Historic Expansion: Combining meticulously restored buildings with unobtrusive new ones turns an army base at the Golden Gate into a luscious resort.
Winding through curvaceous hills just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the narrow road leads to a grassy field bordered by colonial revival buildings: the old Fort Baker parade ground, officers’ quarters, and barracks. The manicured but rustic exterior does little to hint at the five-star service within, where the meticulously restored interiors have been upgraded to convert simple shelter into a luxury resort. Beyond the residences that overlook the parade ground are additional buildings, some original, some newly added, that contain a spa, a chapel, administrative offices, and additional lodging for a total of just over 140 rooms.
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Cavallo Point, The Lodge at the Golden Gate, sits within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is controlled by the National Park Service. It is owned and managed by the Fort Baker Retreat Group. Completed in 2008 by a consortium led by Equity Community Builders, Cavallo Point represents an impressive integration of three agendas: historic preservation, modern amenities, and green performance—any two of which can be challenging to combine in most settings.
This integration is the result of intensive collaboration and negotiation throughout the design process, which led to some innovative solutions. For example, even though the Park Service and Historic District officials support sustainable design goals in principle, the historic roofs were off-limits to photovoltaics because their rich red is a defining feature. Conventional PV panels were deemed out of place even on the modern lodging units. Initially the historic preservation agent on the project decreed that photovoltaics would only be used “over my dead body.”
Thin film photovoltaics came to the rescue, however. While somewhat less efficient on a per square-foot basis than standard panels, these strips adhere to the metal roofing between the standing seams. Their super-low profile makes them attractive architecturally, and according to Tom Sargent of Equity Community Builders, they win out on constructability as well because roofers can be trained to install them so electricians aren’t needed on the roof. It turns out that these thin-film PVs are also less sensitive to partial shading of the solar cells, making them a good choice in general, according to Marsha Maytum, FAIA, whose firm Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects designed the new buildings on the site.
In the old barracks, Deborah Cooper, AIA, and her colleagues at Architectural Resource Group were studying how best to remove layers of lead paint from the decorative tin ceiling in the public spaces, later to serve as a bar, restaurant, gift shop, and reception lobby. After considering sand-blasting with special sponges and other options, they decided that the metal ceilings had to come down anyway so that modern services and acoustic separation could be added between the floors. Once the metal was removed, freezing it in a refrigerated cargo container caused the metal to contract, breaking its bonds with the paint, which fell off in large chunks. This solution made the hazardous lead mess easier to contain, revealed the original patterns better, and cost less than the other options they considered.
The team struggled, as so many do, with how to deal with the historic windows. In the end they decided to tighten up the seals and restore them for about $400 per window instead of replacing the single panes with insulated glass, according to Sargent. “The historic requirement to keep those windows proved to be the most green approach. The mullions and glass will be there for another 100 years,” Sargent says. He credits the site’s mild climate for supporting that choice, noting that in a more severe climate, additional panes would have been necessary.
Rejecting conventional arguments that pit sustainability and historic preservations against each other, Cooper argues that they are inherently compatible because both push for preserving the existing environment. “They both root people in place and in time,” Cooper notes. “Our project has the opportunity to highlight both of those.”
In landscaping the project, 52,000 seedlings were planted, all raised from seeds collected in the immediate area. The seedlings were very small when installed, but they quickly thrived. “You have to credit their health to the fact that the plants were adapted to that soil and climate,” says Sargent.
It might seem obvious, but the most important step in preserving the historic fabric is fitting appropriate new uses to each of the existing spaces. “The most logical thing that we did was take the historic officers’ quarters and use them for guest lodging,” says Cooper. Similarly, they used buildings that historically had large, open spaces for the restaurant and meeting rooms. Overall, the team saved 97 percent of the exterior envelope and 67 percent of the interior surfaces, earning all three available LEED points. “Applying for LEED gave us a new data point on this that we might not have had otherwise,” Cooper notes.
The new buildings are beautifully designed and detailed in an understated way, to avoid intruding on the historically significant site. They rely extensively on the use of bio-based and salvaged materials, as much as possible, in their natural state. Redwood reclaimed from old buildings in California is naturally fire-resistant, which made it an ideal choice for exterior trim in compliance with the urban wildfire code. In the spa and guest-room baths, eucalyptus leaves from the site are encased in 3form’s recycled-content translucent panels.
The new lodging units are sited on the footprints of pre-existing buildings that were not worth keeping, where they nest into the hillside overlooking the parade ground and facing out onto the Golden Gate Bridge. The rooms glow with daylight and benefit from natural ventilation, which is made possible because each guest room has openings on two facing walls. Ventilation is aided by ceiling fans when necessary. Air-conditioning is only available in eight of the 142 units, and that was only done because the resort had to offer it as an option to achieve its five-star rating, according to Maytum. Even the bathrooms have high windows that let in lots of light. “It really does reduce electricity use,” reports Maytum, based on observations of how the rooms are used.
Units in the historic buildings are equally compelling, but with a very different flavor—more like a room you’d find at a fancy bed-and-breakfast in a colonial house. Only the entertainment centers feel out of place in these suites. All the units use bulk-dispensers for soap and shampoo—a move that’s unfortunately rare, given the savings in wasted cleansers and little plastic containers.
Tying these different spaces together, the two architecture firms worked with interior designers Brayton + Hughes Design Studios to establish a shared palette of furnishings. Large slabs of local Clara Walnut, for example, crown both the reception desk in the old barracks and the retail counter in the tea rooms.
In spite of the historic context, the design team embraced high-tech solutions. In the laundry facility—by far the biggest water users at most resorts—they installed a system that filters water from the laundry and reintroduces it, reducing water use by about 60 percent and contributing to the overall 30-percent water-use reduction for the project.
Both from a historic and environmental point of view, the team’s biggest achievement was to keep the site intact. “It’s an absolutely compelling site,” notes Sargent, “with its natural setting and location next to the Golden Gate Bridge.” It’s quite an achievement to insert an attractive, high-end resort into this setting, while retaining its core values.