In a Pinch

by Jeff Oberdorfer FAIA, CDS

Being in a pinch is something the residents of Casa Feliz Studios know all about. Located in downtown San Jose, Calif., the 60-unit single-room occupancy (SRO) facility provides living space for tenants with extremely low incomes — approximately 20 to 35 percent of the area’s median income.

Owned by First Community Housing (FCH) and designed by award-winning architectural firm Rob Wellington Quigley, FAIA, Casa Feliz Studios is intended to remain affordable for a period of 55 years by utilizing energy-efficient amenities. In addition to private bathrooms and kitchens, the housing facility offers several shared amenities, including an atrium-lit common area with kitchenette, landscaped outdoor spaces, laundry facilities, a computer lab and wireless Internet throughout the building.

For transportation needs, the four-story building has a parking level below grade, and it’s located near public transportation. FCH provides all tenants with a free annual Eco Pass for unlimited use of the regional bus and light rail system, which reduced the building’s onsite parking requirement to 22 spaces. Since 21 of 60 units are dedicated to mainstream residents with developmental disabilities who rely on public transit, this easy access to public transportation is essential.

Tight Circumstances

Equal to FCH’s commitment to its future residents was its implementation of Rob Wellington Quigley’s sustainable design. Casa Feliz was intended to replace an existing SRO, and the tight circumstances forced an extremely creative and efficient design. The small 0.4-acre infill parcel required the architects to utilize every opportunity to provide natural light, particularly into the interior core and common spaces.

For indoor air quality, each unit has its own ventilation system, linoleum flooring, low VOC-emitting adhesives and urea-formaldehyde-free built-in cabinets.

Water-conserving efforts include low-flow showers, faucets and high-efficiency toilets to achieve a 36 percent reduction in indoor water use versus conventional plumbing fixtures. Through site-appropriate landscaping and water-efficient irrigation, approximately 64 percent less potable water is used for irrigation compared to a conventional landscape.

As a way of mitigating the storm sewer requirements, FCH considered using a vegetated roof. Preliminary analysis showed that the installation of a living roof could reduce the stormwater runoff to such an extent that only a new 10-year-event pipe would be required, and this could be accomplished equivalent to or less than the cost of a 100-year storm sewer “upgrade.” Because of these efforts, Casa Feliz won two water-conservation awards in 2009 from the Santa Clara Valley Urban Runoff Pollution Prevention Program and the Silicon Valley Water Conservation Awards.

The north living roof is sown with seed; the south roof, which is under the photovoltaic system racks, is planted with ferns; and several lower roofs are planted with sedum. The living roofs are not intended for tenant recreation or public viewing due to their size and lack of pedestrian capacity. However, as San Jose’s first development with a living roof, Casa Feliz provides an important educational model.

When all was said and done, these features enabled the building to earn LEED-NC v2.2 Gold. To ensure that the building performs efficiently over time, FCH employs a sustainable facilities manager who monitors the property regularly, trains maintenance staff to follow green O&M protocols and educates residents about green living.

With an affordable and healthy place to live and onsite access to a computer learning center, financial literacy training and computer literacy programs, residents of Casa Feliz Studios can now focus their attention on gaining the skills necessary to increase their earning capacity. It’s an education in green by design.

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