This 80-unit, public/private infill venture on 9 ½ acres is a winner on several counts. It’s super affordable (offering rents as low as $374 per month for a one-bedroom unit), LEED-Platinum certified, and is well-liked by more affluent neighbors for its vernacular “Palm Springs–modern” style. Not too shabby a replacement for a derelict 1950s mobile-home park that was widely considered to be an eyesore.

Designed with safety input from the local police and fire departments, the site plan aligns homes (some attached, some detached) in clusters of six on either side of a pedestrian-friendly paseo. Exterior walls help to define courtyards, patios, and carports, and each unit has access to a small piece of drought-tolerant lawn (representing about 17 percent of the total landscape). Light-colored concrete roadways and sidewalks reduce the heat-island effect and are more durable than asphalt, thus reducing long-term maintenance costs.

The simple, low-profile building forms, designed in a style that architect Steve Gaffney calls “streamlined moderne,” are contextual, yet practical, in a climate where triple-digit temperatures are the norm. Window trellises mitigate the effects of the sun, and each unit is equipped with a thermal chimney that vents hot air through the ceiling. Additional energy-saving features include rooftop solar panels, radiant barrier roof sheathing, HVAC systems with enhanced filtration, concrete floors, and cement plaster walls with high insulation values.

Water conservation—also a top priority in the desert—is achieved with low-flow and oxygenated plumbing fixtures, dual-flush toilets, tankless water heaters, front-loaded washing machines (which save up to 20 gallons per load) and drip irrigation systems serving a handsome xeriscape of bougainvillea, plateau grasses, yuccas, succulents, and date palm trees.

Gaffney says building green padded the initial budget by about 20 percent, but is quick to note a significant payoff in lifecycle costs. Solar power, for example, reduces each family’s electric bill by about $730 per year, and the community’s water-wise features are estimated to save 1.9 million gallons of water annually.

Building sustainable on an affordable budget is not only possible, he says, but imperative. “It’s even more important for low-income households because of the benefits of low energy costs. These are the people who truly need to save money.”

Categories: Affordable housing project; Green/Sustainable community
Entrant/Architect: Nestor + Gaffney Architecture, Santa Ana, Calif.
Builder: Davis Reed Construction, La Quinta, Calif.
Developer: City of La Quinta Redevelopment Agency, La Quinta
Land planner/Design architect: Studio E Architects, San Diego

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.