, and reserves a car from the city’s CarShare program for weekend trips. “I think it’s important to be committed in a consistent fashion," he says. “That’s why I don’t have a car.”

Such personal commitment defines Baker’s entire career. His roots as a self-proclaimed “radical hippie” have led him to his role today as one of the country’s top housing architects. From his own small, urban house in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood to the leadership roles he plays in several community organizations, he lives the same sustainable, forward-thinking lifestyle his firm’s award-winning buildings promote. Now in its 22nd year, David Baker + Partners has become so known for inventive design that developer clients use the firm’s name front and center in their advertising.

8th + Howard typical upper floor plan.

8th + Howard lower-level site plan.

8th + Howard Affordable Housing.

Tech BoomEstablishing relationships with longtime clients was an important step in Baker’s early career. But something else equally significant happened to him in the '80s: He realized, far earlier than most of his peers, that computers were about to change the world. In 1983, he became just the fifth person anywhere to take out an AutoCAD license, which enabled his firm to produce drawings at a much faster pace than its competitors. “None of the other, big-name architects I’d seen had CAD,” says Holliday. “Dave is one of those people who will see a technological shift way before anyone else.” A little over a decade later Baker learned HTML and designed a Web site, years before many firms even thought about the Web.

The site is still maintained in-house by interior designer Michelle Peckham and office manager Peggy Olson. Much more comprehensive than the standard architect’s Web site, it contains detailed program, size, cost, density, and parking statistics on dozens of projects. And it includes the Web addresses and phone numbers of the contractors, developers, and consultants involved, so potential clients have multiple contacts right at their fingertips. Although 90 percent of the firm’s work comes from repeat clients, it doesn’t hurt to be able to refer new ones to the site. “The Web site is our main presentation tool," says Peckham

Baker’s initial fervor over computer technology hasn’t abated. He, MacKenzie, and the firm’s third partner, Kevin Wilcock AIA, are bullish on the Autodesk Revit 3-D building design and documentation software they’ve been using since 2003. “We’re very efficient designers, because our software systems are sophisticated,” says Wilcock. Their technological expertise helps explain a production volume that seems almost impossibly high for a 12-person operation. The firm has more than 3,700 multifamily or single-family production housing units built or under construction and 2,600 more in the design phase. It also takes on an occasional custom home or commercial project.

Decks and a rain chain fountain provide places for relaxation at this seniors' affordable housing (2002) in San Jose, CA.

Overview of Northside Community Center.

Home BaseDavid Baker + Partners’ own headquarters occupies a ground-floor space in the Clocktower Lofts, a former lithography plant whose 1992 renovation it designed. The building, located in San Francisco’s gritty South of Market area (SoMa), exemplifies the community-based principles that govern the firm’s work. Its two-story atrium entry, for example, encourages people to take the open-air staircase rather than the elevator. “People will use the stairs when there’s only one flight to navigate,” Wilcock says. To reach their office, the staff walks through a courtyard with a small fountain, where the soothing sound of running water mingles with the chirping of birds. “It’s a decompression zone,” says Baker, whose interest in fountains was sparked by an online AIA continuing education course he took on feng shui. “You come in here and your blood pressure goes down.” The firm enjoys the courtyard so much, in fact, that it now designs outdoor rooms into each of its projects. “It’s almost as if the buildings are there to mold the exterior spaces,” says Jim Chappell, president of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, a public policy think tank of which Baker is a director.

Lush interior courtyards bestow an almost tropical feel on the live/work Clock Tower Lofts (1992).

Clocktower Lofts at the corner of Second and Bryant.

The Clocktower’s very density (99 units per acre), the fact that it reuses an existing building, and its live-work nature all reinforce Baker’s philosophy of low-impact living. “I’m interested in higher density,” he says. “The problem of housing won’t be solved by cheap custom homes in the suburbs.” His interest in solar power and energy efficiency still runs deep. The 1904 house he’s renovating with his wife, architect-artist-color consultant Jane Martin, holds rooftop photovoltaic panels, and he’s looking into using PVs at a community the firm is designing in Oakland, California. To help qualify for tax credits, every affordable housing project Baker and his team have done exceeds the Department of Energy’s Energy Star requirements by 15 percent. Overall, though, he tends to approach sustainability from a land-use point of view. “A rundown apartment in the city is more sustainable than a 5,000-square-foot solar mansion, because the BTUs per person are vastly lower;” he continues. “Low density is not a sustainable future. You need that land to grow things on or replenish the watershed.”

