The site is still maintained in-house by interior designer Michelle Peckham and office manager Peggy Olson. Much more comprehensive than the standard architect's Web site, it contains detailed program, size, cost, density, and parking statistics on dozens of projects. And it includes the Web addresses and phone numbers of the contractors, developers, and consultants involved, so potential clients have multiple contacts right at their fingertips. Although 90 percent of the firm's work comes from repeat clients, it doesn't hurt to be able to refer new ones to the site. “The

Web site is our main presentation tool,” says Peckham.

Baker's initial fervor over computer technology hasn't abated. He, MacKenzie, and the firm's third partner, Kevin Wilcock, AIA, are bullish on the Autodesk Revit 3-D building design and documentation software they've been using since 2003. “We're very efficient designers, because our software systems are sophisticated,” says Wilcock. Their technological expertise helps explain a production volume that seems almost impossibly high for a 12-person operation. The firm has more than 3,700 multifamily or single-family production housing units built or under construction and 2,600 more in the design phase. It also takes on an occasional custom home or commercial project.

home base

David Baker + Partners' own headquarters occupies a ground-floor space in the Clocktower Lofts, a former lithography plant whose 1992 renovation it designed. The building, located in San Francisco's gritty South of Market Area (SoMa), exemplifies the community-based principles that govern the firm's work. Its two-story atrium entry, for example, encourages people to take the open-air staircase rather than the elevator. “People will use the stairs when there's only one flight to navigate,” Wilcock says.

To reach their office, the staff walks through a courtyard with a small fountain, where the soothing sound of running water mingles with the chirping of birds. “It's a decompression zone,” says Baker, whose interest in fountains was sparked by an online AIA continuing education course he took on feng shui. “You come in here and your blood pressure goes down.” The firm enjoys the courtyard so much, in fact, that it now designs outdoor rooms into each of its projects. “It's almost as if the buildings are there to mold the exterior spaces,” says Jim Chappell, president of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, a public policy think tank of which Baker is a director. 

The Clocktower's very density (99 units per acre), the fact that it reuses an existing building, and its live/work nature all reinforce Baker's philosophy of low-impact living. “I'm interested in higher
density,” he says. “The problem of housing won't be solved by cheap custom homes in the suburbs.” His interest in solar power and energy efficiency still runs deep. The 1904 house he's renovating with his wife, architect/artist/color consultant Jane Martin, holds rooftop photovoltaic panels, and he's looking into using PVs at a community the firm is designing in Oakland, Calif. To help qualify for tax credits, every affordable housing project Baker and his team have done exceeds the Department of Energy's Energy Star requirements by 15 percent. Overall, though, he tends to approach sustainability from a land-use point of view. “A rundown apartment in the city is more sustainable than a 5,000-square-foot solar mansion, because the BTUs per person are vastly lower,” he continues. “Low density is not a sustainable future. You need that land to grow things on or replenish the watershed.”

learning experience

Low-density housing may be out of the question, but that still leaves plenty of high-density variations to try. And the more complex a program, the better Baker likes it. About half the firm's housing work is affordable and the other half market-rate—often the two are blended within the same project. For-sale and rental units also coexist within many jobs, as do different uses. (When designing condominiums, Baker has the developer indemnify him from any litigation that may arise due to California's strict liability laws for condos.) Project settings and user groups contrast wildly. Recently completed work includes 8th & Howard, a mix of affordable SROs (single-room occupancy) and family housing in SoMa with street-level retail, daycare, and CarShare parking; and the Hotel Healdsburg, a luxury wine country hotel containing boutiques, a high-end restaurant, and a spa.

Such variety allows Baker and his staff to apply knowledge gained from one kind of project to the design of another. Take the Clocktower and other loft projects' handcrafted lobby staircases created by local artisans. For the Hotel Healdsburg the firm took its focus on vertical circulation a step further, designing a sunlit “green stair” lined with bamboo plants. And at 8th & Howard and other projects, it turned its attention to the upper-level stairwells, designing windows into each one so no resident is ever trapped in a windowless zone. Each hallway in most of its work ends in a window too, allowing double-loaded corridors to breathe. “We have some peculiar things that we make important, and daylight in corridors is one of them,” Baker says.

Parking is another building component the firm continually refines. In several projects, garages are embedded on different floors within the building. This strategy enables residents who live on the same floor to park on the same level, creating a friendlier parking experience than the anonymity of a big underground garage. Baker favors unbundled parking in many cases, especially when the project is near public transportation and rentable parking spaces in the area are plentiful. He cited both reasons when persuading local officials to let him eliminate parking at Curran House, affordable housing that just broke ground in San Francisco's Tenderloin section.

equal opportunity

The firm's Modern, quirky designs don't please everyone. Martin, who often serves as a color consultant for her husband's firm, remembers a SoMa dweller calling the mayor's office to complain about the bright exterior colors at a neighboring market-rate rental project. But the people who live in David Baker + Partners' buildings generally love their homes. “The real test is how the residents feel,” says Scott Falcone, senior project manager at Charities Housing Corp., a developer of 8th & Howard. “We did a survey of the tenants at 8th & Howard after they'd lived there about a year, and they're just glowing. They appreciate the units, the amenities, the open space, the layout.”

Baker's egalitarian nature comes through in his view that the high-end and low-end projects he's worked on really aren't that different. “Hotels are very much like affordable housing—you're trying to get rooms in,” he says. “An SRO is like a custom home, only the rooms in the house are individual units.” His sense of democracy extends to the office, where everyone, including the partners, works in cubicles. He's even opening up his popular, periodic tours of Bay area housing to include projects by architects other than his firm. “I try not to be endlessly self-promoting,” he explains. The tours, of course, take place on bikes. He wouldn't have it any other way.