Doug Johnson

Architect Steve Sheldon has a plan, andit extends far beyond anything he can put down on paper or load into a CAD program. It’s a tactic for achieving sustainable design, construction, and operation for his projects, a thought process for going green. “We have a methodology for evaluating the integrity of our projects,” says Sheldon, a partner at IBIS Builds, a development firm in Sebastopol, Calif., just north of San Francisco. “It helps us make decisions and refine our methods.”

The latest example of Sheldon’s scientific method is Florence Lofts, a 12-unit enclave of live/work townhomes in Sebastopol. In addition to the ­obvious efficiencies of placing modestly sized ­housing over professional office space, the community features a dedicated 4,200-square-foot office-retail building and is within a short walk of a vibrant downtown area and commuter services to San Francisco.

Sheldon had been eyeballing the property for nearly two decades, initially for an affordable housing project. He snatched it up eight years ago when the on-site auto-repair shop listed the parcel. He then sat on it for five years before conjuring ­Florence Lofts.

Despite an impressive density per acre, the site plan is hardly confining. The units are set back and staggered along a central courtyard to create a balance between open and built space. “We created light and air around and through the occupied spaces as much as possible,” Sheldon says. The puzzle was designing each unit with an adequate south or southwest exposure to enable winter heat gains to offset mechanical heating and energy loads. “That’s a challenge for every urban site.”

In the summer, those exposures are protected by deep balconies and trellis awnings that effectively reduce heat gain. The metal mesh eyebrows will eventually serve as the framework for deciduous vines to climb, further cooling the spaces and softening the lines of the buildings.

Doug Johnson

The rest of the spec sheet reads like a LEED checklist—which, in fact, the project followed to earn a Gold rating under the system’s New Construction category. Among the more noteworthy products and methods, Sheldon specified Forest Stewardship Council–certified framing materials, a cavity insulation made from recycled denim and underwear (the latter achieving a slightly higher R-value per inch), radiant floor heating within 2-inch lightweight slabs over the second-floor framed platforms, photovoltaic panels that completely offset grid power, and a project-wide graywater recovery system that collects, filters, and redistributes an estimated 175 gallons of water per year for site irrigation. “It’s the largest graywater bio-remediation system ever built in this county,” he says. “We were looking to push the envelope.”

In addition to living differently, Sheldon expects the 1,500-square-foot units to appraise differently than straight housing units, as there are no local comps to use as a measure of value. Upon opening late last year, the units were priced from $775,000 to $825,000. As of late March, three of the units had sold at full price.

Given the extra steps he took to create Florence Lofts, Sheldon is willing to be patient with buyers. “It’s a new thing for this city, but it’s a way I and others I know have lived,” says Sheldon. “It’s a model that’s useful for various professionals that want to live in the city. We just have to find and educate them about it.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA.