Architecture and building industry stories, news, and opinion from San Francisco based architecture design firm, Kwan Design Architects.

Americans with Disability Act

If you want to renovate an existing commercial space, most likely you will be obligated by the “California Building Code” and the “Americans with Disability Act” (ADA) which is a civil rights law to upgrade your accessibility features such as handicapped parking, main entry, the “Path of Travel” from main entry to the “Area of Primary Function” of the space.  As a building owner or tenant, you have been obligated to do so since 1990 when the “Americans with Disabilities Act” has been in effect.  Most commercial and civic buildings are affected by this federal law in some form or another. Continue reading Americans with Disability Act


The following are general guideline regarding fences and planting in San Francisco properties.

San Francisco regulations on fences are based on the location of the fences on the property and required yards and setbacks.  All San Francisco residential districts have rear yard requirements and some districts have side yard and front setback requirements.  Some San Francisco commercial districts have rear yard requirement and in any commercial, industrial or mixed use district have residential use at the first story.  Continue reading PLANTS & FENCES

San Francisco projects without public notifications

Many projects in San Francisco require public notifications which include demolition, new construction, change in use, exterior alteration or building expansions in residential and some commercial zone areas but there are some exceptions as indicated below.


Dormers can be added to the attic to create additional usable space without public notifications under the following conditions.
(1) The dormer and all other roof features combined area is less than 20% of the roof area.
(2) The maximum plan dimension of the dormer is 8 feet by 8 feet and setback minimum 3 feet from the side property line.
(3) The dormer setback 10 feet from the front building wall.
(4) The dormer cannot be higher than the peak of the roof.


When the lightwell at the property line is against your neighbor’s wall and the lightwell is not visible from any offsite location, and the lightwell is not higher than 10 feet above the neighbor’s ground, then the lightwell infill can be approve without public notification. The Planning Department will need a set of reduced drawings signed by the adjacent owner or tenant. If the proposed lightwell infill is visible from any off-site location, then the public notification is required.


When you have a floor supported by columns and the open space below does not exceed one story or twelve feet, you can enclose the open space below without public notifications assuming that the floor above is legal.


An open deck can be built without notifications in RH and RM districts under the following conditions:
(1) The deck does not encroach into the required rear yard.
(2) When the deck is less than 10 feet above ground.
(3) If the building code requires a one hour fire wall, then the one hour fire wall needs to be less than 10 feet in height for the deck or stair leading to the deck.


Older building may have the Building Code required egress stair located in the required open space. If the replacement stair is within the same footprint and height of the old stair or minimum required by the current Building Code, then the replacement stair can be exempt from notification. The exemption does not apply to new fire wall when the original stair did not have a fire wall, unless the entire firewall is located next to a blank wall of the adjacent neighbor.

The above 5 exceptions summarizes most but not all the rules, for a complete list of rules and regulations please see San Francisco Planning Department Zoning Administrator Bulletin Number 4.

Cool Neutrals

The client is a leading plumbing fixtures manufacturer who wanted to create a small showroom with neutral colors of white, black and gray.  The color selection is limited but when it is done tastefully, it can add a sense sophistication and modern feel.

For the layout, we introduced a new wall so that more fixtures can be display. This wall also created an area for the product’s suite collection. 

We proposed a polished white epoxy floor which gives the space a feeling of openness.  The toilet display area will be framed with a cool gray with a blue undertone that will almost have the appearance of painted metal.  The middle display wall will be a darker blue gray with accent lighting at the top to wash down the wall and vanity.  The end of the wall is a silvery gray glass enclosure for shower display. 

The white walls will be a very light cool neutral.  It should look white with a gray tint.

