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Visionary builds tool shed for ‘cheaper than dirt’

By Tracy Chocholousek Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday June 05, 2001

Four years ago Jim Cisney had a vision for the Northside Community Art Garden.  

The garden, located along side the BART tracks on Northside Street, needed a tool shed, and he was interested in building a non-traditional structure.  

“I was looking for something that was in my budget. I figured there’s nothing cheaper than dirt,” he said.  

With the design and commitment of Berkeley architect John Fordice and the volunteer efforts of nearly 100 community members, including Cisney, a sustainable earth wall building called Troth was presented to the community Sunday at a dedication ceremony and potluck.  

“What started as a dream became an obsession,” Fordice said. “Without the inspiration and energy of all those who came to help over the past three and one half years, this building would not have been possible.”  

The name Troth comes from the word betrothal. Fordice chose the name to represent humanity’s faithfulness and commitment to the earth. 

“It is dedicated to the spirit that we can do things in a way that is giving of ourselves to what the world really needs, rather than what we need,” Fordice said.  

The tool shed was Fordice’s first successful large-scale cob construction. Cob is a mixture of earth, clay-bearing soil, sand and straw that when mixed together creates a natural cement. It makes up the walls of the dedicated structure at Northside Community Art Garden.  

As an architect, Fordice says that although he enjoys his profession, it can be restrictive. This project provided a way for him to integrate art and eco-technology with his knowledge of architecture.  

In 1995 he attended a workshop on building with cob in Oregon. Since then he has worked on a few small projects and is scheduled to construct a cob greenhouse at Malcolm X Elementary School in south Berkeley.  

“Troth is the first full building that I was able to complete from the ground up,” Fordice said. “I want this to be accessible to everybody, but ultimately I want it to be accessible to me.”  

Fordice said his goal is to make a living building with cob. 

Atop the building’s sod roof, pink flowers bloom. Like welcoming, outstretched arms, two cob benches extend from the sides between which French doors swing open as the entrance into the shed. 

And though the cob building does serve a purpose for the garden, many people see it as much more than just an ordinary tool shed.  

“John has introduced cob into contemporary construction. Troth proves that shelter can be created out of the very earth upon which we stand,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Linda Maio. “I have a hard time calling this a tool shed because to me it’s a work of art.”  

Maio presented Fordice with two proclamations from the city, one in recognition of Fordice’s commitment to Troth and the other in honor of his role in “ rebirthing the art of cob construction.”  

The dedication program included an extensive thank you list of contributors. In addition to dirt, numerous materials and contributions from the community were needed to fund the project that took about three years to complete. Raw materials and resources were donated by dozens of local and bay area businesses, the city and dedicated members of the Northside garden.  

“I think Jim (Cisney)’s vision was that we all come together as a community in a big party. It was kind of a much longer haul than we expected,” said Eileen Theimer, project coordinator. 

What was initially anticipated to take a few months, stretched into a few years due in part to poor weather conditions on the weekends. It took half a year to get a third of the mud wall up according to Theimer.  

“This was a tremendous amount of work. Frankly, most of the gardeners got burned out. It was very demanding in terms of time and energy,” Cisney said. 

But the hard work did not go unappreciated. About 200 people attended the dedication ceremony and brought food to participate in the potluck.  

“The turnout was twice our expectations,” said Community Garden Commons Facilitator Karl Linn.  

The Northside Community Art Garden is one of three gardens contained within the greater HopPer Commons. Along with Northside, the Karl Linn Garden and the Peralta Garden are all located within walking distance of one another at the cross-streets Hopkins and Peralta. Open to the public, the gardens provide a community space that can be reserved for various functions and used for gardening, relaxation, workshops, celebrations and neighborhood meetings. 

Originally the property of BART, the city is currently leasing the land upon which the gardens exist. 

“I’ve watched this land be transformed from a ratty lot into this magical garden,” said Laura Paradise. Paradise lives within walking distance of the garden and plans to hold a yoga class and poetry reading there next month.  

More than 75 people hold annual memberships and share planter boxes throughout the three gardens. An annual membership is $15 per person.  

“What makes this place unique is that people feel free to express themselves creatively, to feel acknowledged and supported in their creativity,” Linn said.  

To volunteer, become a member, contribute art or plan an event contact Herb Weber, HopPer Commons Association coordinator, at 351-3075.