Sierra Bonita Apartments

Sierra Bonita Apartments

Laser-cut aluminum panels provide protection and offbeat variety at the Sierra Bonita Apartments.
Art Gray

In this world of rampant NIMBYism, it’s rare that a 42-unit building reserved for low-income, physically disabled residents could be considered an asset to a community. But such is the case with Patrick Tighe Architecture’s new Sierra Bonita Apartments along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.

The building, which also contains the offices for the developer West Hollywood Community Housing, somehow manages to be beautiful, cheaply built (it cost $14 million), energy-efficient, and low-impact, all at the same time. And while most low-income housing maintains an institutional look full of splashy colors and other gimmicks that cover up cheapness and often lend a patronizing air, these units don’t feel low-income at all. In fact, despite their small size and simplicity, they have an air of sophistication that explains why they’ve attracted a list of about 3,000 applicants for their 42 spots.

Solar panels offer a shady trellis for the rooftop terrace (above) and a central courtyard filled with a bamboo forest offers a sheltered escape (below).

The 50,000-square-foot building gets its edgy design motif from what was at first an imperfection. Because of the structure’s unusual width-to-height ratio, its chevron-like brace frames—which are most apparent outside the central courtyard, where they are covered in colorful fiberglass panels—had to be built with an off-center geometric pattern, known as an eccentric brace frame, that looks like a series of intersecting shards. Those forms are echoed in several aspects of the building. The front facade, for instance, is clad with aluminum panels laser cut with the same pattern. The panels not only give the building a distinctive presence on the boulevard, but they provide sun shading and privacy. The street-facing units, also clad in gray stucco, are arranged in a three-dimensional pattern in which some stay flush with the building and some jut out, creating even more visual rhythm.

Laser-cut panels form the railings for balconies  and offer sun screening for interior spaces.

On the building’s ground floor, office spaces are modest but comfortable and contemporary. Ceiling fins made of recycled paper lend an affordable but splashy touch, as do curving niches, walls, and ceilings. Meanwhile, the units themselves are comfortable and have an edgy feel, thanks to concrete floors and fragmented views through the metallic screens over their large window walls. Those along the courtyard have their own porches with built-in benches, for enjoying the superb quality of the building’s enclosed exterior space.

Indeed, the courtyard is the jewel of the project. Unlike some affordable housing developments, whose courtyards feel too exposed, loud, and blown-out with sunlight, this one feels like a sheltered escape. Tighe describes it as a “bamboo forest,” largely a function of the protective bamboo trees that will grow up to 60 feet tall. The eccentric brace pattern is again on display through the courtyard’s shard-like pathways, which help break up the space and make it feel even more intimate. And the peaceful area has an edge thanks to tall, polycarbonate-covered light tubes, along with built-in benches and Cor-ten steel planters.

Units feature large glass window walls and edgy concrete floors.

Solar panels are one of several green elements at the Sierra Bonita (left). An irregular fiberglass wall resembles a series of intersecting shards (center) and the projecting front facade creates a sense of visual rhythm. (right).  

Atop the building, two roof terraces provide residents with still more escapes from noisy West Hollywood city life, as well as great views of the neighborhood and beyond. Vines growing on a network of terraces soften these areas, and photovoltaics provide a shady canopy. These solar panels are part of a system of green elements that also includes low-impact building materials, natural airflow, passive solar design, native landscaping, and a solar water heater.

In all, Sierra Bonita is an inspiring piece of architecture in an affordable housing sector that still mostly expects mediocrity, with clients and contractors that are used to cutting corners. “It’s hard not to do the typical thing,” said Tighe, who notes that despite an exceptional client, he had to stay on site most of the time to make sure the contractors carried out his plans. “But we made sure it was something special.”