Possible Color Selection from Dunn Edwards:

White walls:  DE6260 – Wishful White (Cool Neutral)

Gray walls & soffits:  DE6334 – Long Lake or DE6335 – Novelty Navy (Cool Neutral)

Ceiling:  DEW383 – Cool December (Whites)

SR 1b

SR 2SR 3

Unintended Hazard

Located near a large meadow of trees, this building features floor to ceiling glass that wraps around a corner which situated in the path of the birds flying pattern.  This glass corner has approximately 3 to 4 bird collisions a day and some of the collisions are fatal.  Birds cannot see the glass and think they are flying into the sky or vegetation they see through the glass or in a reflection. 

stunned & recovered bird
stunned & recovered bird

Section 139 of the San Francisco Planning Code set the standards for bird-safe building. Pending on the location of the site, projects trigger the requirements include new buildings, additions and alterations that replace 50% of more of the glazing.  The standards also control Location-Related Standards and Feature-Related Standards. Click here to see Section 139



Decorative Film
Decorative Film

A cost effective treatments is to apply decorative window films on the interior side of the glass such as products by “3M, Window Films”.   Click here for more information on 3M products




 Pattern for bird to seeIf a clear glass is required, then a product such as “ORNILUX” can reflects ultraviolet light in a random pattern which the birds can see but it will appear clear to the human.  Click here for more information on Ornilux products.




Exterior Screen
Exterior Screen

Another option is to install an exterior screen to shield the glass. Pending on the orientation of the screen, it can also provide shading and privacy for the interior.   


 Pending on the use and building type. A non architectural solution is to place a feeder within 3 feet of the window. Birds focus on the feeder as they fly toward the window. If they strike the glass leaving the feeder, they do so at very low speed.

Valencia Corridor, San Francisco, California

Two Victorian projects with different approach and review process.

The Hill Street House was an alteration and addition project that triggered the historic preservation review process according to “The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties”.  One of the ideas was to add a fourth story but the vertical addition will be visible from the street and it will compete with the historic Victorian.  The better option was horizontal expansion and excavation to create additional space.  The project was review under Certificate of Appropriateness Procedures.

The Valencia Mixed-Use project has a commercial ground floor and a residential second floor. The original recessed entrance lacks the required clearance for today’s accessibility standards.  San Francisco Building Code Administrative Bulletin AB-011 allows the use of powered operated door instead of the required clearances for disabled access.  A Local Equivalencies Request may also required to document the related code sections and the hardship for compliance.

Planned Unit Development, South San Francisco, California

This “Planned Unit Development” provided 8 detached homes consisted of 25,000 square feet on a 0.5 acre lot.  The 8 homes ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 square feet each and cover an area of approximately 36 % of the site.

The design solution evolved as a response to the boundary conditions of the individual parcels, including issues of entry, privacy, views and a desire to create a unique identity for each home within a modern architectural vocabulary. The contemporary design of each home reflects its own identity while maintaining cohesiveness within the subdivision.

The project has evolved through many community outreach meetings and was able to positively respond to the neighbors by providing ample parking spaces and two outdoor courtyards.


construction in progress

Click here for additional images

Urban Landscape, San Francisco, California

Nihonmachi Terrace is a high density Japanese senior housing complex in San Francisco Japan Center. The existing courtyard consisted of a lawn and a few trees that provided open space for the tenants and visitors. Kwan Design Architect (in association with Robert La Rocca Landscape Architect) revitalizes the courtyard in response to Japanese garden design principals, natural features and sustainable design solutions. The new courtyard included rock garden with raked gravel, pathways and wooden bridges over a dry creek, plants indigenous to the mountains, water scriptural feature, community vegetable garden, windbreak elements and gathering opportunities.

Nihonmachi 3 & 4 Nihonmachi 2

Rotunda House, Millbrae, California

This project is located within the 65 CNEL Aircraft Noise Footprints based upon the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) 1983 CNEL Noise Exposure Map.  If the properties within this map is constructed after Jan. 1st 1983, or is renovated at a cost equal to 25% or more of the current market value of the home, it must be insulated against aircraft noise to meet FAA noise insulation program standards.  This means that the windows must have a Sound Transmission Class (or STC) rating of 35.  A typical interior wall with one layer of 1/2″ gypsum board on each side of wood stud at 16” on center has an STC of approximately 33.

The window manufacturer we selected cannot provide STC 35 certification as a whole window assembly but the glass itself will perform the STC rating of 30 – 35.  We explained the situation with the building official and were able to obtain approval with the glass specification.

See here for list of homes in the noise exposure area.


rotunda 2IMG_0696