Monday, August 27, 2012

Household size and economies of scale, part 1

A couple years ago while hanging out in the basement of Synergy Co-op in Palo Alto, my friend Xander and I were talking about co-op living.  Xander brought up that of various economic indicators, household size is rarely studied. It's an important topic though, as every other aspect of human organization and economic life has seen a trend towards consolidation, whether it be businesses, government, or nonprofit organizations.  These businesses and organizations benefit from economies of scale, which provides buying power, insurance against random events, and political power.  Why not households?

Some Statistical Background

Currently, the average US household is around 2.6 people.  This is actually a bit higher than most industrialized nations.  Back in the 1930s it was around 3.7.  The Census defines households as follow:

A household includes all the persons who occupy a housing unit. A housing unit is a house, an apartment, a mobile home, a group of rooms, or a single room that is occupied (or if vacant, is intended for occupancy) as separate living quarters. Separate living quarters are those in which the occupants live and eat separately from any other persons in the building and which have direct access from the outside of the building or through a common hall. The occupants may be a single family, one person living alone, two or more families living together, or any other group of related or unrelated persons who share living arrangements. (People not living in households are classified as living in group quarters.)

This excludes group quarters, for which US census data is available here (PDF).  Currently 8.3 million Americans report living in group quarters.  Of these, prisons & jails make up 2.2 million, nursing homes 1.8 million, and college housing 2.4 million.  Total of these 3 largest groups = 6.4 million, the remaining1.9  include juvenile halls, homeless shelters, monasteries, barracks, group homes, worker camps, and other institutional housing. 

Key elements of the definition of a housing unit:
- Has direct access to outside or a common hall (i.e. you get your own key)
- People within that housing unit eat separately from other people not in that unit. 

- In a rooming house or residential hotel without shared meals, each room is a separate housing unit.
- Student co-ops are classified as group housing.
- A non-student co-op house such as Fort Awesome is classified as a single household.
- Cohousing where residents live in separate units is classified as separate households, even if residents eat meals together.

Why this matters - public policy on housing:
Housing goals in public policy are often defined in the number of units (houses or apartments, regardless of size).  Incentives are often given to maximize the number of units built.  However, what's actually important is the number of bedrooms... or perhaps the number of beds*.  It is much cheaper to build a 3-bedroom apartment (1000-1200 square feet) than to build three 1 bedroom apartments (500-600sf each for a total of 1500-1800sf).  Likewise the bigger apartment is also cheaper to heat and cool and maintain.

Affordable housing often gets criticized for its high per-unit costs vs. market rate apartments.  However, market rate apartments are typically studios, 1 bedrooms, and 2 bedroom units.  Affordable housing apartments often have a majority of 2 bedroom and 3 bedroom units.   Often funding requires a minimum of the units (20-33% is typical) to be 3 bedroom or larger. 

*Xander also mentioned once that the number of mattresses can be correlated to the amount of fascism in the country, as more mattresses means that people aren't sleeping together. 

The flip side: Except in college towns like Berkeley where group living in a house is common, most cities such as San Francisco do their zoning by counting kitchens.  When an area is said to allow a maximum density of 10 units per acre, it means that at most 10 kitchens are allowed.  When the planning code says one parking space is required per unit it means that one parking space per kitchen is required (this actually makes some sense even in the co-op context).  Typically 5 bedrooms is the maximum viewed by planning codes as still falling under the category of "dwelling unit" as opposed to "group housing".  Example in SF Planning Code

Architectural Efficiency
Apartment buildings designed to have lots of 5-bedroom apartments would be somewhat different than those made up of mostly studios and 1&2BR's.  The building would be the same size as in most urban areas height limits are the main limit to building's size.  Less of the building would be hallway or parking, making it a more profitable building.  The number of bedrooms (and therefore residents) would be double than that of a building made up of 1-bedrooms.  Imagine if the price of housing in SF dropped in half! 

While it's true that out in the suburbs there are often 5-bedroom houses with 2 people living in it after the kids move out, this would be a non-issue in a co-op environment, where household size naturally increases to fill all available bedrooms.

Outside of old Victorians with three stacked apartments, I don't know of any examples of apartment buildings with large units.  Perhaps I shall sketch one out sometime...