 

Best know for affordable housing, the firm also excels at boutique infill like the Emeryville Warehouse Lofts.

"The problem of housing won't be solved by cheap custom homes in the suburbs."

Kitchen in Emeryville Warehouse Lofts.

Learning ExperienceLow-density housing may be out of the question, but that still leaves plenty of high-density variations to try. And the more complex a program, the better Baker likes it. About half the firm’s housing work is affordable and the other half market-rate—often the two are blended within the same project. For-sale and rental units also coexist within many jobs, as do different uses. (When designing condominiums, Baker has the developer indemnify him from any litigation that may arise due to California’s strict liability laws for condos.) Project settings and user groups contrast wildly. Recently completed work includes 8th + Howard, a mix of affordable SROs (single-room occupancy) and family housing in SoMa with street-level retail, daycare, and CarShare parking; and the Hotel Healdsburg, a luxury wine country hotel containing boutiques, a high-end restaurant, and a spa.

Such variety allows Baker and his staff to apply knowledge gained from one kind of project to the design of another. Take the Clocktower and other loft projects' handcrafted lobby staircases created by local artisans. For the Hotel Healdsburg the firm took its focus on vertical circulation a step further, designing a sunlit “green stair” lined with bamboo plants. And at 8th +  Howard and other projects, it turned its attention to the upper-level stairwells, designing windows into each one so no resident is ever trapped in a windowless zone. Each hallway in most of its work ends in a window too, allowing double-loaded corridors to breathe. “We have some peculiar things that we make important, and daylight in corridors is one of them,” Baker says.

Parking is another building component the firm continually refines. In several projects, garages are embedded on different floors within the building. This strategy enables residents who live on the same floor to park on the same level, creating a friendlier parking experience than the anonymity of a big underground garage. Baker favors unbundled parking in many cases, especially when the project is near public transportation and rentable parking spaces in the area are plentiful. He cited both reasons when persuading local officials to let him eliminate parking at Curran House, affordable housing that just broke ground in San Francisco’s Tenderloin section.

Gutsy blocks of color make this market rate San Francisco rental project pop against a blue sky.

Trellis views of Magnolia Row.

Equal OpportunityThe firm’s modern, quirky designs don’t please everyone. Martin, who often serves as a color consultant for her husband’s firm, remembers a SoMa dweller calling the Mayor’s office to complain about the bright exterior colors at a neighboring market-rate rental project. But the people who live in David Baker + Partners’ buildings generally love their homes. “The real test is how the residents feel,” says Scott Falcone, senior project manager at Charities Housing Corp., a developer of 8th +  Howard. “We did a survey of the tenants at 8th + Howard after they’d lived there about a year, and they’re just glowing. They appreciate the units, the amenities, the open space, the layout.

Baker’s egalitarian nature comes through in his view that the high-end and low-end projects he’s worked on really aren’t that different. “Hotels are very much like affordable housing—you’re trying to get rooms in.” he says. “An SRO is like a custom home, only the rooms in the house are individual units.” His sense of democracy extends to the office, where everyone, including the partners, works in cubicles. He’s even opening up his popular, periodic tours of Bay Area housing to include projects by architects other than his firm. “I try not to be endlessly self-promoting,” he explains. The tours, of course take place on bikes. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Cover of Residential Architect.

Even in affordable housing such as 8th + Howard, Baker finds room for custom touches like a glass-and-steel entry gate. Image: Cesar Rubio

8th + Howard Affordable Housing.

David Baker weaves social consciousness through his life and work. Image: Danny Turner

8th + Howard typical upper floor plan.

8th + Howard lower-level site plan.

With the goal of a walkable city in mind, Baker designed ground-floor retail into Curran House. Where appropriate, the firm encourages unbundled parking.

Overview of Northside Community Center.

Decks and a rain chain fountain provide places for relaxation at this seniors' affordable housing (2002) in San Jose, CA.

Clocktower Lofts at the corner of Second and Bryant.

Lush interior courtyards bestow an almost tropical feel on the live/work Clock Tower Lofts (1992).

Best know for affordable housing, the firm also excels at boutique infill like the Emeryville Warehouse Lofts.

Kitchen in Emeryville Warehouse Lofts.

Emeryville Lofts interior kitchen.

Entrance court to the Emeryville Warehouse Lofts.

Gutsy blocks of color make this market rate San Francisco rental project pop against a blue sky.

Trellis views of Magnolia Row.