• 08.25.16

An SRO In San Francisco’s Tenderloin Is Getting A $3 Million Zero Net Energy Redesign

The William Penn Hotel, built in 1907, could prove a model for how to make affordable housing sustainable and more pleasant for residents.

An SRO In San Francisco’s Tenderloin Is Getting A $3 Million Zero Net Energy Redesign

“Zero net energy” buildings, which generate as much power as they use, are becoming more common in high-end developments or single-family homes. A new site is less expected: In the heart of the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s most run-down neighborhood, an old hotel that houses formerly homeless people is getting a net-zero makeover.


“We started realizing the scalable impacts that a project like this could have on affordable housing,” Stan Lew, an architect and director of the San Francisco 2030 District, which is partnering with the owner of the building on the project. A $3 million grant from the California Energy Commission is funding the redesign.

As it adds new energy-saving technology and solar panels on the roof, the developers aim to eliminate utility bills, which should help lower rent for the at-risk residents inside. Some of the potential energy-saving changes–such as better access to natural light, or new ventilation systems–can also improve quality of life in the tiny, single-occupancy rooms.

“That part of the Tenderloin is a busy part of town,” says Lew. “Lots of cars go through there, the mechanical systems are a little bit older, and so we’re looking at that as another way of making life better in the actual room itself for each resident.”

Zero net energy retrofits are especially challenging on a building this age; the William Penn Hotel was built in 1907. “The insulation and envelope is what it is,” he says. “You can’t really change how the building looks because it’s historic. You’re challenged with not doing much to the envelope.”

In addition to using existing energy efficiency technology, the team has put out a call to startups that could potentially use the building as a real-life testing ground for their products. The project is designed to double as a way to help good technology reach the market faster.

The team is also carefully studying the economics of the retrofit. If it’s financially viable, the building owner–Chinatown Community Development Center, which manages 2,000 similar rooms across San Francisco–may repeat the project in its other properties.


“What’s really exciting for us is if we can do this well for the 94 residents at 160 Eddy, we can start to replicate this model of converting existing buildings to net zero energy,” says Lew. “We see this as not only a model for Chinatown Community Development Center, but other affordable housing developers in San Francisco and other cities.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.