That concludes Part 1.  In Part 2, I'll discuss what widespread co-op housing means for food systems and the division of household labor.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Save the Domes! the book is now available!

The UC Davis Domes, also known as Baggins End, are a community of 26 UCD students living in a village of 14 fiberglass domes.  Two people live in each dome.  Although each dome has its own kitchen and bathroom, the Domies share meals together a few times a week.  It is a great example of a student cohousing community in a low density setting. 

"Save the Domes!" follows the story of how the Domes almost got shut down in 2011, how the Domies rallied the greater community of co-opers and cohousers to lobby for saving the Domes; and organized hundreds of people to make repairs and renovations.  Also inside are photos of life at the domes and information on how the domes are run. 

You can read the story online, download a free PDF of the story, photos, and other info, or order a hard copy from Amazon.

Here's some pages from "Save the Domes":

Saturday, July 7, 2012

National Cohousing Conference 2012 Part Two: Temescal Creek and Mariposa Grove

Again, greetings! We pick this post up right where we left off last time, namely my recent East Bay cohousing bus tour. Following our brief sojourn at Berkeley Cohousing, we continued to North Oakland to visit Temescal Creek Cohousing, a prime example of what has been termed "retrofit cohousing." Retrofit cohousing is just a cohousing community that bought pre-existing homes that were next to each other, knocked down a fence or two and voila!! a cohousing community. Here's a picture of Temescal Creek's gate:

Pretty, right? Temescal Creek was started in 1999, when five families came together around the site. Since then a common house has been built and four units added. The common house:

My understanding of the story behind the common house is that each family in the community pitched in 20k and the finished upstairs unit was sold to finance construction. It includes a kitchen, dining room, bathroom and laundry area.

Inside the common house.

Temescal Creek has plenty of outdoor space for its six kids and four teens to roam around freely. Here are a couple pictures:

Communal living often grows plants in addition to people.

Rabbit cohousing.

Retrofit cohousing is much cheaper than starting from scratch, just as using leftovers is cheaper than making a new meal. But the result, with a little work, is just as delicious! It's also a more viable option in high population density areas such as the Bay Area, since untouched plots of land are uncommon.

Here is Temescal Creek by the numbers:
Site: 1 acre located at 328 45th St, Oakland CA. Right across the street from Oakland Tech High School.
Units: 11 (four duplexes and three single family houses)
Price Range: Units now worth $350-$600k. Originally they were worth $117-$300k.
Residents: There are 30 residents (20 Adults, 6 kids, 4 teens), including two renters.
Governance: Two committees and the rest of the decisions are made by the whole group. Fallback 80% majority.
Meetings: Once a month.
Dinners: Twice a week.
Features: Solar powered hot tub! Also solar panels on roof of the common house and one of the units. Basketball hoop, swing, chickens, rabbits, and kale.

Inside one of the units. Really quite nice.

One of my favorite things about Temescal Creek is the number of kids and teenagers who live here. After defeating one of the teens decisively in a game of ping-pong, I asked him what he thought of growing up in a cohousing community. Though stereotypically monosyllabic, he effectively said that it was great, and his friends love coming over because of all the space. Not to mention the solar-powered hot tub!

Mariposa Grove Cohousing
Leaving Temescal Creek, we found ourselves headed north to Emeryville and its Mariposa Grove, presumably named after the grove of giant sequoia trees in the southwest corner of Yosemite. While there exist no sequoias in Emeryville, this Mariposa Grove did have an awesome willow providing shade for a self-built outdoor stage in the middle of the community. A photograph:

By the way, if you've never visited a sequoia grove, you really should stop reading about cohousing and drive out to the Sierras. They are, without question, one of the most spectacular things I've ever been in the presence of. I could rave endlessly about their majesty, golden bark, unparalleled girth and the feeling of being on another planet when next to them. But I won't.

Anywho, there exists a chicken co-op (wordplay alert!) at Mariposa Grove which produces eggs for the community (as chicken co-ops at other cohousing communities and for that matter, all over the world do).

Let's zoom in on that sign on the upper right, shall we?
I, too, strive to be a purveyor of premium poop.

