After designing 44 affordable-housing projects over the last 30 years, San Francisco architect David Baker has developed a formula for making them look like their market-rate cousins: “You build 20 percent with high-end materials, and the other 80 percent with less expensive ones. But they must be used creatively,” he says. “It's kind of like competing on Iron Chef—you make the most of what you have.” At La Valentina Station, a 63-unit, transit-oriented housing project in Sacramento, California, Baker applied this culinary-style innovation to a highly visible site three blocks north of City Hall, next to a light-rail station and a busy arterial route.
The architect employed an inexpensive, recylable polyvinylchloride (PVC) rainscreen over cement board, painted to create a lively striped facade, with curved PVC slatwork wrapping around a four-story exterior stairwell. He then supplemented the lower-priced materials with ornately patterned, water-jet-cut Cor-Ten steel for the balcony fronts and fencing. The $12.3 million mixed-use wood-frame and concrete-deck structure, which includes space for ground-level retail and a corner caf', cost only $162 per square foot. Completed last summer, it was soon filled with an energetic mix of young families and singles who qualified for the low-income housing.