David Baker, FAIA, doesn't own a car. It's not because he doesn't know how to drive one, and, as the head of an in-demand San Francisco firm, it's not because he can't afford to buy one. No, Baker got rid of all three of his cars a few years ago to make a point.

As a vocal advocate of pedestrian-friendly downtowns, he believes excessive auto-use causes environmental degradation, traffic congestion, and national dependence on foreign oil. What better way to back up his argument than to divest himself of his own four-wheeled vehicles? He now rides his folding bike to work, takes the BART underground rail system to the airport, and reserves a car from the city's CarShare program for weekend trips. “I think it's important to be committed in a consistent fashion,” he says. “That's why I don't have a car.”

Such personal commitment defines Baker's entire career. His roots as a self-proclaimed “radical hippie” have led him to his role today as one of the country's top housing architects. From his own small, urban house in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood to the leadership roles he plays in several community organizations, he lives the same sustainable, forward-thinking lifestyle his firm's award-winning buildings promote. Now in its 22nd year, David Baker + Partners has become so known for inventive design that developer clients use the firm's name front and center in their advertising.

free spirit

One of Baker's childhood homes, a rammed-earth, solar-powered house in Arizona, kindled his attraction to innovative architecture. The Modernist structure was built by his father, a self-trained designer who also studied sculpture and photography and worked at various times as a migrant farm worker, junkyard operator, gardener, and chauffeur. His parents owned plenty of books on Modern art and architecture, and at age 8, Baker tore through biographies of Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and other design luminaries. “I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he says. “But I had a few detours along the way.”

 

In true counterculture fashion he hitchhiked to Berkeley, Calif., in 1970. He then returned to Michigan, where he'd spent summers as a child, to attend the now-defunct Thomas Jefferson College. The invent-your-own-curriculum school nurtured his independent streak; a philosophy major, he designed and built a house as one of his classes. He also worked as a union carpenter, further honing his building skills with 1972 and '73 apprenticeships at Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti in central Arizona. Heading back west for architecture school at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1974, he worked for Berkeley firm ELS Architects, which partnered with him on a solar design company called Sol-Arc from 1977 to 1982. 

As the 1970s solar housing craze subsided, Baker found himself wanting to concentrate more holistically on architecture. In 1982 he started his own firm with a couple of colleagues, one of whom—Peter MacKenzie, AIA—is currently a partner. Around the same time Baker met developer Rick Holliday, who was just starting BRIDGE Housing Corp., today the largest nonprofit developer in California. Holliday chose the then inexperienced firm to design an affordable housing project in San Francisco, and his gamble paid off when the community opened to rave

reviews. Holliday left BRIDGE to become a private developer in 1988, and he, as well as BRIDGE, remains one of Baker's main customers.

tech boom

Establishing relationships with longtime clients was an important step in Baker's early career. But something else equally significant happened to him in the '80s: He realized, far earlier than most of his peers, that computers were about to change the world. In 1983, he became just the fifth person anywhere to take out an AutoCAD license, which enabled his firm to produce drawings at a much faster pace than its competitors. “None of the other, big-name architects I'd seen had CAD,” says Holliday. “Dave is one of those people who will see a technological shift way before anyone else.” A little over a decade later Baker learned HTML and designed a Web site, years before many firms even thought about the Web.