Mariposa Grove is another great example of retrofit cohousing. They started in 1998, with the purchase of three dilapidated buildings and have grown to comprise six condo units, a common house, and a rental house. They also have a nice outdoor space in the middle of the houses where they grow a bunch of vegetables and enjoy sun time.

Here is Mariposa Grove by the numbers:
Site: 1/4 acre located at 828 59th Street Emeryville, Ca.
More History: Redeveloped by Northern California Land Trust (NCLT) as a Limited Equity Low Income Cohousing, meaning that 70 percent of the member households must have an adjusted gross annual income less than 80 percent of Oakland Metro's median based on household size. NCLT aids low income owners to receive deferred payment low-interest loans and grants.
Units: 6 condos, a common house, and a rental house which is currently being renovated into a three-plex with a shared unit, a single family residence and an office space.
Price: In 2008 condo units sold for between $250k and $320k ($50-$100k after subsidies). Rental house is $2100/month divided amongst four adults.
Residents: 18 (14 adults, 4 kids), including four renters.
Governance: As part of a land trust, Mariposa Grove is part of a homeowners association which uses a 2/3rd majority rule. At the community level, they use consensus (minus one vote), and multiple sub-committees and working groups are empowered by the Management Committee.
Meetings: The community meets twice a month and also participates in quarterly homeowners association meetings. There are also twice quarterly work parties for property maintenance and improvement.
Features: Greywater, permaculture, chicken co-op, kids' playroom, other great things.

One of my favorite things that Mariposa Grove had was a big corkboard full of photos of the community members in the common house. Here's a photo of the photos:

The heart of community: beautiful people.

Here are some other pix:

The entrance alleyway and courtyard area
Fun time for the little ones!
The all-important mission.

And so dear friends, I am saddened to inform that here ends another magical virtual cohousing tour. I too regret our departure, but never fear! Cooperative living is closer at hand in the real world than we oft realize. Let these words and pictures serve as an inspiration to those of us still confined to single-family households, awaiting the day when we too break free and can finally rejoice in the communal hymn, our voices loud and strong, resounding at once in collective harmony!

Until then, keep checkin' back here at "It's a Co-op!", your source for anything and everything co-operawesome!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

National Cohousing Conference 2012 Part One: Berkeley Cohousing

Greetings! My name is Elan and I'm the newest contributor here on "It's a Co-op!" Our name reminds me of the fictional radio show "It's a Wise Child" in J.D. Salinger's stories about the precocious Glass children. Hopefully our blog will provide the kind of piercing insight that would make Franny and Zooey proud... Anyway, I bring you my first post and believe it to be a goodie. Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the National Cohousing Conference which was held at Oakland's Marriott Hotel, the first time the annual conference has been in the Yay Area since 2001.

Seeing as this is a cohousing post within a co-op blog, I'll clarify the distinction between the two before I go any further. Our friendly and familiar co-op is a more general term which technically refers to a specific type of legal ownership, but is loosely used to refer to many types of communal living arrangements--often those in which members share all of their food. Cohousing, although occasionally run legally by the definition of a co-op, refers more to a way of life. This way of life is characterized by multiple units which are individually owned or rented (often by families) which together form their own intimate neighborhood, replete with common house, chore contributions, and communal dinners a few nights per week. Cohousing communities vary widely in the number of individual units (and therefore people), ranging from just a few to over a hundred! Most of the cohousing communities I looked at in the East Bay had a dozen or so, and therefore averaged 20-30 people in their community.

Onwards and upwards! The best part of the conference (besides an endless supply of free Marriott pens) was a full-day bus tour of cohousing communities in Oakland and Berkeley. As one man on the tour said "Seeing is believing." I must agree--there's no better way to learn about the wonders of cohousing than visiting the places themselves. That said, I'll do my darndest to give you an impression of what they're like in words and pictures.

