Star Apartments, in downtown Los Angeles, is striking not just for its angular, almost levitating sculptural form, but also for the ways it differs from Michael Maltzan Architecture (MMA)'s prior work for the nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT). “Rather than create a prototype and make it over and over, our collaboration with the Trust as our client is very much in the laboratory phase, still exploring what's possible,” says principal Michael Maltzan. Each successive commission—Star is the third—“has expanded the ambitions,” he says, “allowing us to reconsider how a building can be lived in, can support its residents, fit into the evolving city, and even be made.”
Yet housing this population often elicits neighborhood wariness—even along downtown Los Angeles's raw, but gentrifying fringes. SRHT responds with architecture that's “not just acceptable but outstanding—beautiful, high-performing design that serves formerly homeless residents, while genuinely enhancing the city,” says Theresa Hwang, SRHT's director of community design and planning. “One of our goals is to break down stigma and NIMBY-ism.”
SRHT, which owns and operates 1,600 units in 24 buildings, first engaged MMA to design Rainbow Apartments (2006), a model for permanent supportive housing. Then came the New Carver Apartments (2009), which took SRHT beyond Skid Row and gave a difficult site along the I-10 freeway a landmark. Completed in 2014, Star Apartments broke new ground, except not literally—as its base is an existing structure.
To integrate housing within a larger community, SRHT sought opportunities for a mixed-use project. A low-rise concrete building at Maple Avenue and 6th Street offered just that: a typical Skid Row hodgepodge of mom-and-pop street-level retail beneath roof-deck parking. Razing this five-year-old structure would have violated SRHT's commitment to sustainability—and also forfeited its chance to include retail, since its funding stipulations permit only pre-existing mixed-use.
The decision to piggyback on an existing structure led MMA to an approach not explored in Los Angeles in decades: multifamily modular prefab. When traditional configurations, including double-loaded corridors and central courtyards, failed to fit enough units, plus generous outdoor areas, within a six-story limit, Maltzan recalls, “we needed to devise a model for another kind of urban space.”
MMA's solution was to repurpose the parking deck as a podium, a 15,220- square-foot terrace with gardens and a jogging track, alongside a communal kitchen, lounge, and rooms for art and exercise. Above that level, a new concrete tray could accommodate 102 units, stacked non-hierarchically and interwoven with patios and outdoor catwalks—a configuration reminiscent of a hill town's scale, density, and meandering routes. “Craning in the units seemed like a natural fit,” says Maltzan. “Prefab emerged as the most direct and efficient approach, addressing issues from technical and financial to social and urban.”
SRHT hired Guerdon Enterprises in Idaho to prefabricate the wood-frame modules—each a 300-square-foot studio with full kitchen, bath, and interior finishes factory-installed—while the existing building in downtown Los Angeles was retrofitted with extra concrete columns to help support the new sections. Two concrete interior stairways were also added, laterally bracing the second-floor deck. From the exterior, these muscular diagonals express the structural brawn of holding the modules high above the podium.
The units were fabricated in seven weeks and assembled in only six. On-site, they plugged into the web of steel catwalks, which double as armatures for electric, water, and gas lines.
Though the apartments are virtually identical, their massing creates a microcosm of localized conditions or “neighborhoods” with views out to the city. Input from residents, many with mental or physical disabilities, played a role in strengthening visual connections to street life and creating communal spaces more extroverted than the sheltered courts in MMA's earlier projects.
Star's program, more complex than its predecessors, changed in midconstruction when the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services chose an unprecedented role, making a 15-year commitment to be the sole ground-floor tenant, with a large community clinic and offices for its Housing for Health program. Though not the retail and clientele mix originally envisioned, this storefront clinic serves Star residents and a broader public.
The $40 million project has attained LEED for Homes Platinum and a high tenant-retention rate. As MMA's fourth Trust building, Crest, heads into construction, Star's community gardens burgeon with mint, tomatoes, and fruit trees. The high-ceilinged lobby, with its original concrete floors glowing, marks the gracious, modern entry to a place of pride. “People seem to be over the moon,” observes Hwang. “Every time I go by, I see someone strumming a guitar or making sure the gardens get weeded.”
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Architect of record:
95,000 square feet
Manufacturer of any structural components unique to this project:
Metal/glass curtain wall:
Fire-control doors, security grilles:
Paints and stains:
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability: