SAN FRANCISCO -- The building has the high ceilings, skylights and exposed beams and pipes of any self-respecting loft project in San Francisco's funky South of Market neighborhood.
Floors are of glazed concrete, tinted with earth tones. The apartments hold simple pine furnishings, accented with gilt-framed portraits and cool black-and-white photographs.
The local residents, too, have much in common with the typical young SoMa dweller: Most have what might charitably be referred to as interesting facial hair; many look a little shaggy around the edges, and they all seem to spend an awful lot of time in front of a television.
Two things, however, separate these live-work spaces from most of the apartments around them.
One is that in San Francisco's obscenely out-of-control rental market -- in which well-heeled apartment seekers routinely appear at open houses with briefcases full of resumes, references and bribes -- each one of these apartments comes absolutely free.
The other, more noticeable, difference is that the space has -- ahem -- gone to the dogs.
Every resident of the new 90-unit complex is a mammal of the four-legged variety, a guest of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
It has taken the SPCA about five years to design and build its new $6 million wing, which sprawls over 37,000 square feet in a warehouse-laden district perched between the trendy SoMa, Potrero Hill and Inner Mission neighborhoods.
Architects Lucinda Schlaffer and Paul Bonacci called in acoustics consultants, animal behaviorists and other specialists as they pieced together a plan for the addition.
The result is an animal shelter said to be unlike any other in the United States.
Extra-thick glass windows on every "apartment" keep the noise of barking dogs away from a visitor's ears. Visitors hold their hands up to small cut-outs so that the dogs can give them a sniff test.
A hospital-style air-circulation system keeps the whole building from smelling like a doghouse, while individual drainage systems in each apartment help prevent disease from spreading.
Then there's the furniture: a TV set in each apartment, but otherwise mostly simple, inexpensive pieces such as chairs and end tables -- just enough to give the pets something not to chew on.
The idea, says SPCA President Richard Avanzino, is to get the would-be pets, many of which come in with various physical or psychological ailments, used to a comfortable home environment, and at the same time make them look as good as possible to prospective adopters.
"At other shelters, when people walk in they do this," he says, covering his ears with his hands, "or they do this." He shifts his hands to his nose and makes a face.
"We wanted to create an environment that was warm, open, inviting."
The San Francisco facility is a "no-kill" shelter; any animal that comes in is guaranteed a home.
The pets Avanzino refers to as the "old and ugly" -- the older, injured or hard-to-place pets -- get prime positions within the new wing, which houses the shelter's adoption operation.
The best kitty condo in the joint is a spacious, airy penthouse occupied by Bea, a feral cat who, with almost six months in residence, is the local old-timer.
For the dogs, the SPCA provides such daily rituals as three-dog play groups, one-on-one training classes and group exercise periods to keep the creatures active and well socialized.
The cats have less structured activity, though designers did give each cat apartment a window and ledge from which to watch neighbors and visitors.
The luxury treatment has raised a few eyebrows in a city where the battle for any housing -- never mind affordable -- has become the stuff of nightmares.
"It's the first time we've been criticized because our building is too nice," jokes architect Schlaffer.
San Francisco's vacancy rate for rental housing is about 1 percent, and market watchers say the 250-square-foot canine apartments -- given such human necessities as a small bathroom and kitchen -- would probably go for a $600 to $800 monthly rent.
"It's not a prime neighborhood," Shalene Bernstein of American Property Exchange, a local rental agency, explains almost apologetically.
"A real studio in a prime neighborhood would go for quite a bit more."
Avanzino has fended off some of the criticism by floating a proposal to house 12 homeless people a night in as many dog PTC apartments -- both to offer shelter to the needy and to provide the dogs with human companionship.
Five local service agencies, he says, have politely rejected the partnership offer, which would require that the agency provide cots and that overnight guests leave each morning at 6 a.m.
A sixth agency -- he won't say which -- is apparently still considering the proposal.
Juliet Twomey, an advocate in the St. Anthony Foundation's Justice Education group, displays mixed feelings about the proposal. On the one hand, she says wistfully, the partnership proposal's small scale makes it "a nice idea."