Up first was "Berkeley Cohousing," which is technically unnamed and has therefore assumed the name of the town it resides in by default, which originally got its name from George Berkeley, an 18th century philosopher best known for his work on "immaterialism," the notion that nothing exists without being perceived, and since a community must have a name to be perceived (work with me), is a fitting title for an unnamed community. Regardless, I have photographic evidence of this community's existence:

The site for Berkeley Cohousing, at Sacramento and Allston, was purchased in 1994 and subsequently underwent a three year period of development in which a few new units were added, a fence was knocked down, and much renovation was performed on the pre-existing 12 units to create what I considered to be the most aesthetically pleasing cohousing community I visited. Here are Berkeley Cohousing's bare-boned numbers:

Site: Three quarters of an acre.
Units: Fifteen 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom units. Detached cottages and duplexes.
Price Range: Original prices: $135,000-275,000. Limited-Equity Condos--meaning that price increases are limited to the Area Median Income (AMI) appreciation plus any capital improvements that have been done to a unit since last sale. Purchasers limited to 120-150% of the AMI. Basically, it costs way less than market to live here. Trouble is, turnover is exceedingly low (~1 unit/10 years).
Style: Homes are aligned along a pathway leading to a beautiful lawn and common house.
# of Residents: 28    Adults: 21    Over 60: 5    Kids (0-12): 6    Teens (13-18): 1    Renters: 2
Governance: Six strong committees: Agenda, Landscape, Maintenance, Finance, Operations (Common House), People. Other ad-hoc committees come and go.
Meetings: Monthly 3-hour HOA meetings with consensus decision-making.
Dinners: 3 nights/week.
Common House: Kitchen, dining area, living room, sun/multipurpose room, kids' room, laundry room.
Features: Permaculture approach to gardening and water systems. Use of recycled material in pathways, sustainably harvested redwood decks, bamboo hardwood floors, shared pick-up truck, parking lot and a piano in the laundry room!
                                           The beautiful common lawn area.

                                             The common house dining room.

                                                The common house kitchen.

                        The common house living room (featuring people on a tour).

                                              A private residence. Enchanting.

I shall feature other East Bay cohousing communities shortly in "National Cohousing Conference 2012 Part Two." Ciao for now!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Casa Zimbabwe Student Co-op House, Berkeley

The first time I set foot in Casa Zimbabwe, CZ, I was a freshman at UC Berkeley living in the dorms. There was a couch up on a table in the main dining room occupied by two students in a very vocal, flagrant philosophical debate. The kitchen was overflowing with co-opers cutting garlic and talking loudly over the sound of the rock-music. The room we visited had bits of broken cds glued to the walls and a black light. When I moved in a few years later, I got a better look at the murals covering the walls. I slowly got used to the dinner ritual: big pots of food are placed on the central tables and about eighty people crowd around the dishes and elbow their way to the serving spoon. I was spending late nights studying on campus and would come home at 3 am on a Friday night to find a jazz band playing and thirty people dancing the night away. Some people say living in CZ is like living in a night club. While living there, I never found the perfect spot to do yoga and only made about five friends that I am still in contact with. My informant, Hamutahl, had a very different experience.
CZ is the first co-op that was built to be a co-op. It opened in 1966. At the time it was called the “Ridge Project” because it was built on the plot of a co-op named “Ridge”. It was one of the first co-ed student housing options in Berkeley—the men occupied the 10’s wings and the women occupied the 100s wing along with the house mom (room 99). The two wings were offset half a level from one another to make it less dorm-like.
A summary of changes made to the house:
  • 1979: forty solar panels are installed on the roof
  • 1987: name changed to Casa Zimbabwe
  • 2006: the house closed for extensive seismic retrofitting, the brown stucco exterior is painted yellow, and skylights were installed in the common room by a house-improvement manager
  • 2010: beehive set up in rose garden
  • 124 residents (better known as “czars”)
  • Single Bedrooms: 32
    Double Bedrooms: 28
    Triple Bedrooms: 12
    Parking Spaces: 15
  • Shared living room, dining room, full kitchen facilities, laundry, food, printing and house computers, garden, piano
  • 1 main entrance, 2 secondary entrances
  • Favorite places for conversation: roofs, study room
  • Unfulfilled needs: stairs made out of something softer and safer than cement, communal spaces that aren’t in the center of the house (a comfortable sitting area), different exterior surface


CZ is just north of the UC Berkeley campus next to a small hub of shops and restaurants that serve the campus community. Up the hill to the West is a five way intersection with a church on every corner. The czars call this the “Holy hill”. There is also a church directly across the street.

