Step Up on Fifth
Getting a Leg Up: Pugh + Scarpa Architects executes sustainability with a social conscience at a non-profit’s multifamily housing project for the homeless of Santa Monica.
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The latest residence designed by Pugh + Scarpa Architects has two missions: to provide housing and support for the homeless population of Santa Monica, California, while keeping an eye on the imperatives of sustainable design. At 31,000 square feet, Step Up on Fifth contains single-residence occupancies (SROs) and community spaces designed to help residents—many of whom have mental illnesses exacerbated by years spent living on the streets—reintegrate into a community.
Rising five stories above Fifth Street, Step Up on Fifth is the second apartment building overseen and managed by Step Up, a Santa Monica nonprofit. CEO Tod Lipka calls the project “a psychosocial rehabilitation center.” At ground level, a gallery displays artwork by some of the organization’s 18,000 members, and accommodates a computer lab, where members can take courses. Adjacent to that space, a second entry leads up a concrete staircase to living spaces, where residential units form a four-story square around a central public space.
Design architect Lawrence Scarpa, AIA, says his firm’s sustainability strategy on the project amounted to “Jewish common sense. It’s so fundamentally simple: take advantage of prevailing breezes and shade the building to control heat gain or loss.” Step Up on Fifth is shaped and oriented to combat solar heating loads. South-facing windows are extensively screened with anodized aluminum brises-soleil, and to further combat the Southern California heat, west-facing glazing was kept to a minimum. A multistory screen on the same facade allows prevailing sea winds to ventilate the building’s courtyards; as an added benefit, cross breezes blow through the apartments thanks to operable windows above each unit’s courtyard-facing door.
In addition to the common sense solutions, Step Up on Fifth employs other green features like recycled carpeting and insulation, dual-flush toilets, and a rainwater collection system that eliminates runoff by diverting and clarifying water through an underground tank into the aquifer. It also should get even greener over time—once funding is secured to install a planned array of rooftop solar panels, the PV-ready building will be largely powered by renewable energy.
The energy savings alone make Step Up on Fifth some 36 percent more energy-efficient than a building designed to ASHRAE 90.1-1999 standards. According to a report by IBE Consulting Engineers, the project’s energy cost should be about 26 percent less than the limit enforced by California’s strict Title 24 energy code (that measurement also excludes the energy savings achieved in the building process). While Step Up’s tight project budget prohibited the cost of LEED certification, Scarpa estimates it would have earned 39 points under the USGBC’s rating scheme, placing the building on the cusp of achieving LEED Gold.
Working closely with Step Up’s leadership, the architects opted to outfit the units with space-saving Murphy beds, and to put a single, communal kitchen on the third floor (the shared space also encourages interaction among residents, some of whom have difficulty in social situations).
The creation of two distinct courtyards, separated by the central volume that houses the kitchen and another community space, addressed another demand of the client: providing privacy to tenants while giving them opportunities to congregate. “Angie’s sister is a psychiatrist,” says Scarpa, referring to the project’s Principal-in-Charge Angela Brooks, AIA, “and we learned from her that these people are sensitive to sounds and open spaces where people can look at them.”
The architects designed two modest-sized courtyards, creating social spaces and sight-lines that don’t overwhelm Step Up’s emotionally sensitive members. In one corner of the smaller courtyard, for example, a screened staircase climbs up to the three floors of open hallways that overlook the public space. The screen functions like a two-way mirror—you can see the courtyard below from inside the stairway, but not vice-versa. Residents in this way get the sense of being in a social space, without feeling scrutinized: “They can start there and graduate to the bigger, more public courtyard” to the south, says Scarpa.
The project has been a success, providing an essential service for the city’s overlooked citizens, while employing energy-efficient design strategies to keep operational costs down. “I think we gave them a lot more than they expected,” says Scarpa. Step Up CEO Tod Lipka agrees: “The residents are so happy to have a key and door to their own homes. Instead of moving these people to shelters, we’ve moved them into permanent housing, which is more cost-effective. It’s tremendously gratifying.”