Taeko-Karyn Takagi: Net Effect

The 38 Harriet Street micro-studio building in San Francisco

"Sustainability" and "green building" in architecture are elusive concepts. Does a sustainable building simply support its own energy needs for the duration of its existence? Or does it also need to compensate somehow for the energy involved in its "birth" and "death" -- its initial construction and eventual demolition?

The architect and alumna Taeko-Karyn Takagi (Architecture 2002) has spent her career deeply engaged in both defining and answering such questions.

One way the building industry evaluates sustainability is through a structure's actual energy use. By designing to reduce energy consumption and adding renewable energy, Takagi explains, it is possible to achieve a net zero-energy building. "This means the energy used in the building is offset within a year's time via renewable energy. I have been fortunate to work on quite few net zero-energy and LEED Platinum buildings in the last few years."

Another concept of sustainability relates to making cities habitable and affordable for actual working people. One of Takagi's recent projects was the much-discussed 38 Harriet Street micro-studio building in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood.

Using offsite, prefabricated components that her company built in their 100,000-square-foot Sacramento factory made it possible to install this 23-unit, four-story structure in just four days. Each 300-square-foot apartment is intended to house one or two residents. Built-in furniture and ample storage make for a truly livable-by-design small space.

Read more in this California Home + Design article.

A Roundabout Route to CCA

For Takagi, the route to CCA's Architecture Program was somewhat roundabout. With a bachelor's degree in psychology and several years under her belt working in that field, she was considering a career in academia. "I was leading a kind of double life, working in psychology but also designing furniture and graphics and learning web design on the side at a moment in the late 1990s when the design scene was really burgeoning in San Francisco.

"My mom was an artist and I sort of always was too. I realized that pursuing a doctorate meant I'd never see the light of day again! My camera would just sit on the shelf." Certain she wanted to stay in San Francisco and aware of the importance of networking, she enrolled at CCA in 1997. She was initially an Industrial Design major but soon found her way into Architecture. "It integrated my interests in psychology and urban planning."

Starting Her Own Firm

"I had a pretty seamless emergence from school in 2002 because the internship I did as a student at David Baker + Partners became a full-time job immediately after graduation. And I met my husband, the designer Elias Crouch (MFA 2002), at CCA."

She moved quickly into working on substantial, interesting projects with David Baker, who remains an important mentor for her to this day. She also found herself working with her former CCA professors Lourdes Garcia and Russell Sherman.

Then in 2005 Takagi took what she smilingly calls the "naive and egomaniacal step" of starting her own firm, 49Mile Design and Development. "I saw too many inefficiencies between developers, designers, architects, and getting the project actually done. I wanted to condense all of that and take out the middlemen. I started small, with little infill lots, and figured I could learn the real estate stuff on my own."

Move to ZETA, New Projects

Soon enough the projects started getting bigger, and the work more complex: conducting feasibility studies, buying properties, seeking investors. Within a year of launching her firm she was building the first Gold LEED certified homes in downtown Sacramento. After this, Takagi worked as an in-house architect for Holliday Development for a year before she was approached by ZETA, the company she currently works for.

ZETA describes itself as a forward-thinking, solutions-oriented builder and developer. The firm is dedicated to making energy-efficient, highly durable buildings with fast construction timeframes, using sustainable products with no cost penalty.

The projects she has worked on at ZETA include the aforementioned micro-studios as well as custom homes, multifamily dwellings, schools, and public land development within cities. "As director of product development, I bring a more efficient, system-built type of construction to market."

The Future of Sustainable Architecture?

And what does the future hold for sustainable architecture? Takagi says she's seeing a shift in the kinds of incentives that inspire zero-energy projects and Passivhaus (a new standard in the industry that prioritizes thermal performance through airtightness and mechanical ventilation). At the moment, the trend is with larger facilities whose long-term owners are seeking new ways to offset energy usage.

"Big institutions and companies like Google need to push the politics of sustainability." Developers looking to sell right away have been expressing less interest in energy efficiency, but this may shift soon enough, Takagi says, as it dawns on them that "providing a future buyer with control over energy usage absolutely adds to the value of the building."