Outdoor space:
Just within CZ’s entry gate is a courtyard with a few painted gargoyle planters and several very full bike racks. This area gets very little direct light. The central courtyard, on the other hand, gets several hours of midday sunshine. The picture below was taken on an overcast February day around 3 pm.

The sectional diagram above gives the sun's approximate orientation during the hours just before noon.  The courtyard and common spaces beyond get a good amount of direct sunlight during the middle of the day.   The courtyard is only used occasionally for a special event that requires some open air (i.e. a BBQ or a fire-dancing performance). The planters are overgrown and, during my time on garden crew, contained bits of broken glass and beer cans. The gazebo stands above several picnic tables allowing czars to climb from the courtyard to some of the bedrooms in the 20s floor. There is a hot tub in the courtyard. Around the corner from the courtyard is the rose garden (see photo below)—an out of the way nook where several rose plants have been thriving. It is easy to live in CZ and never notice this corner. A few past residents I spoke with confessed that the rose garden was one of their favorite places. The bee boxes are called “the home of unwanted bees” to echo the mural in the main entrance hall that reads: “the home of unwanted children”.

The two roofs get full sun and a good amount of use. The 100s wing roof (see photo below) is also home to the study room. Ambitious garden crews usually grow some food in the planters: currently there are some celery plants and leafy greens—probably enough for 2-3 big vegetable dishes for the 124 residents. While less than 1% of the house food is homegrown, the bee hive produced 5-6 gallons of honey in a year.
The 10s wing roof is home to the enclosed bar room (see photo below), unused furniture, a bit of gardening equipment, and an array of solar panels.
Common Space:
Two primary common spaces connect the two wings. The upstairs common room is a dining room with a sound system, a balcony, a wooden floor, and access to the kitchen. I visited the dining room twice in less than a week and the dining furniture had been rearranged so take the positioning of tables and couches with a grain of salt.
Hamutahl said the dining room is a place to sit with friends. She said it is very social and you can see everything all the time. This space hosts dinner, council, and most parties. It is a great place for parties because there are no hidden nooks for someone to pass out unnoticed.

The balcony overlooks the courtyard and the interior walls of both wings and gets full sun through the middle of the day. The view beyond the courtyard is of a parking lot and the edge of the UC Berkeley campus. Hamutahl said the balcony holds an interesting place in CZ history. It is a place known for smoking, partying, fires, interruptive conversation during council, graffiti, and Alice in Wonderland murals. It is a place where some people spend most of their time and some people rarely set foot.

The kitchen is vibrant, hectic, and a great place to rub elbows with unfamiliar housemates. People in the common room can’t see or interact with people in the kitchen and at dinner time there are traffic jams in the two doorways leading into the kitchen. Czars doing dishes and pots face a blank wall with their backs to the main kitchen area. The pantry is small and dark and one czar named it the “torture chamber”. The skylights and the small window in the door are the only sources of natural light in the kitchen
The downstairs common space is called the “Red room” (the walls are painted red). There is a fireplace, a wheelchair access ramp, a piano, a pool table, an out-of-order bathroom, and at least a couch or two. Before the 2006 renovation, there was a space called “The Den of Iniquity”, filled with curtains, cushions, and a record player.
The hallways, bathrooms, and stairwells act as informal, out-of-the-way common spaces to a minor extent. I remember having a few short interactions with housemates in these in-between spaces, but always had the sense that everyone in the hallway is listening in on the conversation.
The 100s wing:

The 100s wing consists of three stacked double-loaded corridors with a bathroom on each floor. There is an extra stairwell at the far end of the wing that is mainly used for making phone calls or throwing an old mattress. This was originally the female wing and the straight hallways made it easy for the house mom to watch the traffic to and from the rooms. The 200s bathroom has a high level of traffic because it is on the same floor as the main common room and kitchen and because it has the laundry room.
The 10s wings:

This layout of the 10s floors is c-shaped with the bathroom in the center. This was the male wing originally. Hamutahl lived on the 10s floor her first semester and called it the “most social floor ever”. There were only 9 people living on the floor and they would all hang out on the ground in the hallway. The fact that they all applied to be managers the following semester suggests to me that they all became very invested in the community due to their experience together in that tiny 10s floor. There are 4 total floors in the 10s wing; the 10s floor has seven rooms and the 20s, 30s, and 40s have 9 rooms each.

