2017 Architecture Firm Award recipient creates a sustainable future for San Francisco housing

Rene Cazenave Apartments - LMSA

Rene Cazenave Apartments in San Francisco, designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects and Saida + Sullivan Design Partners.

Emerging leaders at Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects discuss how their firm is expanding both the Bay Area's housing options and their own room to grow

As the 2017 recipient of AIA's Architecture Firm Award, San Francisco-based Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects (LMSA) demonstrates that architects can help their communities adapt to a complex and rapidly changing world. Over the course of three decades, LMSA has developed an impressive portfolio of highly influential work that advances issues of social consciousness and environmental responsibility. A small, nimble firm comprised of 25 dedicated designers who believe deeply in the transformative power of architecture, LMSA demonstrates design with purpose.

Edward Kopelson, AIA; Gwen Fuertes, Assoc. AIA; and Dominique Elie are three young leaders at LMSA paving the way for socially conscious design in San Francisco. We discussed their work and what makes LMSA a perfect firm for emerging professionals.

San Francisco is one of the least affordable cities in the country. What are some of the strategies your firm uses to design affordable housing in San Francisco?

Edward Kopelson: We begin with an understanding that all people deserve dignity and community in their housing. We believe well-executed affordable housing projects help create communities within and become integral to their larger neighborhoods. To do so, we focus on how our affordable housing projects fit within the fabric of the city and how the architecture can best support the community. We often use outdoor spaces, shared spaces, and connections between the two to maximize the usefulness of each. We have received feedback that, by providing beautiful buildings with nicer materials, we help our projects become assets to their neighborhood.

At the same time, we are mindful of our clients' budgets and know that affordable housing projects need to achieve a lot with limited funds. We always aim to provide projects that do the most with the least by searching for solutions that solve multiple problems at once. In addition, because our clients hold their buildings for decades, we work to provide long-term quality, durability, functional longevity, and energy efficiency.

One of your firm’s practice areas is affordable housing and housing for the homeless. Can you describe some of this work and tell us why it’s important?

EK: We believe our work on affordable housing and housing for the formerly homeless is important because of the high cost of local housing, and because affordable housing is vital to a diverse city. We aim to help provide permanent housing for our community members that are most in need. Our clients for these projects are typically local nonprofit developers. While the government hasn’t produced public housing for the last 20-30 years, we are fortunate that the Bay Area has a strong group of developers that provide much-needed affordable housing.

Financing for these projects is often very complicated, and our clients pursue a range of funding sources, including federal and state funds and local contributions. Many of our projects are joint developments between a developer and a partner that provides on-site supportive services to tenants. In this sense, our client for any specific project is often a group of organizations and stakeholders working toward a common goal.

Plaza Apartments in San Francisco, designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects and Paulett Taggart Architects.

Your firm started working on sustainable design in the mid-90s, before it became a norm in the profession. What has changed in the past few decades?

Gwen Fuertes: These days, we find that the word “sustainability” has become mainstream, and now other terms, like “high-performance,” “resilience,” and “ecological design,” are entering the vocabulary. Even “net zero energy” is a goal that is now considered in our designs, and some completed projects are getting very close to achieving it, thanks to the progressive policies here in California and programs such as AIA's 2030 Commitment. Aspects of health and well-being are also now becoming key players in terms of broadening the meaning of sustainable design, resulting in an increased focus on the users as well as the economic bottom line—which is in line with the goals of our projects and clients.

Additionally, the market has evolved to let us take advantage of some of the technological advancements in efficient envelope assemblies and renewable energy that may have been out of reach a decade or two ago. We are lucky to have a progressive energy code and work in districts that incentivize this type of design thinking; moreover, we tend to partner with clients that share these goals.

These days, we are interested in advancing sustainability in our practice, in particular how we can empower young architects to use tools to unlock additional potential for high-performance design in our work.

How is sustainability incorporated into your affordable housing projects?

