Beautiful but Affordable: David Baker Architects on Creating Dignified Affordable Housing

David Baker Architects, HUD, San Francisco, Five88, La Valentina Station
Five88, Courtesy of DBA

By Meghan Hall

When David Baker Architects first got its start as a firm, attitudes towards multifamily development—especially affordable housing projects—were markedly different than they are today. Dense developments were eyed with an air of skepticism within communities, while affordable housing projects were often perceived as detrimental to surrounding real estate fundamentals. Today, both types of development are viewed as important and necessary as California has grown and housing prices have skyrocketed, leaving many at risk of displacement. Sitting at the center of these conversations for the past 35-plus years has been David Baker Architects, who has made designing impactful and effective residential work—both market rate and affordable—one of the main cruxes of its mission.

“When I started out, I will say there was this idea of why we would ‘waste design’ on lower income people, that they would not appreciate it,” explained DBA Founder David Baker. “There was almost an anti-design notion, but over the years we have really connected with clients and others who use design as a way to dignify and honor the residents.”

When DBA began in the late 1970s, the nation at large was beginning to see a change in multifamily development and affordable housing, one that would shift projects away from federally funded initiatives through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and towards the non-profit and private sectors.

“[HUD housing] was very expensive, and the housing they produced was not that good if we as a society ended up tearing most of it down,” said Baker. “Nonprofits…were private. They were efficient and they were more focused on the ‘customer,’ the residents, the people who needed affordable housing…They were really driven to provide super high-quality housing.”

As nonprofits, architects like DBA and others worked to chip away at antiquated perceptions of what affordable design should be, markets such as the Bay Area continued to rapidly develop—a combination that ultimately led to both the public and officials recognizing the importance of a diverse, well-designed housing stock.

“If you do a building that is beautiful, it will last longer; it is more beloved, and people will [take care of it],” added Baker. “[People] were really traumatized by urban development; there was not an integration of the community in those projects,” noted Baker. “I would say now, by and large, people at least in the Bay Area are interested in having affordable housing as beautiful as they can make it…”

Over the years, DBA has honed an array of strategies to produce affordable housing projects that are both beautiful but also economically viable and affordable. For example, while many affordable project materials are simple and straightforward, the design team works to mix in premium features—like lighting design—in order to elevate the look and feel of the space.

“It’s like spicing a dish so it changes the whole characteristic of the building,” said Baker. “It makes it look like something that is much more expensive than it is.”

The firm also looks carefully at how buildings will function within the urban fabric, consulting carefully with the community throughout the design process. Activation of the building’s edges, as well as how the building will function on the ground floor is also of critical importance. 

“We think outside of the property lines,” said Baker. “Instead of some kind of masterpiece sitting in a void, we really want to think about the urban fabric and how we can enhance it and integrate with it.”

Innovations in construction techniques like modular construction, have become increasingly important as they can significantly cut down on project timelines in an industry where time is almost equivalent to money. Whether or not to incorporate modular has become a standard question for most DBA projects, including affordable housing, within DBA teams over the past decade.

And, perhaps, most importantly, Baker, as well as DBA Principal Amanda Loper, emphasized the importance of community involvement. The pair stated that while community review can be daunting, it often reveals insight into the property commercial real estate experts and developers may have never even known in the first place.

“I think sometimes we see our clients shy away from that and see those community involvement meetings that you need to do as sort of a box check,” said Loper. “We really learned that if you embrace and engage the community early and often and in meaningful ways, they actually make the project so much better. Most of the time communities know what their neighborhoods need.”

Ultimately, DBA’s approach to affordable housing projects is quite similar to other market-rate developments they pursue, even if timelines are a bit longer. The firm has also been driven by what Baker and Loper described as a “thankful tenacity” to get projects to the finish line.

“It is a marathon, these projects,” said Loper. “They can take anywhere from two to five to ten years to get entitled…It is really important to show up every day as a team… We continue to hold onto these pragmatic, physical characteristics to try to make these places really people centric.”

This year, DBA was awarded the 2020 AIA California Firm Award not just for the quality of its work, but for the firm’s dedication to tackling the affordable housing crisis. Some of the firm’s notable projects include Five88, a building dedicated to affordable and urban workforce housing in San Francisco, and La Valentina Station, in Sacramento.

The award was well welcomed and will usher in a new era of thought development and leadership within the firm, something both Loper and Baker are excited to see develop in the coming years.

“…To get the recognition is a great thing, and it gives a little bit more gravitas, I think,” said Baker, who added the firm would not be where it is today without innovative and caring employees. 

Loper agreed, adding, “I think the reason that most of the people are at the office is they want to know they’re doing something good in the world, and that is one of our main goals as a firm…[In the future,] I personally hope we just get better. We want to put out the best buildings possible.”