Saturday, October 29, 2011

NASCO Institute and Domes Community Build

Next week Alfred will be going to the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) Institute, while Sarah will be going to Domes Community Build.  You ought to go too!
Volunteers, under the guidance and supervision of licensed contractors and building professionals, will help renovate these landmark community structures in anticipation of a January re-opening. Join us for our fantastic four day work-party extravaganza to rebuild interiors, lay wheelchair-accessible pathways, paint, garden, make and serve food, and much more. If you can commit to one four-hour shift (or more), we can complete the work in just four days, minimizing costs, and keeping rents affordable at The Domes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fantastica, Berkeley

A planter overflowing with ripe tomatoes greeted us at Fantastica house. The armchair on the porch and the potted plants sitting outside of the upstairs windows seemed to be placed with purpose. We were greeted by Rabbit, an alumni of Lothlorien, Kingman, and other Berkeley Student Cooperatives.


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.

Outdoor space:

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.

Ground floor:

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.

Second floor:

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:

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.

Shared amenities:

  • Kitchen utensils and dishware
  • 22.4 cuft refrigerator/freezer
  • Furniture
  • Internet
  • 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.

Spaghetti Night:

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

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 façade 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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Co-op News from Davis: Cornucopia & Baggins End (The Domes)

A couple stories in the news from Solar Community Housing Association this week:

New 8-person co-op, Cornucopia Corner Co-op, holds open house.  This co-op consists of two historic 1-story houses that were fully renovated with new interior layouts and a shared deck in between.

SCHA also has signed an agreement with UC Davis to begin preliminary repairs on one of the Domes as a precursor to the upcoming Ground Lease.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The UCSC 'Parkies'

The trailer park on UC Santa Cruz property feels like it has always been there. Sitting silently among the Redwoods, the trailers lean: brilliantly painted hubs with miniature garden plots. The casual calm of the foot traffic seemed light-years away from the bustle of the campus plazas.

My sister recently moved into the trailer park and sent me the article titled "Meet the 'Parkies': UCSC Camper Park offers unique, tight-knt community" from the Silicon Valley news:


The trailer park is located north of Kresge College and west of Heller Drive. It started in the early 1980s during a housing shortage. Students were parking RVs and trailers in campus parking lots and started several trailer parks in the woods. This the only known trailer park left. There is a long-term plan to use the land for student dormitory housing but no moves have been made yet.

There are 42 spaces and a central facility with laundry facilities, a kitchen, restrooms, and showers. The residents share chores, maintenance, skills, and bi-weekly potluck dinners (Wednesday/Sunday). When a resident moves out, they sell the trailer for $3,000-$3,500 to the next person on the 30-80 person waitlist. When this new resident moves out, they sell it for a couple hundred dollars less and so on and so fourth. The monthly fee is $500/month or $556 for those with a sewer connection (~$300 cheaper per month than the cheapest dorm). The residents are self-proclaimed "parkies." They have a "Trailer Park Olympics" every year with"unconventional competitions."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Another type of shared housing: the houses of the reality TV show Big Brother

Though only a small percent of Americans live in co-ops and other shared housing, the idea of lots of unrelated people living together is actually quite well known, for it is the basic premise of reality television.  These differ from typical co-ops and intentional communities in such that residents are selected not by each other, but by the TV production company*.  Also, while co-ops generally aim for some degree of community longevity, reality show communities are intended to be temporary from the start, with lifespans of just a few months.  However, if we put aside economic and sociological differences aside and look purely from an architectural point of view, the locales of  reality TV have quite a bit in common with co-ops and ecovillages: big dining tables, hot tubs, large open common spaces, etc.

*There is a third way, the unintentional community method used at the Berkeley student co-ops, where residents are assigned mechanically, more on that later

The best known and longest running of these shows is MTV's The Real World, which will be the topic of a future post.  For today's post, the focus will be on Big Brother.  In this show, which started in 1999, a group of residents - typically 14 - live in a house for 2-3 months.  During this time they are confined to the house and have no contact with the outside world.  Like many a co-op, there is no TV.  Once a week, one resident is voted out of the house by either the audience, the residents, or a combination of the two.  When it's down to a handful of residents, a winner is chosen to win the grand prize, usually a few hundred thousand dollars.  Residents are taped at all times.

Big Brother houses
Type: Reality TV Show Set
Built in: 2000s 
Building type: One or two story stage set
Occupants: 10-19
Room mix: 1-4 bedrooms shared by all residents
Restrooms: Mix of shared and private, typically 1-3 bathrooms
Parking: N/A

The nature of this isolation requires special construction: Big Brother houses are actually a series of rooms inside a TV studio, as shown in the diagram below.  Backstage areas are where the camera crew works.  Though there is an open-air yard, it is open only to the sky and provides no visual access to neighbors.

Here are some floorplans from the US, British, and Pilipino versions of the show.

Looking at some floorplans, a few patterns can be seen:
- The common spaces tend to be big and open.  This facilitates interaction and also permits good camera angles
- The bedroom to common space ratio is slightly lower than that of co-op houses.  This is because instead of giving each person their own bedroom, or at most doubles, triples, and quads, in Big Brother, bedrooms are usually shared by 5 or more people.  In some cases, everyone shares a bedroom.  The upside is that very little circulation space is needed.  The downside is that outside of the bathroom residents have no privacy, but that is an intended design feature for the purpose of the show.
- The number of residents per bathroom is similar to that of student co-ops.  Both reality show houses and student co-ops benefit from residents having no fixed 9-5 schedule, thus avoiding bathroom rush hour.
- Starting with 14 residents means that for a typical 3-month season, one resident can be voted out each week to end up with a handful at the end.  It also means the house is somewhat overcrowded at the beginning of the season.

Further reading: