Edwin M. Lee apartments: Designed to serve veterans

Published: November 11, 2022 | Updated: November 17, 2022

The Edwin M. Lee Apartment Building

The Edwin M. Lee apartment building is a 2022 AIA COTE® Top Ten Award recipient.

Before the Edwin M. Lee apartments, a one-of-a-kind, affordable housing community in San Francisco, was built, Margie Talavera did not have a home of her own. Rents were high in the city, and the former Navy medic, 67, was at a low point in her life. When she wasn’t sleeping on someone’s couch, she and her Scottish terrier, Little Bear, were living in her car.  The inconsistency of her days, especially not knowing where she would safely sleep, left Talavera feeling hopeless.

“I didn’t want to spend my senior years depressed,” said Talavera, who joined the military after high school. “Moving here gave me another chance.”

In 2019, Swords to Plowshares, a non-profit that serves Bay Area veterans in need, offered Talavera a subsidized apartment. It was the last unit available. With a window overlooking the courtyard and just steps from the elevator, she was told it might be noisy. But from the moment she moved in, the space struck the perfect chord.

“I love the design, the light, the windows. My little apartment in perfect,” said Talavera. She can hear laughter and children playing from the courtyard, but “I can’t hear the elevator; I don’t hear the construction from the streets. I don’t know how they figured that out.”

Veterans are thriving

Protecting veterans, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress, from the intrusive sound was among the unique considerations made by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects and Said+Sullivan Design Partners, who helped Swords to Plowshares and its partner, the Chinatown Community Development Center, create the housing center. All windows and storefront of the building are Outdoor-Indoor Transmission Class-rated to prevent exterior noise transmission.

Swords to Plowshares has seven other housing sites for veterans in San Francisco, but the Edwin M. Lee, aptly named for the late San Francisco mayor who dedicated his career to affordable housing and ending veteran homelessness, was the first project on which the non-profit partnered with architects to anticipate the needs of veteran residents in every design element. The team researched post-trauma design methods, including Ideo’s Wounded Warrior concept home and Perkins and Will’s Posttraumatic Understanding, to enhance a sense of community among different user groups and specific methods to a calm and healing space in an urban context. The building is among the ten innovative projects AIA recognized with a 2022 COTE® Top Ten Award for its low-carbon design and the builders’ intention toward integrated, equitable, and resilient living.

“This place is not just a roof over someone’s head,” explained Soo Kim, assistant director, Fund Development & Communications, Swords to Plowshares. “It was designed to provide a beautiful home that adds value to veterans’ lives, and it comes with a support system to help veterans be successful.”

Swords to Plowshares provides on-site mental health specialists to serve veterans, and the civilians who reside in the building are also part of the plan. Families who earn between 50% and 60% of the area’s median income are eligible for an apartment. Young families join veterans, all 55 and older, for Halloween costume contests, movie nights, and rounds of Bingo. The building’s first-floor community room is a place for shared meals, writing and art classes, and music. Neighbors have turned the planters in the courtyard - once a paved site, now a favorite gathering space for K-9 therapy - into a shared edible garden.

“Veterans at Edwin M. Lee are thriving,” said Kim.

Making a statement

Countless structures are built in communities across the United States in tribute to veterans; The American Battle Monument Commission alone maintains 32 memorials, monuments, and markers. But Talavera sees her home, with its integrally colored rainscreen façade and its repurposed granite curbs and cobblestone paths, as the most significant way to honor people who have served their country. She has never felt safer than when she sleeps inside the wood-framed walls of the concrete structure, with cement replacement in concrete at 70% using a combination of slag and fly ash to reduce carbon impact.  

“When I’m walking on the street, I will point to this beautiful building,” Talavera says. “I am really proud of it. It just makes a statement.”

The building is helping Talavera make a statement, too. She has produced a one-woman pantomime show that will open soon at The Marsh, a San Franciso performing arts center. She uses the community room to practice.

“I always wanted to do a show, but I couldn’t have done something like that moving around. I just started doing it here. The more I talked about it, the more my neighbors listened. It happened here,” Talavera said, with pride.

San Franciso’s diverse culture is represented in Talavera’s neighbors. She especially appreciates living alongside other veterans, all of whom have disabilities and half of whom are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. “We learned in the military to look out for each other, and we still do that.” Many fellow artisans helped her create fliers for the show, and she knows they will be there for her performance.

“I am humbled and grateful. There’s just an energy here; it’s very touching,” said Talavera. Even her dog, Little Bear, feels the sense of community. “He walks around the place like it’s all his. I think he understands we are finally home.”

Watch: A day in the life of a veteran resident at Edwin M. Lee Apartments  

Image credits

The Edwin M. Lee Apartment Building

Bruce Damonte

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