US Building of the Week

Edwin M. Lee Apartments

Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects
11. April 2022
Photo: Bruce Damonte

Although San Diego recently surpassed San Francisco as the least affordable metro housing market in the United States, the City by the Bay has long been notorious for the expense of buying or renting a home. In turn, the Edwin M. Lee Apartments, providing housing for formerly homeless veterans and for low-income families, is a welcome addition to the city. The architects at Leddy Maytum Stacy answered a few questions about the project.

Project: Edwin M. Lee Apartments, 2020
Location: San Francisco, California, USA
Client: Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) & Swords to Plowshares
Architect: Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects
  • Design Principal: Richard Stacy
  • Project Manager: Gregg Novicoff
  • Project Team: Gwen Fuertes, Ryan Jang, Ian Ashcraft-Williams, Enrique Sanchez; with Chris May, Edward Kopelson, Andrew Appleton, Jeff Marsch, Elisha Cohen
Associate Architect: Saida+Sullivan Design Partners
Structural Engineer: KPFF Consulting Engineers
MEP/FP Engineer: Tommy Siu and Associates (Mechanical and Plumbing Engineers) and EDesignC (Electrical Engineers and Low Voltage)
Landscape Architect: GLS Landscape Architects
Lighting Designer: David Malman
Contractor: Nibbi Brothers
Greenpoints Rater: Association for Energy Affordability
Building Area: 124,200 sf
Fiber Cement Rain Screen Panels: Swisspearl
Acoustic Ceiling: 9Wood
PV Panels: CanadianSolar
Photo: Bruce Damonte
Please provide an overview of the project.

Edwin M. Lee Apartments is the first combined homeless veteran and low-income family development in San Francisco, and has established a new definition for integrated, equitable, and resilient living. The design balances a civic scale with a feeling of home, responding to the Third Street corridor with a colorful serrated rainscreen facade, while offering an oasis-like restorative landscape within. The dramatic solar canopy that cascades to the south entrance is a proud demonstration of low-carbon design.

Operated by nonprofits Swords to Plowshares and Chinatown Community Development Center, Edwin M. Lee Apartments provides 62 apartments for formerly homeless veterans and 57 apartments for families earning between 50% and 60% AMI (average median income). The building provides ground-floor counseling and career services for veteran residents, and Swords to Plowshares operates a kitchen offering free meals in the community room at the center of the building, adjacent to the courtyard garden. The project is named after the late San Francisco Mayor Lee, the son of a veteran who dedicated his career to affordable housing and ending veteran homelessness.

Photo: Bruce Damonte

The project’s climate-responsive massing and organization allows for families and veterans to form a new community centered on the shared gardens and common areas. The facade design integrates daylight access, views, and opportunities for regenerating an ecology on a previously paved site. The integrated design creates a healthy, energy efficient, resilient and regenerative complex that provides social, economic and environmental value to the residents and the greater community.

The building is organized into three wings. The wings form a C-shaped structure that surrounds a large landscaped multi-use courtyard that steps down from second floor to first floor. The ground floor contains family units and veteran units, the main lobby, activity rooms, administrative offices, storage and utility spaces as well as a parking garage and bike parking. Upper floors contain a mix of studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom family and veteran units.

Photo: Bruce Damonte
What are the main ideas and inspirations influencing the design of the building?

From the concept design phase, the diagram of the building’s design incorporated the community with the residential program of providing housing for veterans and families, all of which were centered around nature and healing. Many elements of the building’s design were borne out of these goals. One example is the location the community-oriented program to the street-facing areas, showcasing the community kitchen and multipurpose room spaces at the front and corner of building, and making the spaces generous and welcoming with natural daylight from multiple sides. It was also important to provide multiple connections to the courtyard, and to provide barrier-free access to users of all abilities throughout the building.  

Beyond the main program goal of providing needed affordable and supportive housing to veterans and families, the project incorporates additional amenities that promote equity. The community kitchen regularly provides free meals to residents and community members. The project was committed to providing a connection to and restoration of the landscape, healing a post-industrial neighborhood landscape with ecological sensitivity. The project also promotes transit equity, providing ample indoor secure bike/scooter parking for veterans and families, along with access to city-wide transit and “EV-ready” vehicle parking spaces.

Photo: Bruce Damonte
How does the design respond to the unique qualities of the site?

The building is located on a post-industrial railyard site, which was previously tidal marshland. All structure and infrastructure in the new Mission Bay neighborhood is new, replacing former train yards. During construction, a number of elements were discovered on-site which were used in the design: existing cobblestones were used at the base of stormwater drains, and found historic granite curbs were integrated as informal steps in the landscaped courtyard. Additionally, reclaimed timber was used for seating in the lobby and the courtyard.

The project restored the site with drought-resistant, habitat-friendly native planting, chosen to provide a variety of size, texture and color, and species appropriate for the Mission Bay microclimate. Thirty-six new evergreen and deciduous trees create a forest-like setting and provide habitat and nesting opportunities for birds. Smaller shrubs and ground covers such as Agapanthus, Vinca, Fragaria and Calandrina, and larger shrubs such as Cornus, Garrya and Ribes flower throughout the entire year and attract insects, butterflies and birds. All existing street trees were preserved at the site. The building features dark sky compliant light fixtures and is designed to bird-safe standards. High-reflectance paving in the courtyard and on the roof mitigates heat island effects. Recesses in the Third Street facade incorporate a planted roof with a skylight to the interior of the building, and provide additional natural habitat amid an urban environment.

Photo: Bruce Damonte
Was the project influenced by any trends in energy-conservation, construction, or design?

The building showcases on-site renewable energy as a primary design strategy. A large solar canopy hovers above the Third Street facade and cascades down the south elevation at the primary building entrance. The vertical panels were carefully studied for their placement, angle and spacing to ensure maximum solar energy output for a south-facing facade. Additional photovoltaic panels cover the remaining roof, and the total PV infrastructure at the site is expected to produce 90% of the annual electricity requirements for the common areas, including electric car charging stations. Additionally, a roof top solar hot water panel system is estimated to produce 60% of the required energy needed to heat domestic hot water for the building.  

Apartments are continuously ventilated with filtered outside air, and an all-electric heating system shifts energy demands to an electrical grid that is continuously reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. Energy efficient LED lighting is used throughout and all appliances are Energy Star rated. Certain common areas have ceiling fans to provide a cooling effect in lieu of mechanical cooling, which is a conditioning backup in the case of peak heat wave events.

Photo: Bruce Damonte
What products or materials have contributed to the success of the completed building?

The project’s materials — ranging from structural to thermal enclosure to finishes — were considered for their carbon impact, durability, health criteria, and contribution towards the design concepts. Structurally, low-cement content concrete was used at the first floor level as a strong and resilient solution which also allowed generous floor-to-floor height; the wood-framed structure at level two and above was chosen for first-cost, ease of construction, and carbon impact. The thermal enclosure used batt insulation and mineral wool rigid insulation at the exterior of metal framing; spray insulation was used minimally, limited to undersides of certain exposed concrete slabs. Finishes at the interior and exterior were chosen to meet the project’s biophilic design agenda, using natural materials when possible, or choosing finishes with colors or patterns that enhanced a visual connection with nature (e.g., natural wood acoustic wall treatments in the upper corridors, and blue gradient facade that was inspired by the dynamic colors of the sky).

Email interview conducted by John Hill.

Photo: Bruce Damonte
Drawing: Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects
Drawing: Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects
Drawing: Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects
Drawing: Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects

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