Multifamily visionary: The life and work of architect David Baker
By John Caulfield
Building Design + Construction Magazine
7 June 2017
Photo courtesy Anne Hamersky Media
The College of Environmental Design’s 2017 distinguished alumnus, David Baker (M.Arch ‘82), FAIA, LEED AP, has forged an illustrious career designing stylish and practical market-rate and affordable urban housing, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as in Baltimore, Denver, Charleston, S.C., and (coming soon) Seattle.
The 67-year-old, whose San Francisco–based firm David Baker Architects (DBA) celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, has hewn a design philosophy that prioritizes the social and financial concerns of the communities in which the firm works.
Baker knows all too well that getting affordable multifamily housing to the finish line is always an uphill climb, especially when what the community wants is at odds with a city’s planning and growth agendas. Baker cites developers and builders who balk at affordable housing as a market “distortion.” He also singles out an “exhaustive” planning process that, in San Francisco at least, can keep approvals in limbo for as long as five years.
What really irks Baker are the barriers to homebuilding that, year after year, limit supply and drive up prices. Among them: inclusionary fees that developers must pay for the privilege of not having to build affordable housing on site—fees that, in San Francisco, cost $269,000 per one-bedroom apartment and $366,000 per two-bedroom. Little wonder, he says, that developers flee toward more lucrative housing prospects. But Baker remains a clear-eyed optimist. He has energized his 34-member firm to design more than 10,000 apartment and condo units, 6,000 of them in the affordable column, in buildings that promote an acute sense of community. The firm has been honored with more than 300 awards, including five national AIA awards.
Baker got into affordable housing almost by accident. While studying at CED, he was on a team that entered a competition to design an energy-efficient state office building with integrated housing. Through connections he made in that competition, he was introduced to Rick Holliday, founder of BRIDGE Housing, a nonprofit development agency in San Francisco. After graduating from Berkeley, Baker launched his firm and took on his first multifamily workforce housing assignment with Holliday. “After a couple of projects, I was suddenly an expert at multifamily work,” he explained.
Baker points to the fruitful relationships that DBA has enjoyed with BRIDGE (which remains a client) and other nonprofits like Mission Housing Development Corporation and MidPen Housing.“These are mission-driven agencies, very smart, and the people they serve are incredibly grateful,” he says. He recalled a 70-year-old chronically homeless man who was about to move into an apartment building that DBA had designed. Upon receiving his key, the man burst into tears, overcome with having his first key ever to a dwelling he could call his own. “The experience can be very profound,” said Baker.
Over the last 35 years, Baker and his staff have left their creative imprint on the urban landscape—for example, as early proponents of “activating the edges” by animating the ground floors of apartment buildings with retail and restaurants.
But its numerous affordable and market-rate housing projects are where DBA has made its mark. One project currently in design is 1950 Mission, a 100 percent affordable building which, when it opens in mid-2019, will feature 157 apartments, 20 percent of which will be set aside for formerly homeless families. Then there’s the recently completed Potrero 1010, a dual-building complex of 453 units, 91 of which rent at below-market rates. It features a one-acre park, a pedestrian mews, and galleries and art spaces for the California College of the Arts.
DBA’s diverse market-rate portfolio includes the recently completed 388 Fulton, with 35 micro-studio units (320–370 sf), six one-bedrooms, and 28 two-bedrooms. Baker contends that demand for micro apartments might be more robust than some housing experts claim. He points to DBA’s own 388 Fulton condo project, whose micros “sold quite well” at $1,500 per square-foot, even with no parking. The typical buyer: a young, single, professional woman.
The Union Flats, currently under construction as part of Union City’s transit-oriented development, will offer 243 market-rate rentals (28 of them live-work lofts) assembled from 408 modular pods manufactured by Guerdon Enterprises. Baker thinks that while modular construction might not be “fully baked” (his term), “It’s getting there.”
None of these projects has podium parking. Baker, who served on the board of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition for seven years, has long viewed parking garages in apartment complexes as inimical to creating dense, walkable communities. At 388 Fulton, you won’t find a single tenant parking space, but there’s a bike space for every unit.
Looking ahead, Baker would like to see his firm get involved in more district-wide urban planning projects like Union City. The firm is already exploring pod-type “shared housing” to give the fast-growing singles population a greater sense of community. “It’s kind of a roommate situation with dignity,” says Baker, with a chuckle. “It’s the middle ground between total isolation and living in a commune.”