As is tradition over the past nearly 20 years, the American Institutes of Architects and its Committee on the Environment (COTE) has observed Earth Day by singling out the most sustainable buildings in all the land. And, as always, the Top 10 Green Projects list — “the profession's most rigorous recognition program for sustainable design excellence” — is wildly random, proving that all kinds of buildings, not just privately commissioned single-family houses, can make a positive impact on the planet.

On the topic of residential projects, the 2015 list is somewhat light on them compared to years past. Among the esteemed honorees is a historic warehouse-turned-studio space in San Antonio, a biotech incubator in New Orleans and a shiny Manhattan edifice, the New School’s University Center, that never fails to stop me in my tracks when I walk by it. Also on the list are two buildings previously featured on MNN: Seattle’s out-of-the-ballpark green Bullitt Center and Sweetwater Spectrum, a community for autistic adults in Sonoma, California.

And then there’s what’s no doubt the largest — and most fun to say out loud — honored project of them all: Tassafaronga Village, a sprawling new neighborhood in Oakland, California, that replaces urban blight (think: crime-ridden concrete public housing blocks, crumbling factories and disused train tracks) with a bright, vibrant community where affordability, accessibility and future-friendly design are all top concerns.

Spanning nearly 8 acres on a formerly contaminated brownfield site that straddles a residential area and a swath of industrial East Oakland, Tassafaronga Village is indeed a newly built neighborhood but isn’t quite new anymore in the scheme of things. With a total price tag of nearly $53 million, land not included, the Oakland Housing Authority-operated neighborhood was completed in the summer of 2010. In the years since, it's garnered numerous accolades, props from the NRDC’s Kaid Benfield and been the subject of a glowing New York Times profile with the headline: “Design as Balm for a Community’s Soul.”

Tassafaronga Village, a green mixed-income neighborhood/reclamation project in Oakland

Tassafaronga Village's Pasta Factory is now a supportive housing complex for low-income residents. (Photo: Brian Rose)

Tassafaronga Village, a green mixed-income neighborhood/reclamation project in Oakland

Tassafaronga Village's 60-unit affordable apartment building replaces a 60s era public housing complex. (Photo: Brian Rose)

Still, nearly five years in, Tassafaronga Village and the “newly safe” area around it maintains a freshness and vitalizing energy — a potent reminder of the transformative power of good design; evidence that even one of Oakland’s roughest areas can be successful reimagined, revitalized, reborn.

San Francisco-based David Baker Architects, no stranger to affordable housing and innovative green design, served as project architect.

Part of Tassafaronga Village’s continuing freshness is achieved in part by the variety of affordable housing options: there’s a 60-unit apartment building, 77 rental townhouse units arranged in “clusters” across the neighborhood and 22 Habitat for Humanity-built residences collectively referred to as Kinsell Commons. There’s also a supportive housing community consisting of 20 small apartment units housed within a structure that, once upon a time, was a pasta plant operated by D. Merlino & Sons. This structure — dubbed the Pasta Factory — also includes an on-site medical clinic. "Great care was taken with the scale and details of the buildings, creating an organic landscape typologically consistent with the surrounding neighborhood,” explains the AIA of the remarkably dense but low-rise neighborhood.

All buildings at Tassafaronga Village are LEED for Homes Platinum certified while the community, as a whole, is certified Gold under LEED ND (Neighborhood Development).

And then there’s the green space. Designed to encourage community engagement, communal bonding and a pedestrian lifestyle, Tassafaronga Village is positively lousy with pocket parks, large open courtyards, public plazas, mews, sustainably landscaped pathways and more. There is ample parking at Tassafaronga Village but it’s largely concentrated to one area, emphasizing open green space over paved parking lots.

In the adjacent public park, there’s even an urban farm tended to by local elementary school children and operated by local nonprofit Acta Non Verba. Kelly Carlisle, director of Acta Non Verba, describes the old Tassafaronga as being “the scariest place around" to the Times.

Tassafaronga Village, a green mixed-income neighborhood/reclamation project in Oakland

Electricity and hot water at Tassafaronga Village is largely generated by solar panels. (Photo: Matthew Millman)

Tassafaronga Village, a green mixed-income neighborhood/reclamation project in Oakland

Rendering: David Baker Architects

In the village proper, the vegetated pièce de résistance is a lush, stormwater-capturing green roof that partially tops the apartment building.

Sustainable design and high-performance building technology is in full effect at Tassafaronga Village although not necessarily in a showy. The housing units are situated to receive maximum natural daylight and ventilation; they’re dappled in sunlight but thanks to innovative shading considerations, they won’t bake during the summer months.

The building design provides comfortable daylight, views, and airflow by increasing the exposure in individual rooms and units. Roughly half of all living rooms and bedrooms in the project include windows facing two orientations, a rare condition in developments of this size and density. The typical apartment has windows with an 8-foot head height and a 25-30-foot depth, bringing daylight past the living area into the open kitchen. In the townhomes, most bathrooms are situated at an exterior wall with a window. Surrounded by living areas, the stair cores are lit from above by skylights.
Indoor air quality was also a top concern and, as is increasingly de rigueur, low- and zero-VOC materials (carpeting, sealants, paints, etc.) were used in construction. The buildings’ tight thermal envelope also helps to safeguard against outside pollutants as well as noise.

In terms of energy, Tassafaronga Village is home to a 180-kilowatt photovoltaic system that helps to offset electric loads in the neighborhood’s common areas. The apartment building is topped with solar thermal collectors for hot water needs while all housing in the neighborhood includes Energy Star appliances and high-efficiency lighting. 

Lots more on the tech-y green bells and whistles of Tassafaronga Village can be found over at AIA COTE Top Ten page along with info about 2015’s other honorees including the year’s Top Ten Plus award recipient, Seattle’s Federal Center South Building 1202.

Each selected building is impressive but in terms of life-changing potential, Tassafaronga Village takes the proverbial cake.

Writes one teenage resident in a letter: "I love many things about the house I call home. I can see how the buildings were designed to bring us together and to develop safer neighborhoods for this beautiful city. One day I would be honored to do for others what you have done for me…to design houses for the less fortunate.”

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Inset photo of Tassafaronga Village townhomes: Brian Rose

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Oakland neighborhood showcases the power of good, green design
In a once iffy stretch of East Oakland, Tassafaronga Village stands as a model of affordable green housing done right.