GF: From the outset, sustainable design is often required or highly incentivized for affordable housing in our community. Thanks to a number of city and state incentives for pursuing sustainability labels or certification, such as expedited permitting and renewable energy access programs, our clients and builders see the benefit of sustainable design in recognizable terms like time and budget. Exceeding energy code minimums is typically not considered as a pinch point: it is a universal benefit. Along with this, we’ve also noticed that non-profit housing developers tend to advocate for the perceived premium of sustainability practices because they have a unique perspective as both developers and long-term owners/operators of these properties.

As architects, our sustainability reach grows incrementally as the project design develops, and we identify new opportunities and assist in researching the first- and operational cost impacts as these options arise. We are also attuned to the unique needs of the residents of our affordable housing projects. Whether we design for low-income families, the formerly homeless, adults with autism, or veterans, our design approach considers the health and well-being of these different groups and how those needs may intersect or diverge—and we consider health as part of the sustainability agenda.

Additionally, there is interest in a balance of sustainability and durability. How can the buildings and systems be designed for optimal long-term low-energy maintenance? How can materials choices and mechanical systems be designed to be flexible, upgradable, and as durable as possible, while still contributing to a timeless design for residents, counselors, and neighbors in the community? This is a challenge that guides our design approach every day.

Merritt Crossing in Oakland, designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects.

Resiliency is very top-of-mind these days. How does your work address this issue?

GF: This issue is of great interest to us, given the fact that natural disasters and extreme climate events create some of our most critical challenges in California. We tend to consider resiliency on a case-by-case basis per project, and we also consider the role of the building in its community. While one building might serve as a shelter-in-place site during a serious earthquake, to be occupied immediately afterward—such as Rene Cazenave Apartments in San Francisco—another design may focus on other resiliency criteria like installing a back-up generator for senior residents in the event of a power outage—such as our Merritt Crossing project in Oakland. Where we can, our designs also respond to deficient infrastructure—such as designing “hinge slabs” at the thresholds between a slowly sinking sidewalk and our pile-supported building for low-income families and formerly homeless veterans in Mission Bay.

Aside from thinking about how a building will age, we want the design to accommodate residents' aging over time. We are designing permanent homes for people, and consider residents’ comfort and satisfaction as a crucial partner in our building-scale resiliency strategies.

LMSA has a diverse group of designers. How does your firm support emerging professionals?

Dominique Elie: Because of the size of our firm and our teams, roles and responsibilities can be quite fluid. The firm was built on the ethos of the architect as generalist, and this philosophy is applied across all staff levels. As young architects, we are exposed to all aspects of projects and have the opportunity to wear many hats and take ownership; it is a very self-directed environment in that way. Principals try to maintain staff continuity as best they can throughout different project phases; they've most recently encouraged junior staff to play vital roles in the construction administration process so we can see projects through completion early on in our careers. Furthermore, many young architects have chosen to work at LMSA because we are passionate about the issues the firm is trying to address through its work. We are encouraged to pursue advocacy and leadership opportunities outside the office and are supported in these ventures.

On a more formal level, the office greatly encourages licensure and provides all the necessary support, from covering exam fees and time to providing study material. We also have a mentorship program where young architects are matched with more senior staff and are encouraged to have regular lunch meetings to discuss professional and personal goals. Most importantly, however, the firm has created an environment that promotes fluid communication between junior and senior staff, challenges young architects, and encourages us to seek and find answers from our colleagues. A lot of growth and learning comes from creating an environment where beginner architects have direct access to more senior architects and principals.

This piece was originally written for Connection, the Young Architects Forum e-magazine.

Yu-Ngok Lo, AIA, is the principal of YNL Architects. He is a member of the AIA CCA Knowledge Community Advisory Group. He is also a member of the AIA California Council Committee on the Environment, Advocacy Advisory Committee, and the recipient of the 2015 AIACC Young Architect Award.

Image credits

Rene Cazenave Apartments - LMSA

Tim Griffith

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