Curran House raises the bar for affordable housing, demonstrating the quality of design that can be achieved with the support of a visionary client and a passionate design team. Because most of Curran House’s residents don’t own a car and the building offers easy access to public transportation, the client and the architect decided not to include onsite parking. With the money saved, the designers were able to incorporate soothing green spaces, garden plots, and private balconies into the design. Curran House is housing which is both desirable and affordable.
Completed in 2005, Curran House takes on San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, offering low-income families a refuge from the city streets. Historically, the area has been rife with prostitution, drug use, and homelessness, but in recent years more and more immigrant families have migrated there, as it is the only neighborhood where they can afford to live. The Tenderloin’s new residents are mainly the working poor and formerly dispossessed individuals struggling to provide a safe home for themselves and their families. The non-profit developer, Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, and the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Housing combined forces to develop Curran House, a high-density urban project, which provides 67 apartments on 12,970 square feet of land—equivalent to 223 units per acre. Curran House meets an important need for the 3,500 children and youth who live in an impoverished neighborhood where affordable housing typically means single-room-occupancy, hotel rooms, and small studios. The building is named for the late Sister Patrick Curran, a Catholic nun of the Sisters of Mercy and the former executive director of the St. Anthony Foundation. Sister Patrick Curran was a tremendous force in helping the Tenderloin’s homeless population find shelter.
The landscape for Curran House is divided into three distinct areas: a "decompression" garden through which residents and visitors enter the building and leave behind the harsh urban neighborhood surrounding it, a ground-level oasis courtyard in the rear of the building, and a roof garden with rotating individual garden plots for tenants. The project is located several blocks from a new playground that is gated for safety. Therefore, the client instructed the designers that the project should not include a play area because the noise created would be disturbing to the other residents in the neighborhood.
The challenge for the landscape architect was to create an entryway that would allow for proper security measures, while creating a feeling of sanctuary. The designer created a pebble inlay in the Chinese tradition to introduce a meditative theme to the design. The inlay was chosen over planting because it could withstand damage from the street. A palm tree plays against the verticality of the building, while a concrete seat wall which extends from the garden into a glassed-in lobby creates a literal and metaphoric link between the interior and the exterior of the building.
At the rear of the lobby a glass garage door opens out onto a meditative courtyard creating a shared space between the lobby and the garden and allowing flexibility for larger events. Here the building steps back; the walls embrace the space as they break with the line of the architecture, creating smaller areas within the garden. The courtyard is dipped into partial shade by the surrounding tenement buildings. The perimeter is planted with Temple Bamboo, which softens the edges of the garden and provides a feeling of refuge from the building’s surroundings. A low fountain made of integrally colored black concrete was placed at the center of the courtyard. Water lies in a thin sheet over the installation, bubbling up at three points and flowing over the top through stainless steel grating into a re-circulating vault. The sound of running water masks noise from the street and encourages quiet contemplation. The fountain is surrounded by benches made of reclaimed cypress logs which were designed by the landscape architect. The idea was to create seating that was both soft and sculptural, in keeping with the overall quality of the garden.
The wings of the garden are richly planted with tree ferns, baby tears, and flax. The client requested that these spaces be visual to enhance the oasis-like nature of the space, prevent gathering near first floor apartments, and minimize noise traveling to the upper floors. On the area bordering the walkway there are sky lights arranged in a grid to provide daylight to the offices of the non-profit developer below. A planting of cycads in pots keeps pedestrian traffic off of the roof and extends the symmetrical rhythm of the architecture. The planting also expands the garden onto an otherwise unusable space and screens the skylights from view. Cala lilies, mondo grass, and tree ferns were selected because they thrive in shade and provide year-round interest. A single palm is planted against the nine-story building to provide scale and give a suggestion of enclosure.
In contrast to the courtyard garden, the roof garden is flooded with light. The space was designed to be constructed affordably, so the landscape architect selected galvanized agricultural troughs to give residents a place to grow their own plants and vegetables. As the building reached 100 percent occupancy, demand for space actually out-weighed the number of available plots. Citrus trees, pomegranates and kiwi vines were chosen to expand the agricultural theme. They are planted in free-standing planters made of aluminum impregnated fiberglass, which were also designed by the landscape architect. There are moveable tables and benches near the laundry room for dining and conversation. Mechanical elements on the roof are screened by burgundy and brown Trex recycled lumber on a galvanized steel framework.
In order to achieve a custom appearance usually reserved for high-budget projects, the landscape architect had to produce an innovative design and find creative ways to implement it under budget. Budget and maintenance were integral factors in the design. For example, the water element needed to be low maintenance and child-safe. It also had to add to the garden’s aesthetic appeal even when it was not running in case the client was not able to maintain it in the future. To create the fountain on a modest budget, the landscape architect asked a fabricator they had worked with on high-end residential projects if he would build the fountain at reduced price. The designer, in turn, worked pro bono to refine and detail the design.
The most challenging part of the project from a technical perspective was the drainage on the roof areas. Due to budget constraints, the design of the roof structure only allowed for a 2 ½ inch concrete topping slab over the structural deck. In order to drain the roof effectively an enormous number of deck drains would be required. The designer created a network of channels in the concrete to reduce the number of drain penetrations, allow each planter to drain directly into the trench, eliminate potential slipping on the planter runoff, and provide a place for irrigation lines to run. Removable perforated metal covers were installed to make the lines accessible for maintenance and allow the water to drain.
The reclaimed wood benches were designed to be less expensive
than off-the-shelf benches. The landscape architect
enlisted the aid of furniture-making friends to find
the logs and hew them into the specified shape. The
general contractor agreed to work with fabricators who
were not its usual subcontractors in order to achieve
the final product. It was a leap of faith for all parties,
from the architect who would not give up on amenities
such as a fountain for an affordable housing project,
to the landscape architect who designed these features
and orchestrated their fabrication, and the contractors
and fabricators who made it possible. Without this unorthodox
approach, key elements of the design could not have
been constructed within budget.
Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation
David Baker + Partners
Gelfand Partners Architects
Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture
Andrea Cochran, Elaine Shaw, Mary Muszynski, Shelley Martin
Shooter & Butts Inc.
Custom Fountain Fabricator:
Pascual Castillo Landscape
Reclaimed Wood Bench Fabricator:
Pascual Castillo, Jerry Doyle
Structural Design Engineers
Tommy Siu + Associates
Pete O. Lapid + Associates
Shift Design Studio