Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Bonewall, Berkeley

When I visited Bonewall on a weekday morning, a man with a cart of plastic garbage bags was pulling cans out of the recycling. Inside, Peter and a few housemates were taking inventory of the food supply. The house was quiet, sunny, and relaxed. I had visited the house once before in the spring when a band of student co-opers was playing in the living room and the place was brimming with commotion. Both times I found myself on a kitchen stool that is central, but not in the way of circulation. A box next to the trash was filled with Cliff bar wrappers, the neighborhood cat wandered around the backyard, and a co-oper offered some teriyaki-basil-hummus.


The nine original residents all previously lived on the northside of the UC Berkeley campus in the Berkeley Student Co-ops: Six from Kingman and three from Cloyne. In the fall of 2010, they decided to move into a house on the Southside of campus and start a small-scale co-op. The house is around 100 years old.


  • 6 bedrooms (5 girls and 4 boys; 2 rooms are co-ed)
  • 4 bathrooms (3 would be enough for their needs)
  • Shared living room, dining room, kitchen, food (8 of 9 residents), porch, tools/various amenities (projector, shamp./cond., toothpaste, cleaning supplies, sewing machine)
  • 150+ sqft storage space
  • 3 entrances: 1 front, 1 to in-law suite, backyard entrance secondary
  • Favorite places for conversation: kitchen counter by stovetop, main (living) room, dinner table
  • Challenges: cost, basement very cold, rats and banana slugs in basement


Bonewall is located a few blocks away from an access point to the “firetrail” that brings hikers and runners up through the Berkeley hills. The neighborhood is a mix of students and families. The Bonewall residents co-exist peaceably with the neighbors despite the fact that they are in a significantly different stage of life. The Clark Kerr dorm is a few blocks northwest and the Claremont hotel is a few blocks south. Claremont street south of Bonewall has a fairly constant flow of traffic.

Outdoor space:

The back courtyard space is very shady and therefore not put to much use. For a period of time, a woman they met through craigslist lived in a tent in the backyard. There is a small stage and a barbeque. Uphill from the back courtyard, the terrain becomes very steep. It is overgrown and filled with spider webs, but has been a space used for meditation. The sunny porch on the south-side of the house has become the primary outdoor space (see photo). They go up on the roof a couple times a month.

Ground floor:

The main common space on the ground floor is a large living room (see below) with three sets of French doors that open onto a 5-ft porch. Opposite the doors is a fireplace. A guest bed and a variety of couches occupy the space. A movie projector faces a whitewall. There is a sense that this space was designed to be the showcase room of the house. Adjacent to the main room is the library (Peter suggested it doesn’t get much use) and adjacent to the library is the dining room. Every other Sunday the house members meet in the dining room or in the main common room on pillows. They also have a tradition called “Waffle Wednesdays” where the house and friends of the house gather for a meal. There is visual access between the dining area, the stovetop area of the kitchen, and the French doors to the back courtyard.

Second floor:

The staircase to the second floor is across from the front door allowing access from the front door to personal bedrooms without passing through the kitchen or the main common space. There are four bedrooms upstairs. The southeast bedroom (BR 5) with a personal bathroom is a co-ed double. Two of the singles are occupied by friends that grew up in the same house. There is also extra storage space upstairs. Peter said there is a ridiculous amount of storage space in the house and they offer it to friends sometimes.

Basement/in-law suite:

The basement is designed to be an in-law suite with a kitchenette, a mini-shower, a separate entrance, and an independent heating system. At first they could see their breath and they put on 2 layers of sweats. They still don’t use the heat very much, especially during the day. They rarely use the kitchen facilities, bathroom, or separate entrance. They use the extra space for storage primarily. Past residents experienced break-ins to the basement.

Shared amenities:

  • food and 22.4 cubic-ft refrigerator (the member of the house who did not live in the Berkeley Student co-ops doesn’t share food and uses a separate smaller refrigerator)
  • tools
  • projector
  • shampoo/conditioner/toothpaste
  • cleaning supplies
  • sewing machine
  • extra bikes left behind by friends

Gender ratio and pets:

Peter mentioned that there are currently 5 girls and 4 boys living at Bonewall, a gender ratio that they take with some seriousness. There is also a dog that is under the care of one of the housemates. They had a dog under collective care at one point but now think it is better if one person is the primary caretaker for a house pet.


  • 13 bikes (include those left behind by friends)
  • 1 motorcycle
  • 1 vespa
  • 2 cars + 1 work truck
  • 1 truck shared by two housemates (parked by Cloyne on the northside of UCB to reduce usage)
  • The cars are primarily used to drive to work, pick up groceries and furniture, and go on trips.


Peter said he would change the layout of the basement if possible: the lack of air circulation and light and the constant population of rats makes this space less habitable than the upstairs bedrooms. The kitchenette and bathroom are unnecessary because the residents prefer to use the common facilities.

The common spaces in the house appear to work well for this co-op. The use of the porch is encouraged by both its orientation and its adjacency to the main common space. The kitchen stools next the stovetop offer a comfortable central location where friends and housemates can interact with people while they spend time in the kitchen (see below).

It was especially interesting that the woman who “tented” in the backyard didn’t become close with the rest of the house. Although Peter and his housemates attributed the lack of connection to personality differences, the fact that she occupied a separate structure of a lower level of comfort is significant.

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