Shared amenities:
  • Food, kitchen, eatable garden
  • Printing and study room computers
  • Sound systems (common room and kitchen)
  • Piano
  • Hot tub
  • 49 cuft meat and cheese/“cook’s frig”, walk in refrigerator, walk in freezer
  • Ice machine
  • Cold milk dispensers
  • Laundry
  • Maintenance tools
  • Free pile of hand-me-down items
  • Common space piano, pool table, projector
The 10s floor sits into the ground a bit on the south side and can get pretty cold. Every room has a personal heater that plugs into a central heating system. The kitchen can get really cold—especially when skylights are left open
The rooftops and the rose garden are the only common places in the co-op that offer opportunities for privacy. The courtyard is not a private space because the common space windows and room window look out to it. Noise from the balcony is a constant problem for people with courtyard windows.  Courtyard and balcony shown below (outdoor couches proliferate).  

The walls between rooms are very thin so residents can easily hear one another. They held Womens’ Meetings at CZ in individual rooms because there was no common space with enough privacy to set the right atmosphere.
Regular layout:
Hamutahl suggested that the regular layout of the rooms may actually increase the chaotic quality of the house. She lived in another co-op, Lothlorien, where the rooms are much more irregular and found the atmosphere to actually be much calmer. In fact, it was only where the regular layout of CZ breaks, on the smaller 10s floor, that she found friendship and community.
The central courtyard in CZ is not effective at creating a strong community. The privacy of the people with courtyard windows is at jeopardy when the courtyard is in use, and the privacy of the courtyard space is jeopardized by the surrounding windows. The adjacent common space is the red room which is commonly unoccupied. The overhanging balcony is almost always occupied but the socializing rarely makes it all the way down the stairs and into the courtyard.
The lack of smaller, more private common spaces means there are fewer places for conversation.
The long straight hallways in the 100s wing are less effective at creating friendship between floor mates than the C-shaped layout of the 10s wing.
The lack of visual access to the kitchen leads to traffic jams around dinner time and prevents the atmosphere of informal interaction from spilling out into the main common space. There are no windows to the outside and the pot-washing sink, in particular, feels closed off from the outside world. The kitchen facility itself, with the large central island and massive stove top, promotes a lively cooperative spirit.
Despite the shortcomings CZ’s layout, it maintains its sense of humor. While this house may not actually be a “home” for most people who live there, it serves a purpose within the Berkeley Student Cooperative system. The large common spaces and lack of privacy mean great parties. The rooftops are treasured landscapes, places to ponder the chaos below.
Article of interest:
Gross, Rachel. "Keeping Housemates Fed and Green at a Berkeley Student Co-op". The New York Times. 22 February 2010<>
Bloomekatz, Joshua. "Tours of Homes Focus on Solar Panels". The Daily Californian. 18 October 1999.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Andres Castro Arms Student Co-op: Berkeley, Ca

Many trips up and down Warring street made me aware of a Julia Morgan mansion with an extended front staircase. It was clear this was not a Greek house because there was a half-manikin-half-art-piece in the front yard, a few vegetable plants, and good deal of weeds. Later, I peeked through the back window and spotted a “Where the Wild Things Are” mural on the opposite wall. Yep, this was a co-op all right.


In 1906 Julia Morgan designed this house for George Washington Merrill and his family. At the time there were no houses across the street and no International house. The view of the bay was the centerpiece of the project. In the 1930s, a sorority took up residence in the home, expanding 20 years later to add the northwestern wing. During the counterculture movement of the 60s, the house became a cooperative. It was named after Andres Castro, a cook at the BSC’s central kitchen during the period in which meals for all the cooperative houses were prepared centrally.


