Monday, October 17, 2011

Carleton Marx, Berkeley

Alfred and I visited Carleton Marx on a slow Saturday morning. As I neared the cross-streets, I passed several families hosting garage sales. Neighbors stopped to examine the tables of knick-knacks. The urban noises of downtown Berkeley were beyond earshot and the streets were generally calm. A parent was yelling at a child in one of the houses across the street and a few of the neighbors’ cats were cruising the sidewalk. The fa├žade of the house sat squarely in front of us with little adornment and while the yard was well-kept, it was not overflowing with plantings like the Berkeley homes in the hills. The very thick and bushy tree in front of the house struck me as somewhat comical—this house would be easy to find, even in the dark. We had been instructed to park our bikes in the back so we skipped the front porch and rolled our bikes up the gravel driveway. The trampoline in the back boded well. Our host, Christina, brought us into the kitchen where some tea was boiled. The residents were still waking up and breakfast was in progress. And so it was that our tour of Carleton Marx began.


In the fall of 2010, 5 recent UC Berkeley graduates decided to rent a house and create their own mini-cooperative house. They were all previous residents of houses within the Berkeley Student Cooperative system. Three of the five co-opers toured several houses. When they found a house with a large common space, a large backyard with a trampoline, five bedrooms, and two bathrooms, they decided to move in and chose the house name: Carleton Marx. The house is about 100 years old and was remodeled in the 1920s.

  • 5 bedrooms
  • 2 bathrooms (1 downstairs, 1 upstairs) --just right for 6 people, not enough for guests
  • Shared living room, dining room, kitchen, free pile, laundry, printing, food, refrigerator
  • 2 entrances (bike riders enter through back door)
  • Favorite places for conversation: side table in kitchen and trampoline
  • Challenges: heating and storage


Carleton Marx appears to be the only co-op on this particular block in West-Berkeley. The block is composed of single family houses and two apartment buildings. The neighborhood is a fairly-calm, typical, older Berkeley neighborhood.

Outdoor space:

At any one time 2-4 of the residents has a personal vehicle that they park easily on the street. The gravel driveway on the western side of the house opens onto a large backyard space. The two car garage was once used as a woodshop and storage shed. When neighbors complained of the noise from the wood working tools and the landlord discovered a leak, the garage was no longer accessible to the co-opers. On the East-side of the garage residents and visitors lock their bikes. The location of the bike rack brings more traffic through the back door than the official front entrance. The trampoline sits in the sunny part of the yard next to the vegetable garden (currently not being maintained). Several apple trees and a plum tree also share the space. At night, the residents at Carleton Marx are expected to be quiet in the backyard so their neighbors can sleep.

Ground floor:

The common space is located on the ground floor and includes a kitchen, living room, dining room, laundry room, and bathroom. One oblong bedroom (monthly rent shown) and a storage closet are also located on the ground floor. The living room and dining room form one big space, but at the division there are two hip-height shelves that come out into the space several feet and hold vases of flowers. Apparently these shelves get in the way when the dining room table is extended into the living room for a dinner parties. When a local musician played in the dining room, ex co-opers filled the rest of the dining area, the living room, and the hallway by the front door. Some people even sat on the stairs. Afterward, the kitchen was packed with people talking and making quesadillas together. It was a struggle to pass through the kitchen to the door. It was a place for enlivened conversation. The dining room, living room, and kitchen are all naturally lit most of the day. A tall tree in the neighbor's yard blocks some of the afternoon sunshine. The staircase to the second floor is naturally lit by a single east-facing window on the landing.

Second floor:

The second bathroom is located on the second floor with the four other bedrooms (monthly rent shown). The Northernmost bedroom (BR 2) was originally an extra space for the master bedroom (BR 3) and therefore doesn't have its own entrance, a closet, or proper insulation. Two of the original residents had been roommates so they volunteered to share these connected rooms. The rent for each room was determined by the size of the room and day-lighting considerations.

Shared amenities:

  • Printer-located in common dining room
  • Kitchen utensils and dishware
  • 18 cubic-ft refrigerator/freezer
  • Furniture
  • Groceries (all vegan food)
  • Anything left in common space


Although the winters in Berkeley are mild, the primary source of controversy for this small cooperative house was the use of the heating system. There is one switch that controls the upstairs ducts and another switch that controls the downstairs ducts.

The two male members of the house did not wish to use the heater order to save energy. They insisted that sweaters would do just fine. Several of the women of the house found they were still uncomfortable cold, especially downstairs and in the Northern-most bedroom (BR 2) with the ample glazing. Space heaters were employed in several bedrooms. After "heated" debate, they decided to set the thermostat to 60 degrees. According to Christina, the house remains disproportionately heated. The South-facing room (BR 5) tends to run hot while the Northernmost room experiences diurnal temperature swings due to the large amount of glazing and missing heat vent. Although temperature preference varies from person to person, men tend to be comfortable at lower temperatures than women1. This is important to consider when starting a co-ed cooperative house.


The biggest unfulfilled need: more storage space.

The storage space on the upstairs landing has been converted to a makeshift guest bed and the downstairs storage closet has been converted into a "free pile" where residents put useable items they no longer want. Originally the residents put extra items and friends short term storage in the garage. When that space became inaccessible, they made room within the house and started turning away friends asking for storage space. Several extra shelves have been added to the downstairs hallway for kitchen pantry items and general storage. Christina mentioned that items tend to collect in unused areas of the common space (i.e. the space in front of the washer/dryer and the corners of the dining and living rooms). Every once in a while a co-oper would collect these extra items from the common space and run them to a reuse store (such as Goodwill).


The lack of storage space and lack of privacy in the two adjoining rooms may become problematic for residents. The tight quarters in the kitchen stimulate conversation, but also make it difficult to cook or pass through the space uninterrupted. The trampoline, bike parking, and fruit trees in the backyard occasionally bring residents outside, but the quiet neighborhood is not ideal for outdoor gathering at night. More direct visual access between the indoor common space and the outdoor space may increase its everyday use.

When we asked Christina if Carleton Marx is a successful house, she answered yes. She said it is an enjoyable place to live and desirable to many of their friends. She went on to explain that it is not a good long-term solution because it is hard on the lease-holders to deal with the chore of constantly moving people in and out.

1Karjalainen, Sami. Gender difference in thermal comfort and use of thermostats in everyday thermal environments. Building and Environment. 13 March 2006. Elsevier Ltd

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