It’s not exactly breaking news that the housing prices in San Francisco are high. The median price for a home in San Francisco is now exceeding $1 million, and those that do come up for sale are going fast — half of the homes sold have only been on the market for two weeks. (There’s a reason why the agents on Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing San Francisco are aiming to do $50-100 million in sales for the year — a $1 million dollar price tag won’t even buy you 1,000 square feet). The stratospheric prices and general real estate frenzy have an impact on everything from increasing gentrification to a decrease in McDonald’s franchises (they can’t keep up with the real estate market either!). The changing landscape of San Francisco has been documented by thinkers such as Rebecca Solnit and journalists like Heather Knight. But, we also wondered how the market is changing the aesthetic of the city — both what it looks like on the outside and its interior spaces.
There are only 49 square miles to work with in San Francisco, and according to real estate broker Andrew Greenwell (and many others), who specializes in luxury real estate and is starring on Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing San Francisco (premiering July 8th, Wednesday @10/9c on Bravo), it’s the “recent surges in tech companies hiring young professionals from outside the city that has created a sudden demand for urban residences within the city.” Stanley Saitowitz of Natoma Architects sees the real estate boom affecting architecture in “two distinctly different aspects — the first is the repair and upgrade of so much of the existing fabric of the city, and the second is the new buildings.”
And when it comes to new construction, Craig Steely, who has been working as an architect in the city for the past fifteen years says that the real estate scarcity has compelled homeowners to reevaluate lots that were once considered unbuildable — small corners lots, ultra steep lots — everything is fair game. Like this home, (above) designed by his firm, Craig Steely Architecture. Just a few years ago, this steep site above San Francisco’s Dolores Park would have been overlooked because in addition to the complications of the steepness, the site is bordered by a public staircase that needed to be incorporated into the design.
The resulting building is more structurally complex than what would be built on a flat lot and that complexity is something that Craig works to highlight as a design feature. He spends less time designing fussy details, and instead puts money and emphasis on the steel, wood and structural ingenuity of the space. In the Dolores Park building (above), he designed a series of indoor vertical louvers, made from reclaimed cypress wood, to allow the homeowners to maintain their privacy, despite constant foot traffic just outside their home, without sacrificing light or their views of San Francisco — solving the site’s problems become the building’s greatest feature. Dealing with complex sites is part of the history of modern architecture in California — just think of Case Study House 22 designed by Pierre Koenig — of course, as Craig says, the big difference is “the Case Study houses were inexpensive — there’s nothing inexpensive in San Francisco anymore.”
As you might expect in 240-year-old city, the landscape certainly isn’t all modern buildings, and when you think of the architectural landscape of San Francisco, you probably are calling up something like the opening credits of Full House and images of those colorful Victorians. The strong architectural preservationist cultural of San Francisco is something that Craig sees as beneficial to the aesthetic of the city. “It’s hard to get something built here and that’s been good for San Francisco, it’s kept a lot of bad projects from getting built.” But while the outside of the buildings may be staying intact, there’s not much that preservationists can do about the interior spaces as Therese Poletti recently reported in MarketWatch. Buyers want to go modern. That’s a sentiment echoed by Andrew Greenwell, of Million Dollar Listing San Francisco: “lately, sellers have been combining Victorian exteriors with extremely modern interiors that have been welcomed with extreme success.”
Most of Homepolish designer Felice Press’ clients might not be dealing with million dollar listings, but they are working to marry the style of their traditional Victorian homes with their personal modern design aesthetic. When it comes to commercial spaces, in a city filled with start ups, each competing for top talent, there’s pressure to make the office environment a component of the incentive package, “which means that ping-pong tables and beanbags aren’t going to cut it anymore,” says Felice. Even though there are still plenty of game tables and comfy chairs, companies are looking for ways to communicate their branding through the design, and “there’s definitely more of an appreciation for high tech elements, lots of these offices, as it’s the business many of them are in and they want to incorporate it into the design,” says Felice.
Felice works with everyone in San Francisco from bachelors with blank slates and deep pockets but no idea how to get started to young couple who just purchased a new home and start ups ranging from the very small and budget sensitive to big name tech companies with 15K sq ft. renovations. One thing they all share, says Felice “is that they personalized and modern design elements have a great way of doing that as there are so many really unique and fun options.”
Architect Stanley Saitowitz believes that the changing landscape is most than just aesthetics, and that Millennials are bringing a completely new way of living into the city. “I just visited some apartments in a building we finished a few months ago and was really impressed to see how simply and elegantly they are inhabited. Mostly they have a couch, a few nice chairs, a table, bed, computer and clothes,” he said. “Millennials’ lifestyles are definitely different. I recently saw that the number of driver’s licenses being issued is declining – young people are more interested in use than ownership. Modern life is catching on again. People understand the value of less, and this economy and lightness is how we can begin to solve the huge burden our addictive consumption has placed on the environment.”
So what’s the future for the San Francisco landscape? According to Craig Steely, “The shape of San Francisco 10 years from now is going to be high rises and apartments. The days of finding an un-remodeled house is over — everything has been touched and the price of a Victorian is out of reach for 99 percent of the people.” Last year, Chicago’s Studio Gang revealed the above design for 390 condos in 500,000 square foot high rise on 160 Folsom in San Francisco certainly proving the point that the future for San Francisco is up. (If you’d like to hear more about the changing architectural landscape in San Francisco, City Visions pulled together some architectural thinkers and critics to discuss just that topic. And, if you’d like to watch some high-end real estate sell to the top bidder, Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing San Francisco premieres Wednesday, 7/8 @ 10/9c.