  • 56 residents
  • Single Bedrooms: 7
    Double Bedrooms: 20
    Triple Bedrooms: 3
  • Accessible Rooms: 1
    Parking Spaces: 8
  • Shared living room, dining room, full kitchen facilities, laundry, food, printing and house computers, garden, pianos
  • 2 main entrances (front and back), 4 secondary entrances
  • Favorite places for conversation: front porch (esp. at sunset), the garden, upper roof
  • Unfulfilled needs: seismic retrofit, more outdoor accessible common space beyond deck, wheelchair access to study room


Castro is located on a block of sororities, fraternities, and two other co-ops (Davis House and the African American themed house). It is a five minute walk to the UC Berkeley campus and a two minute walk to the football stadium.

Outdoor space:

The key outdoor spaces at Castro are the front deck and the higher of the two rooftops. Both are places where residents spend time reading and talking in the sun or watching the sun set over the bay.

The front porch is the only ADA accessible outdoor space. The porch overlooks the front staircase and garden. Julia Morgan celebrates the front stairway as an important social landscape by extending it halfway across the yard. The staircase has taken on a different personality since the view of the bay was blocked by multi-story student housing; residents traveling up and down generally greet each other and keep moving. The addition of the west wing also makes the front stairway more visible to those with rooms with south facing windows.

Co-opers from nearby houses sometimes visit Castro to watch the sunset from the upper roof. The lower roof (over the west-wing) doesn’t get much sunshine or have much of view, but it does have an array of solar panels and space to hang laundry. In a sustainability audit of Castro, they noted that the lower roof doesn’t drain very well. Residents don’t spend much time on the lower roof.

Common Space:

House meetings are held each Sunday night in the dining room and announcements go up on a chalk board. Residents play fooseball relentlessly in the dining room, eat, play piano, and catch up with friends. Two doorways lead from the dining room to the kitchen.

The original Julia Morgan kitchen was remolded in 2009 to reduce the size of the walk-in frig and increase the size of the pot-washing sink. Two other large common rooms are located on this main floor: a room with a pool table and a room with a large projector.

The maintenance room, study room, free pile, and laundry machines are on the basement level.

The east and west wings:

The rooms added in the west-wing expansion are no match for the carefully sculpted rooms in the original mansion. Even the hallways in the Julia Morgan house are more liveable spaces. Below is a picture of a window nook at the end of a hallway in the Morgan house and a long straight hallway in the west-wing addition for comparison.

Room selection in the co-ops is based on a seniority point system. The longer one lives in a co-op, the more points they have to bid on a new room with. Alex told me that Castro is more or less divided: younger/newer co-opers end up in the mediocre west-wing rooms and older co-ops bid into Julia Morgan rooms (often with views out over the bay) like the rooms shown in the plans below. This division creates a hierarchy within the house that upsets the sense of house unity.

Shared amenities:

  • Food, all kitchen supplies, eatable garden (<1% food)
  • 49 cuft refrigerator, 49 cuft freezer, walk in refrigerator, personal refrigerator (~20 cuft)
  • Ice machine
  • Cold milk dispenser
  • Printing, study room computer
  • Kitchen computer and sound system
  • Laundry
  • Maintenance tools
  • Free pile of hand-me-down items
  • Common space pianos, pool table, fooseball table, projector


In 2010, the monthly cost of energy and natural gas ranged from $90-$160 per resident1.

ADA accessibility:

For Alex, Castro is the best house to live in with a wheelchair because the common space is largely on the main floor. He also has access to a sunny porch and his own personal restroom with a key—sharing the bathroom would tricky. He chose not to live in other co-ops because they lacked sufficient common space on the main floor, were too far from the university, and/or they were just too big of a house (120+ residents). He would have preferred more outdoor accessible common space and access to the study room at Castro.


Alex guessed that about 70% of foot traffic enters through the front door (shown above) with the remaining 30% entering through the back door (shown below). The entrance to the west-wing from Warring street also gets a fair amount of use. The doors are always locked, although frequently propped in fair weather.


Castro’s ADA accessibility is greatly enhanced by all of the interconnecting common rooms on the main floor.

The significant difference in the quality of the rooms in the east and west wings poses a serious challenge for this co-op. It is important for new members of a co-operative house to interact with older members of a house and feel welcomed. The spatial division of the house into older and younger members will systematically decrease those interactions. West wing shown below.

1Advanced Home Energy Audit. BSC Sustainability: Houses. Feb 8 2012. <>