Gish Family Apartments, in San Jose, Calif., is a star on many levels. Aside from being LEED-Gold certified, it snagged a 2010 AIA Housing Award (Multifamily Living) and was named a 2009 AIA/COTE Top Ten Green Project. The apartment building—a collaboration between First Community Housing (FCH) and the Office of Jerome King Architecture and Planning (OJK)—resulted in double bottom-line benefits. Not only are the green premiums expected to pay for themselves within five to seven years, but these affordable units for low-income and developmentally disabled tenants have already turned lives around: Many of the residents are off their asthma and anxiety medications. It’s a direct effect, the team believes, of the squeaky-clean indoor air.

FCH’s goal for the 35-unit project was to provide an artfully designed and environmentally sound building near transit with a 7-Eleven on the ground floor. But the half-acre infill site across the street from light rail and bus lines also presented major challenges. “A good deal of the expense and technological issues are related to aspects you can’t see,” notes FCH owner Jeff Oberdorfer, FAIA, who patched together funding to clean up contamination left by a former gas station and protect the below-grade parking podium from the high water table.

The building’s striking form responds directly to the noisy street corner. “We wanted to have balconies, and their acoustical protection turned into a chief design feature,” says OJK principal Jerome King, FAIA. On units facing the street, full-height glass panels are set at an angle to deflect light-rail clatter. The front façade’s recycled metal “armor” also baffles sound and helps to cool the building.

Thanks to its thermal mass, reflective roof, R-21 insulation in 2x6 framing, and double-glazed windows, the building performs about 25% better than Title 24 energy code, California’s energy efficiency standard for residential and nonresidential buildings. A water-source heat pump easily handles the heating and cooling loads, and a rooftop photovoltaic array produces enough electricity to supply one-third of the power used in common areas.

But while the energy efficiencies are an important part of the scheme, the interior finishes also received lots of attention. Urea formaldehyde–free cabinets, linoleum floors, low-VOC paints and sealants, and nontoxic recyclable carpet tiles added up to 10 out of a possible 15 LEED points for indoor environmental quality. “We found that with several of our LEED-Gold buildings, the air quality really helps special-needs populations,” Oberdorfer says. “Parents of some of the disabled tenants have told us of dramatic changes in their behavior.”

Gish Family Apartments proves that developers can deliver iconic green buildings at an affordable price, though ingenuity helps. FCH shaves 2% off the cost by building two projects at once, using the same contractors and subs. “More and more lenders are looking at green building as a sense of security,” Oberdorfer adds. “They know they will last a long time.”