SF Apartment : May 2017
Outside the Box
by Dawn Ma & Nicole Biewenga
San Francisco is blessed with a temperate climate, making al fresco living possible for all budgets and sizes. Roof decks, extensive folding backdoors, fire pits, and hot tubs have been must-haves in single-family homes for years. There is no reason why we shouldn’t give smaller rental units the same treatment. Size should not limit studios and one-bedroom apartments to be hotel-like “crash pads” when landscape can greatly improve the quality of urban living in every size living space. There are many ways to incorporate landscape elements into a compact space that are budget- and maintenance-friendly, and at the same time, they increase property value greatly.
Garden and ADU Units
Since the enactment of the Additional Dwelling Units (ADU) Ordinance, many property owners have combined their seismic retrofit projects with the addition of brand new units that otherwise wouldn’t have been permitted. This should be welcoming news to property owners because a thoughtfully designed unit attracts good, stable tenants on top of new income stream to offset the construction costs in a relatively short period of time.
Often, these new ADUs are on ground or basement levels with limited ceiling height. Ranging between 300 square feet to 750 square feet, ADU studios maximize every square inch to meet essential living needs. To avoid the feeling of living in a subterranean space, we approach ADU projects similarly to how we approach single-family homes—a total experience, from the street to the front door, enlivened by a variety of landscaping elements. If your ADU is located at the back of the building, only seen and accessible through a “tradesman alley,” consider climbing vines or potted bamboo along one side of the alley, and a properly lit path for added security.
Even where rear yard allotments don’t allow for significant horizontal outdoor space at ground plane, a more innovative approach may be taken. Vertical planting, or green walls, are among the most en-vogue improvements in landscape design today. A green wall can serve as a privacy screen, city air filter, and provide an ever-changing canvas. It can be installed both indoors and outdoors. Typically, a green wall consists of small compartments for planting, which can be linked together to make a seamless green wall, or separated by containers, like hanging pots.
The most common version of a green wall can be achieved with a simple trellis with native climbing plants, like fragrant white Chilean jasmine or colorful sweet peas. Choosing an evergreen vine is recommended because they last through the year and require overall less maintenance. For a more functional living wall, consider edible salad greens or herbs.
For the trellis itself, there are also many options from the traditional wood lattice and natural bamboo, to the more modern and industrial cable or wire trellises. Trellises can be mounted against a wall or freestanding in the ground. You can even create a wall or divider by lining up pots in a row and inserting trellises directly in the pots.
Sophisticated green wall systems are now available off the shelf at most local nurseries and hardware stores, such as Urban Farmer Store and Flora Grubb. Felt pocket systems are popular at the moment—buy them individually and tile them together to cover the desired area and embed a drip irrigation system. These are trendy both indoors and outdoors. Whatever green wall system you choose, it should be easy to maintain and replace. With this in mind, consider native plant species, drought-resistant succulents, an automatic drip irrigation system, and stand-alone supporting structures.
The San Francisco Bay Area was ranked number six last year among areas with the highest particulate matter in the United States, according to the American Lung Association. A green wall outdoors can filter the air before it enters the building. An indoor living wall can metabolize harmful toxins such as VOC and carbon monoxide, while also releasing oxygen. Additional studies point toward the psychological benefits of incorporating plants in living environments, such as stress relief and even improved cognitive function.
With San Francisco’s hilly terrain, many multi-unit buildings have outstanding city views from their rooftops. It is no wonder roof decks have become increasingly popular. In dense, urban cities like San Francisco, rooftops are valuable spaces that usually could be used more efficiently to benefit our environment and our communities. Rooftops are 30% of San Francisco’s land area, and an untapped resource. According to real estate reporter Diana Olick, a typical bare-bones roof deck can increase the value of a home from 6% to 8%.
Another, more intensive, option is green roofs. Green roofs are covered with vegetation instead of decking or other impermeable surfacing materials. The benefits are many, including extended roof life (up to 60 years); additional insulation, reducing heat gain in the summer and heat loss in the winter; additional sound barrier for interiors; roof runoff reduction, alleviating some load from our aging combined sewer system; and a common space for tenants to enjoy.
As of January 1, 2017, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to mandate solar and living roofs on most new construction. Depending on the building, this means that 15% to 30% of roof space on most new construction will incorporate solar, living roofs, or a combination of both. The Planning Department provides a very comprehensive Living Roof Manual for design and installation guidance: sf-planning.org/san-francisco-better-roofs. On average, a residential green roof costs between $12-$35 per square foot to install. According to Planning’s cost-benefit analysis of green roofs for small multifamily residential buildings, the maintenance cost and long-term spending is offset by the savings of energy conservation and added real estate value.
However, a green roof is not usually something a non-professional can DIY. A successful green roof design requires a cohesive multi-disciplinary design team: An architect to layout a plan that meets a variety of Planning Codes. A structural engineer to verify the existing roof structure integrity, or devise a new supporting structure, that will handle about 20 pounds per square-foot of the added weight of soil after a rainstorm. And finally, a landscape architect to specify appropriate plant palette and substrate makeup. The architect and landscape architect will also coordinate to determine waterproofing and a runoff system.
Last year, Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced legislation to allow green roofing to meet the solar panel requirement on new construction, stating, “Rooftops are one of the last untapped environmental resources in our growing city, and we need to be strategic about how we activate these spaces… Our solar requirement was a great step, and by adding green roofs to the mix, we will make our buildings greener, our air cleaner, and our city healthier.”
Plan Big, Implement in Phases
Do as much as you can with the resources you have. Even a conservative exterior upgrade can have a big impact. If you find yourself restricted by a tight budget, consider breaking projects up in phases to add some flexibility in your spending.
If you are on a tight budget, we recommend starting with these improvements: simple backyard landscaping, permeable pavers at your driveway and sidewalk, and street trees. While these may seem like basic steps, they will go a long way.
No matter what your budget, always develop a comprehensive plan before you begin your project. Map out how each step of the process will work collectively.
Will you be happy with the completed project as a whole? Does your plan allow for future improvements or additions?
Landscaping is often implemented as veneer, and seen as an expense to maintain. However, landscape architecture—when mobilized as an integral part of the holistic interplay with architecture and engineering—adds value to the property, while improving the overall environment inside and out. Working with an integrated design team is essential to provide long-term, resilient solutions and impactful strategies to address specific site and budgetary needs.
Whether part of a more comprehensive strategy to add units, improve street appeal and rentability, or to provide the kind of outdoor amenities renters are looking for, landscaping plays an integral role in maximizing the impact of capital improvements to a property, while also improving our shared city environment.
Dawn Ma, P.E., co-founded Q-Architecture based on her dual training in civil engineering and architecture. She has had her San Francisco-based practice since 2005 and has completed a variety of residential, commercial and industrial projects. Nicole Biewenga spearheads the marketing and business development efforts at Q-Architecture. As an aspiring architect, she takes her study as the mode of thinking that reconciles practice and theory, good business and art.