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An ecological neighborhood

Marilyn Claessens
Saturday June 17, 2000

The area of community gardens near the BART tracks in the Westbrae neighborhood already is known for the establishment of Berkeley EcoHouse on Hopkins Street, and now the nearby stretch of Ohlone Greenway is about to be upgraded with plantings and cultural landmarks. 

A driving force behind the green cluster in the Hopkins Street/Peralta Avenue area of Westbrae is Karl Linn, a landscape architect and psychologist who lives nearby. 

One of the three community gardens in the cluster was named for him in 1993 by the city, shortly after his 70th birthday for his lifelong service to the community and to peace. The other two gardens in the cluster are the Peralta Garden on Hopkins Street, which contains sculptures and Tibetan prayer flags, and the Northside Garden that contains a cob tool shed. 

The cob shed resembles adobe, and it was created with a centuries-old building technique of mixing mud, soil and hay together. It’s a technique that exemplifies the principles of EcoHouse. 

Linn was a leader in the successful effort to turn the derelict property, at 1305 Hopkins, next to the Linn garden, into EcoHouse, a showcase for ecologically-sound home remodeling practices. 

His ongoing involvement in the community gardens and with EcoHouse, and now with the Ohlone Natural & Cultural History Greenway Project reflect his civic and career interests. But their function as meeting places also is important in the life of the community, said Linn. These green zones provide convenient, outdoor natural settings for neighbors to get out of their houses and meet face to face spontaneously, he explained.” 

“We’re not only growing crops, but we’re growing community among people which may be the most important thing we are doing,” Linn said. 

In about a month people walking the Ohlone Greenway between Gilman Street and Hopkins Street will have a new venue for meeting and greeting and learning something about the history of the area. An adobe “pier,” a small building, will be placed near a fence along the BART tracks. It will commemorate the Peralta family and the Mexican ranchero period in Berkeley. The pier will be landscaped and it will have an adjacent bench covered with mosaic tiles made by local school children. 

“We hope it will be a model for other neighborhoods (along the Ohlone Trail),” said Linn. The pier is part of the Ohlone Natural & Cultural History Greenway Project and Linn is a member of its Greenway Project Working Team. 

The project includes the Westbrae Oral History Project that will document the experiences of some of the range of people who have lived there. 

The organizers of the Ohlone Natural and Cultural History Greenway are aiming for the Gilman to Hopkins portion of the trail to serve users educationally and also to provide people with opportunities for people to sit down and talk. 

“Karl facilitates the community process,” said Babak Jacinto Tondre, a permaculturist and board member of EcoHouse and chairman of the garden committee. 

Tondre said the community-spirited Linn “is a genius at getting people to work together.” He said Linn supervises the gardens and “is out there almost every weekend coordinating something.” 

He said EcoHouse members are engaged in strategic planning in seven areas of concern. They include: community stability – to sustain multicultural and economically diverse neighborhoods; and building and materials systems – to utilize efficient technologies and use sustainable harvested renewable and non-toxic materials. 

Among the seven guidelines they include are organic gardening and outreach, such as educating schoolchildren about solar energy. 

EcoHouse is launching a $240,000 fund drive to repay the debt for the purchase price of the house. Linn hopes the contributions will come from many people in the community so they will have a stake in it. 

Tondre in his demonstration garden next to EcoHouse uses techniques of urban ecological gardening. It is a companion piece to EcoHouse, designed to demonstrate all the techniques and technology available in ecological living and gardening. 

Permaculture or permanent agriculture methods of gardening require low maintenance and chemical use, while producing high yields, said Tondre. 

Workshops on Permaculture are held from 12 to 5 p.m. Sundays in the garden at Peralta Avenue and Hopkins Street. They are free to the public. 

Currently the EcoHouse is rented by a family living in the structure that has been renovated using ecologically sound construction and materials. In the future sponsors plan to open it to the public as a demonstration house. 

One of its features is a tankless hot water heater, noted architect Greg VanMechelen, co-chairman of EcoHouse. 

A high-flame unit on the outside of the house heats a network of pipes that carry the hot water to the kitchen and bathroom. 

Eliminating the need to operate a heated tank of water produces quantifiable energy savings, he said. 

Cellulose from newspapers is used for insulation in EcoHouse. It is much more efficient than conventionally used fiberglass, he said. 

Old faucets were replaced with water efficient fixtures, and the vinyl floor in the kitchen was replaced with natural linoleum. 

The natural floor covering is composed of linseed oil, sawdust, mineral chips, and pine rosin. It has a jute backing. There are no petroleum products in the natural linoleum, said VanMechelen. “When it goes back into the ground, it makes a complete cycle – ground to ground.” 

Photovoltaic panels will eventually supply all the electricity for the house, so it can be self-supporting electrically. A trellis of salvaged steel will hold 200 square feet of the panels. 

VanMechelen explained that EcoHouse will be tied into the Pacific Gas & Electric grid. 

He said the panels will generate more energy than the house can use on sunny days, earning EcoHouse a credit to be balanced in the winter months by a deficit of energy. 

This spring Albany architect David Arvin led a team of UC Berkeley students who attended a class he taught on urban ecology in building large wooden shed in the garden adjoining the EcoHouse. It will be used in connection with the photovoltaic panels. 

“It is wonderful if they can pull it off, to have a demonstration home as a resource for the neighborhood,” said Councilmember Linda Maio, whose district includes Westbrae. 

“A lot of us would like to make energy efficient changes in our homes, but we don’t know how, and we don’t know how far technology has come,” she said.