The Shield

A noisy freeway inspires an ingenious sound wall for an affordable-housing complex in Silicon Valley.

With its jagged metal carapace, the new structure along Highway 101 on Silicon Valley’s southern edge is something of a mystery. Commuters whizzing by must wonder: Is that an office building or some funky urban gallery? The unlikely answer is that it’s affordable housing, with the posh name the Fairways at San Antonio Court.

Completed last August, the three-story, 86-unit complex is a bit of a coup for its architect, Jerome King, who was able to conquer the difficult site, a thin strip sandwiched between a golf course and the highway. The challenge had already defeated three developers, two of which had sought to build market-rate residences (an indication of how prized real estate is in the area). The problem, of course, was all the noise from the cars. King’s solution was a sound wall, with ridges to diffuse the roar of traffic and enough mass to absorb it. Clad in steel plates intermittently inlaid with thin windows, the wall has serious design presence. “There are a lot of ugly, flat walls along the freeway, and this was a chance to do something sculptural,” King says. “It’s got a bit of a free-form feel to it.”

In fact, the gleaming facade is not the actual wall of the residences. For additional sound-proofing, it shields an open-air corridor that connects the complex, which has five wings separated by slim landscaped courtyards. Residents walking to their apartments have a “unique” view through the triple-paned windows to the cars rushing by just a few feet to the west, while the rolling greens and cattail-filled lake of the neighboring golf course are visible on the east side. King has deftly juxtaposed two man-made extremes—autobahn and manicured nature. “You can get away with more innovative design in affordable housing,” he says. “You don’t have this concern that the product is going to look too unusual.”

King, whose peers recently made him a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, is used to making architectural lemonade. Affirmed Housing Group selected him to design the Fairways on the basis of his strong portfolio of affordable housing. “We learned that he was one of the top-notch architects in the Bay Area with expertise in our area,” says the developer’s CEO, James Silverwood. “These projects are tricky to pull off.” Over the past decade, King has focused on creating sustainably designed affordable housing in Silicon Valley, including San Jose’s Gish Family Apartments, which were named one of AIA/COTE’s top ten green projects in 2009. “I seem to be the person that gets the weird small sites, which I like,” he says. “I love those corner gas stations. You can take a brownfield and create a jewel box.”

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