With land prices spiraling out of control in so many housing markets across the nation, it's hard to think about how to achieve affordability without first sorting out the dirt part of the equation. But there are other factors at play that can directly affect the base price of a home, not to mention the ability to gain project approvals. How do you honor the existing vernacular of an old-growth neighborhood on a shoestring budget? How can simpler building forms and construction techniques keep labor costs down? What kinds of pre-existing amenities (be they natural or manmade) can add value to a home or neighborhood without requiring any additional capital outlay? And then there's the question of what affordability truly means to the home buyer. Mortgage payments aside, how can utility, maintenance, and transportation costs be controlled to ensure the home purchase really is wallet-friendly? With better design, that's how.
Simplified architecture translates into cost savings in a California coastal enclave.
At first glance, you wouldn't peg the 132 residences of Victoria Green in Hercules, Calif., as affordable rental housing. With their deep overhangs, hipped roofs, and crisp fretwork, they look too pretty. And with their panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay, one might easily assume these coastal beauties come with a much higher price tag. After all, they're part of a larger master plan that includes market-rate homes selling for upwards of $1 million.
Spectacular views are a luxury that only the wealthy can afford in some waterfront locales, but things are a bit more democratic here, thanks to a thoughtful site plan that capitalizes on a dramatically sloping terrain. The eight-acre “pad” on which Victoria Green is perched is the farthest parcel from the water in the larger master plan for Victoria by the Bay, a 260-acre brownfield redevelopment on a site once occupied by oil, asphalt, and petroleum refineries. But it's also the highest topographical point in the plan—giving it the distinct advantage of overlooking rooftops farther down the ridgeline.
Making the most of this prime vantage point, planners at BARArchitects oriented a series of eight-pack buildings (each four units over four units) around a central green that offers unobstructed sightlines to the Bay. Parking mostly skirts the periphery of the neighborhood, so as not to impede the view. With leases for the one-, two-, and three-bedroom units ranging from $418 to $1,400 per month and a location within walking distance of public transit (bus lines), the homes have become quite popular among local firefighters, teachers, and police officers.
Drawing inspiration from nearby historic homes, the architecture at Victoria Green is best described as, well, Victorian, albeit a modest rendition of it. Thanks to nature providing such a killer backdrop, excessive ornamentation was unnecessary, notes Paula Krugmeier, a principal with BARArchitects. And in this case, whittling down the bells and whistles translated into cost savings.
“The geometry and massing of the buildings is very basic,” Krugmeier says. “It's more or less a repetitive typology that was simple to draw, bid, build, and market.” The configuration proved so economical to build, in fact, that the initial construction came in under budget. The resulting savings were reallocated toward upgraded kitchen cabinetry, additional landscaping, playground equipment, outdoor lighting, and nicer finishes in the community center, including Pergo flooring and motorized clerestory windows.
“People take their views seriously in this part of the country,” Krugmeier says. “The richness of the site plan is what makes this project work. Even folks who do not live at the edge of the parcel and enjoy views from their units have a place they can go to experience a relationship with the San Francisco Bay.”
Project: Victoria Green, Hercules, Calif.; Size: 7.8 acres; Total units: 132 homes; Density: 17 units per acre; Rental price range: $418 to $1,400 per month; Square footage: 793 square feet (one-bedroom units); 929 square feet (two-bedroom units); 1,171 square feet (three-bedroom units); Builder: Oliver and Co., Richmond, Calif.; Architect: BAR Architects, San Francisco; Developer: Eden Housing, Hayward, Calif.