Three UC Berkeley graduates started a co-op called Strawberry house after moving out of Berkeley Student Cooperative housing. The house had 2 bedrooms and a large amount of common space. They decided to look for a new house for several reasons: relatively too much common space and too little private space, older appliances, single paned windows that steamed over when friends came over, the desire for more housemates, and the desire to be closer to a BART station. Rabbit told us that three people living together means the house is empty most of the time, but a house with 5-10 people allows you to "go along on other people's adventures more often" and becomes a magnet for friends.
They acquired a fourth and moved into what would become Fantastica. The house was built in 1906 in response to the completion of a train station located where the current BART station is. At the time, it was part of an island of homes around the station with open space around the periphery. The barn in the backyard was built at the same time for the family’s horses. A Japanese family lived in the house during World War II. When they were sent to an internment camp, they had friends take care of the house. They returned after the war and continued living there until a few years ago. The current landlord intended it to be a single family house and is now looking to sell it to the tenants.
- 5 bedrooms
- 3 bathrooms
- Shared living room, dining room, kitchen, laundry, food, refrigerator, printing (informal sharing)
- 2 entrances (bike riders enter through back door)
- Favorite places for conversation: cutting board in kitchen, landing on the 2nd floor, open common space between the kitchen and the dining or living area.
- Unfulfilled needs: guest space, storage space, nearby café/restaurant, nearby park, sign with house name
Fantastica is on a street lined with an unusual abundance of old shady trees. Most of the houses in the neighborhood are occupied by single families, couples, and singles—some of which are either “aging out” or “pricing out” of the neighborhood. A few college kids live next door. The block has a mailing list. The secret to the neighborhood was revealed in a google-map filter that Rabbit pulled up on a laptop. Each of their friend’s homes was marked by an indicator on the map. Fantastica was located somewhere near the center of the large cluster. Other key landmarks in the neighborhood that Rabbit mentioned include: Berkeley Bowl supermarket, Thai brunch at the Thai temple, the tool lending library, and Flaco’s Tacos. Rabbit said he wished there was a good nearby café or restaurant and a user-friendly park.
Rabbit explained that he rides his bike from the street to the backyard by going up the northern side of the yard. There is a bump in the terrain that makes a perfect bicycle jump. The bikes are locked away in the old barn in the back that is not structurally-fit for much storage or use. Next to the barn is a planter box that appears to be productive. A sizeable deck takes up the rest of the space. Rabbit told us that the back deck was anything but private from the neighbors and therefore is used less
often. The front yard currently hosts one large planter bed and a square of dry lawn. There are plans to replace the dry lawn with planter beds. Currently they grow 30-80% of their vegetables on sight. During the summer they even had to give some of their produce away to keep it from going bad. The primary gardener, Naomi, said it takes about 1-2 hours/week (plus the occasional 10 hours in a week) to keep the garden alive and productive. The driveway on the south side of the house narrowly fits 2-4 vehicles. The vehicles that are utilized the least are parked in the front, leaving space behind for the vehicles in regular use.
The primary common space is on the ground floor. The dining room, living room, and kitchen all connect to form one large open space. One corner of the living room is reserved for music instruments and another corner hosts the “pillow pile”. The monthly house meetings take place in the living room. The cutting board on the end of the kitchen counter is a favorite spot to gather and converse. There are two sewing machines and a couch in the dining room. The sitting room has been converted into the fifth bedroom. Two French doors off the common space make it easy to see the back deck and backyard. Once every six weeks, Fantastica hosts an event called “Spaghetti Night” where old co-opers and friends come together to share a Monday night dinner. The continuous common space is perfect for the large gathering. The bathroom on the ground floor has only a sink and a toilet which is perfect for guests.
The washer and dryer are on the second floor which is convenient for the 4 residents who live in the 4 upstairs bedrooms. The master bedroom has a private bathroom with a tub and a balcony. Some residents share the master bath while some use the other bathroom on the second floor. According to Rabbit, the co-opers open their doors in the evening and sometimes end up sitting together on the landing to talk. In Rabbit’s closet, a ladder leads up to the attic which is unoccupied and unfinished. Any sound made in the attic can be heard in all of the second floor bedrooms. Sound is also transmitted between the upstairs and downstairs easily. Rabbit suggested that the air ducts were the primary culprit. The total rent runs at $3800/month for the house (an average of $760/month per room).
Strawberry house—the first small co-op experience for the founders of Fantastica—was a much smaller house with older appliances and single paned windows. It was further from BART, residents lacked of privacy, and the common space was too big for their needs. For these co-opers, three people and two bedrooms was too small. The Fantastica house was a better fit for their needs.
- Kitchen utensils and dishware
- 22.4 cuft refrigerator/freezer
- Groceries (all vegetarian food)
- Tools in common space
- Instruments in the music corner
- Burning Man supplies
- Sewing machines—with permission
- Printer—with permission
The house uses 4,000 kWhrs/year of electricity and 500 therms/year in gas heating. When they moved in the landlord had remodeled the common space with an abundance of overhead lights. Rabbit said running all of the lights was the equivalent to having a microwave running constantly. They reduced the number of lights and used energy efficient light bulbs to decrease the energy usage by 700 watts.
Rabbit told us that Spaghetti night is their community. It is my understanding that he was referring to the network of people that participate in the Spaghetti night mailing list and come to the dinners. Although these people are scattered throughout West Berkeley and beyond, they are still a community that is able to share social spaces and resources. For example, a friend of the house occasionally drops off day-old baked goods on her way home from work.
Fantastica house is an effective environment for a small co-op for four primary reasons: the network of friends that live nearby, the residents’ commitment to organization (spreadsheets of all variety!), the visual access to the kitchen from the dining and living rooms, and the fact that each resident has a private room. The Spaghetti Night dinners have the potential to be the beginning of a new form of cohousing in which houses are dispersed throughout a larger neighborhood but share resources and meals extensively. The duct work between the first and second floor may have to be redesigned if this house is to become a long-term co-op. On the other hand, some co-opers have found living with the noise of housemates to be a positive challenge1.
1Sterling, Tim. Intimacy in the Village Setting. Communities Magazine. Summer 2011