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Shipping Container Eco-Spa Gets Green Light in Mission Bay

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Once a neglected former rail yard, Mission Bay is set to be remade as a tech and biotech hub with 6,000 residential units. As a place to call home, though, it's one of the city's least strollable places, short on amenities and long on things like fenced-off plots of nothing. One such lot, the five acres bounded by Third and Fourth streets, and by Mission Bay Boulevard North and South, is slated to be made over as part of Mission Bay public park system, but that's still years away. In the meantime, developer District Development is introducing a panoply of interim uses, from Nomad Gardens (which opened last year) to a forthcoming collaboration with SoMa Streat Food and a soccer field by SFF Soccer—all amenities that should help Mission Bay feel like a more inviting place to call home.

The latest addition to District Development's plans is Soak, an urban bathhouse in five shipping containers, which is officially moving ahead with the recent blessing of the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, the successor to the Redevelopment Agency that oversees the Mission Bay redevelopment area. The idea, says Soak founder Nell Waters, is to conjure the communal spirit of the urban bathhouses of yore, but with a 21st-century ethos of resource consciousness. "Soak is a demonstration project," she says, where "we want to test out this idea of Sutro Baths on a lighter footprint," in miniature.

Stacked in a two-story configuration, Soak's five containers will offer two hot pools, a sauna, a rooftop solarium, and a patio garden. Back in 2013, Waters launched a $240,000 Kickstarter campaign to get a Soak prototype off the ground, but it did not reach its funding goal. That 2013 design, led by Blaine Merker, formerly of the Rebar Group, is the template for the new version, which will be designed by architect Christopher Haas, with Merker as a design partner. The renderings shown here are from the Kickstarter campaign, so don't get too attached. "We won't know the final exterior until more of the architecture and engineering work is done," explains Waters, who is sourcing her containers from Applied Containers. Soak's exact recipe for sustainability is also still being refined, but Waters says the rooftop will be fitted with photovoltaic cells. Soak's official launch has not been set yet, and fund-raising is still under way.

The acreage being programmed by District Development will host interim uses for five to seven years. The idea of adapting shipping containers to bring temporary attractions to vacant land has a growing track record in San Francisco, sparked by the success of envelope A+D's Proxy in Hayes Valley and carried forth by the San Francisco Giants' mini pod-park of food and retail at the Yard. Soak is solidly in that tradition, but its splashy pools are a refreshing twist on the usual eating-and-shopping format of container-assisted recreation. The developer has, by the way, dubbed its five acres the Meanwhile Commons, which sort of sounds like Proxy run through Microsoft Word's thesaurus.

In these drought-ridden times, Waters positions Soak as an eco-conscious twist on a traditional spa experience. "The average spagoer is using 20 gallons of water per visit, before they get involved in a fancy salt-scrub treatment," says Waters, who ran the former Dogpatch bodywork studio Whole Body Tonic. "Soak is angling to have that number reduced to 11 to 15 gallons per person." Compared to the typical spa and its menu of treatments, Soak is cast more in the bathhouse mold, with a focus on soaking and sweating and unwinding, not on extras like facials.

"The way we've approached an industry that's known for its indulgent water use was by looking at low-flow showers, a second life for gray water and, when possible, rainwater catchment," explains Waters. It's perhaps propitious that Soak will be close to Nomad Gardens, whose flowerbeds need watering anyway. (If Soak's gray water were involved with the gardens, she is careful to clarify, it would hydrate only nonedibles, like flowers.)

Soak will have the capacity to host about 25 people on-site at any given time. There will be a reservation system, but Waters will also open up her mini-bathhouse free to Mission Bay neighbors one day a month. "For me that was a defining pillar of upholding what the urban baths have traditionally been all about, which is a gathering spot for locals, an opportunity to unwind and connect," she says. "And, in this 21st-century climate, unplug."

· SHoP Architects' Uber HQ Will Arrive in Approximately One Million Minutes [Curbed SF]
· District Development Archives [Curbed SF]
· Nomad Gardens [Official Site]
· Soak: An Ecological Urban Bathhouse [Kickstarter]
· Applied Containers [Official Site]
· Previous Coverage of Proxy [Curbed SF]
· Touring the Yard, the Giants' Take on Shipping Pod Chic [Curbed SF]