Gish Family Apartments
Certified Frugality: A development group provides stylish and sustainable low-income housing amidst the Silicon Valley housing boom
Housing prices in San Jose, the so-called capital of Silicon Valley, are among the highest in the country. Thanks to First Community Housing, one of the country’s most innovative affordable housing developers, low-income residents have options. “We include good design from day one,” says executive director Jeff Oberdorfer, FAIA, “and everything we do is green.” Gish Family Apartments, one of the organization’s latest developments, earned Gold ratings in both LEED for New Construction and the LEED for Homes pilot program. It also earned 145 points in California’s GreenPoint Rated program, the most ever attained by a multifamily project.
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The 72,000-square-foot building, completed in June 2007, includes 35 apartments, all reserved for tenants earning less than half the area median income. Of these, 13 are reserved for tenants with developmental disabilities. The property also includes laundry facilities, a community room, and a computer room, as well as an outdoor courtyard and play area. Onsite services include financial literacy training, computer classes, and after-school programs for youth. A 7-Eleven and a beauty salon occupy the ground floor.
The Gish site offered several benefits to First Community Housing. Redeveloping the vacant brownfield increased density and repaired the community landscape, and its location adjacent to a light-rail station allowed First Community to simultaneously reduce the amount of parking required and offer convenient transportation to Gish tenants, many of whom neither own cars nor drive. First Community provides all of its tenants with Eco Passes, which ensure free transit on all of Santa Clara County’s light-rail and bus routes.
First Community employs a series of innovative development strategies for its projects. First, it generally works with the same small pool of team members. As a result, Gish was the third project for this combination of architect, contractor, and subcontractors. Jerome King, AIA, president of OJK Architecture and Planning, says that this practice allows the teams to develop a high degree of communication, collaboration, and trust. “You understand how they all work, and you know what to expect,” he says.
First Community also relies on a tried and true materials palette, which includes many green products. To reduce the costs of these materials, First Community frequently works on two or three projects simultaneously, allowing for bulk price savings. “With Gish, we were building another project about 40 miles away—with the same contractor and team but a different architect,” says Oberdorfer. This practice reduced Gish’s total project cost by two or three percent, according to Alan Heikkinen, cost estimator for Branagh Construction.
The project team worked to reduce the building’s use of energy and water. Energy-efficiency features include double-glazed, operable windows, a reflective roof, 2-by-6 walls to allow for extra insulation, and Energy Star appliances. A 30-kilowatt photovoltaic system mounted on the building’s roof provides about 20 percent of the electricity for the building’s common areas, and a monitor in the community room displays the array’s production in real time. Tenants are billed for their own energy use, ensuring that they have a financial incentive to conserve. Water-efficiency features include drought-tolerant plantings, a subsurface irrigation system, dual-flush toilets, and low-flow faucets and showerheads. Modeling predicts that the building will use 21 percent less energy and 36 percent less potable water than a comparable conventional building.
Since people subsisting on low incomes are disproportionately affected by asthma and other respiratory illnesses and less likely to have access to quality healthcare, indoor air quality is a major concern for affordable housing. First Community addressed this not only by specifying materials with low emissions of indoor pollutants—including furniture with no added urea-formaldehyde as well as insulation, paints, sealants, and adhesives with low emissions of volatile organic compounds—but also by designating the entire building, including the retail and outdoor areas, as non-smoking. “Indoor air quality is really important to our tenants, and once you start smoking in a building, you blow that right away,” says Oberdorfer, adding, “People have the choice of living with us or not.” Gish was the organization’s first no-smoking project, but First Community is now converting its other buildings, one unit at a time, as tenants move out.
The community response to Gish has been overwhelmingly positive. “It’s become sort of a local celebrity,” says King, noting that 400 people were on the waiting list for the building’s 35 apartments. Oberdorfer reports that tenants are especially happy with the building’s appearance and indoor air quality. “I think what really is key about Gish,” he says, “is that it shows that affordable housing can be beautiful and green, with minimal additional costs.”
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