The design of a mixed-use complex combines supportive and workforce housing, offers on-site healthcare, creates a path to net zero energy and transforms the delivery model for affordable housing.

A project taking shape in San Diego provides a road map for addressing several of the major issues facing developers and cities today.

El Cerrito
is an eight-story, mixed-use supportive housing complex, developed in a partnership between an affordable housing developer and a health provider, Family Health Centers of San Diego. Designed around customized, once-used shipping containers developed by Crate Modular, the 146-unit project offers a mix of affordable and workforce housing, with an on-site health center.

At the same time, the modular framework, with units prefabricated off-site, significantly reduces the construction schedule, allowing the project to go from approvals to opening much faster than traditional projects. The design also offers a path to a net zero residential complex, using largely existing technologies, the next major step in reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment.

“We’re mixing these elements together to create a more vibrant, sustainable community,” LPA Director of Mixed-use Matt Winter says. “The services are very much in alignment with the mission of the supportive housing component.”

The building is designed in a fork shape, with five levels of housing and the health clinic at street level. The fingers of the fork are arranged around open-air courtyards and create a series of terraces at each level, including rooftop public spaces. The design includes two levels of below-grade parking and two levels of above-grade parking to address neighborhood requirements.

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The design focuses on outdoor circulation, promoting health and wellness and creating community outdoor spaces, including several rooftop decks with views of the neighborhood and mountains.

The integration of landscape embraces biophilia to connect people with nature, promoting health and wellness in the residents. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the residential units provide expansive views to the neighborhood and roof gardens. The massing is designed to capture the prevailing ocean breezes, while creating numerous areas to promote social connections. Exterior circulation promotes health and social interactions. The design also creates an urban edge on the street and a welcoming entranceway with entry courtyards and upper-level balconies to connect the complex with the community.

El Cerrito also tackles the challenge of creating large-scale, net zero energy housing, an elusive target for designers and builders. The development is designed as all-electric, which allows it to achieve carbon neutrality in its operations. It also addresses one of the biggest hurdles to achieving net zero in a residential building: hot water. Commercial projects can achieve net zero, but the high demand for hot water makes it more difficult for residential.

The El Cerrito design addresses the hot water issue by leaving the roof clear of mechanical equipment to maximize the number of photovoltaic panels and a solar thermal system, which can generate the needed energy to heat water without an off-site power source. The MEP system utilizes a high-performance centralized VRF system and centralized electric heat pump boiler system, eliminating the need for gas.

Multiple passive steps are taken to reduce energy use on-site, including natural ventilation with operable windows, daylighting and solar heat gain control with exterior vertical sunshades. The overall energy performance is modeled to operate 70% below Title 24 and 86.6% below the AIA 2030 Commitment benchmark.

“Getting to net zero energy in residential will always be a challenge due to the need for hot water,” says LPA Design Director Matthew Porreca. “But it can be achieved through a holistic approach and smart use of available technology.”

Sustainability is integrated into every aspect of the design. Stormwater is captured on the roof and is treated on-site through a series of biofiltration landscape beds on the roof decks. An adaptive landscape palette promotes biodiversity, in addition to addressing the biophilia goals.

The housing units designed by Crate Modular are simple, clean, Swiss Army knife-like spaces with highly efficient kitchens and bathrooms. Unit sizes will range from studio to two-bedroom, providing the flexibility necessary to address the community’s housing needs. Tall windows open the units to daylight and create livable spaces for residents.

In many ways, it’s the sum of the parts that makes the project special.

By moving the needle in several categories, the project creates a better living and working environment. It also creates a viable model for delivering units more quickly to market.

“We are facing a daunting housing crisis,” Winter says. “Speeding up the construction schedule will save real money that can make the project more affordable for developers and residents.”

Aff housing


A Sustainable Diagram

The integrated, high-performance design is focused on the recycled shipping containers, which are highly insulated and include passive natural ventilation, daylighting and solar heat gain control with exterior sunshades. A centralized VRF system and all-electric heat pump boiler system for domestic hot water reduce energy use and promote carbon neutrality. PV and solar thermal systems provide on-site energy generation; a biofiltration system treats and stores water while promoting biodiversity with an adaptive landscape palette.


Q & A: Fran Butler-Cohen, CEO, Family Health Centers of San Diego

Family Health Centers of San Diego CEO Fran Butler-Cohen thinks developers are asking the wrong questions about affordable and supportive housing design.

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Open circulation systems encourage the use of stairs for a healthy lifestyle, while connecting residents and promoting social connections.

There is no doubt in my mind that this particular building is going to be a catalyst for the development of other beautiful projects along the transit cooridor.

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What have you learned about the connection between health and housing?

The research keeps coming back to the connection over and over and over again. You really cannot do good medicine without roofs over people’s heads. Our organization proudly provides care to people that don’t have means, don’t have insurance, don’t have access to healthcare. For people with chronic diseases or comorbidities, a reliable, stable, secure place to live is absolutely the first step in being able to do something to heal yourself and to have continued health management.

What amenities are important?

I just love [the El Cerrito] design because when you talk about amenities, a lot of times you think of amenities as these physical things that entertain us. But this architect team has paid attention to the natural light and the positioning of the apartments, so we can gain maximum privacy for people and also privacy for the neighborhood.

They are paying attention to the environment and trying to create a beautiful building, while they’re beautifying the neighborhood. There is no doubt in my mind that this particular building is going to be a catalyst for the development of other beautiful projects along the transit corridor, which has been pretty much ignored for many years.

How do you make affordable housing not feel like affordable housing?

Well, I think the biggest thing that you can do is, when you’re a developer and you look at it and say, “Oh, I think I would really like to live there.” That’s when you realize that you’ve done something kind of cool. 

What do developers get wrong about affordable housing?

I think, to a large degree, they don’t spend enough time in educating people on who are the people that need affordable housing. These are the people that bus your tables, that wash your cars. They help you with making your purchases at a retail store. They’re the people that maybe deliver your packages that you buy online, maybe do your gardening. I mean these are the people that we cannot do without in our community and I think that developers could probably do a lot better job of integrating those people that need affordable housing into their projects.

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The design for this mixed-use development includes 146 residential units, a community health center, community spaces and a parking structure. The design transforms the entire delivery model for affordable housing, creating a high-performance facility that addresses many of the issues facing communities.

for the residential units are fabricated off-site for higher efficiency in construction, a decrease in material waste and a condensed project schedule.

2) CONNECTING TO THE URBAN EDGE with vertical roof gardens and ground-level entry plazas. The upper five floors of residential units are organized along a spine to shape a series of roof courtyards and to promote social connections for residents.

is driven from the container modules and then scaled down with the window proportions and vertical sunshades.

area is preserved to maximize the 81kw photovoltaic system for energy generation and solar thermal panels for hot water generation, part of an all-electric strategy to achieve carbon neutrality in the project’s operations.

for the high-performance MEP system utilizes VRF technology and an all-electric heat pump boiler system for domestic hot water. The design includes 100% on-site stormwater treatment and storage in the landscape design.

emphasizes the synergies between the on-site services provided by the health center for residents and the expanded services for the surrounding community.