Walkin' the Talk
A landscape architect and a planner create an urban garden that
embodies their interest in a more sustainable lifestyle.
By Lisa Owens-Viani
Bigger is definitely not better in the eyes of Randy Hester and Marcia McNally, a landscape architect and an urban planner who teach in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. Hester and McNally preach sustainability to their students, and they practice it. The couple lives in a 400-square-foot home on a 30-by-80-foot lot in an urban neighborhood in southwest Berkeley. In contrast to the many Americans seeking more land on which to build bigger homes and "get away from it all," Hester and McNally have made a small space into a semirural haven in the middle of the urban flatlands.
Hester moved to southwest Berkeley 20 years ago. He liked the
feel of the middle-class African-American neighborhood, and he liked
the tiny wood-shingled house. The house was built in 1908 as part
of the Matthews Tract, which had been subdivided from the farmland
that covered much of Berkeley back then. Ten years after Hester
bought the house, he and McNally purchased an almost identical house
on the lot next door (also 30 by 80), planning to convert it into
a design studio. In subsequent years, they began to travel frequently
and decided to rent it instead. But in the meantime, they had transformed
that lot-and the one on which their own home sits-into a series
of rectilinear "outdoor rooms" that support a small urban farm and
garden. Dividing the two main outdoor rooms is a green fence. Hester
added wire to the top of the old, existing fence so that vines and
other greenery could cover the wire and become an easily maintainable
One of the ways they've made their small space more sustainable
is by using much of it to grow their own food. A driveway and other
paved areas were converted to vegetable and herb gardens. When Hester
converted the garage to a design studio, the driveway was no longer
needed. That 10-by-60-foot rectangle on the south side of the house
was transformed into an orchard and vegetable-growing plot. On the
north side of the home, on the easement between the two properties
they own, they grow carrots, herbs, onions, potatoes, collard greens,
mustard greens, tomatoes, and rhubarb. In another plot near the
chicken coop, and in some of the pots on their back porch, they
grow salad greens. Six hens (presided over by a possessive rooster)
provide all the eggs the couple can use or give away, while two
Peking ducks and several rabbits help fertilize the many vegetable
beds occupying the outdoor rooms. The couple produce about 30 percent
of their own food this way. "We have our salad and our omelets,"
says McNally. "All we need to do is buy wine and bread and cheese,
and we're set!"
Perhaps not surprisingly, the farm has undergone some changes related to its urban setting. While the original intent was to use the animals for meat as well as for their eggs and manure, that practice fell into disuse when one of the neighbors began rescuing the rabbits by finding homes for them. Butchering and eating the chickens seemed unnecessary when good organic chicken became easily available at local markets, explains McNally. One challenge for the urban farm has been urban predators, particularly raccoons and opossums. Although putting the chickens in a coop (recycled from an old shed) at night has thwarted the mammals, the presence of avian predators like hawks, who hunt during the day, means that the chickens and rabbits can roam freely only under supervision. Two fishponds-one on each of the lots-were also targeted by the raccoons. Hester managed to outsmart them by making one pond deeper than the masked marauders find desirable and by creating hiding places for the fish in the other one. An occasional egret still drops by for a snack, however, probably thanks to Berkeley's proximity to San Francisco Bay and Aquatic Park, a wildlife refuge just across I-80 from the Bay.
The urban farm/outdoor rooms are visually connected to the indoor rooms via the kitchen, which the couple renovated in 1999. Designed by architects Andy Tilt and David Arkin, a previously dark, dreary room with one small window is now a bright, sunlit spot where the couple and their guests tend to congregate. The renovation won a San Francisco AIA award that cited the project's focus on ecological responsibility. The back wall of the kitchen was extended just three feet, says Hester, but that tiny addition made the room seem huge, thanks to the many windows that were added and the bright red back door, which often stands ajar. The renovation was sparked by the couple's desire for more space (having just two guests in the original kitchen made it seem unbearably crowded, says Hester), as well as their desire to better connect with the outdoor rooms, and by McNally's research for Urban Ecology's publication Blueprint for a Sustainable Bay Area, which she was editing at the time, and which gave them many ideas for doing the project in a way that would have less impact on the environment.
Just as in the outdoor rooms-where all of the green waste is composted or fed to the animals, license plates became house shingles, and Hester's "found objects" are turned into works of art-resources are reused and recycled inside, too. A giant beam salvaged from somewhere in the Central Valley now supports the kitchen. The new kitchen windows are trimmed with scrap wood. The countertops are made of recycled windshield glass, and the water heater is powered by solar energy. A clawfoot tub discovered discarded on a sidewalk was set into the ground beneath the new floor-level window tucked into the southeast corner of the kitchen. The "frog-watching corner" looks directly into the tub/pond, which is surrounded by colorful water irises. A solar pump keeps the pond water circulating, its gurgles muffling the sounds of traffic and sirens. The sounds of the pond are restorative, says Hester. He and McNally believe that small touches like a pond or even just the greenery of a tree branch outside a window have a healing, relaxing effect. Where feasible, something green was planted just beyond every window in the house.
From the kitchen, one looks directly onto the outdoor room that is alternately called the barnyard, the pasture, or the empty space. The bright green, mittenlike leaves of two fig trees planted just to one side of the back porch break the linearity of the barnyard and add more green. Right now, the yard stands fallow and is used by McNally as a reading room. It is also foraging ground for the chickens (in the rainy season, the weeds are allowed to take over, which then provides food for the chickens), or used to accommodate social events. "It's even been an outdoor dining room," says McNally, citing a recent party for 30 people during which six tables and folding chairs were brought out of storage to temporarily transform the barnyard into the setting for a sit-down dinner. But the barnyard, for the most part, stays empty, inspired by the courtyards of old Chinese houses, or the emptiness concept in Japanese gardens, says Hester. The emptiness, too, has a restorative effect, although Hester has to constantly resist planting or otherwise using it. "It's tempting to fill it up," he acknowledges.
Hester uses his home and urban garden-farm in his environmental design course at the university to demonstrate certain principles of sustainability (see sidebar at right). He knows it is important to "walk the talk." As a landscape architect, Hester tells his students, the most important decision you can make in life, within the broader public realm, is where to live. For example, if everyone lived at densities of just 20 units per acre, says Hester, we could have a terrific bus system. The fact that the space required by his car-in the form of driveway and garage-was more than twice the square footage of his house greatly disturbed him. That and wanting to create a satisfying, sustainable living place within a small space were behind the conversion of garage and driveway to studio and garden. "If I weren't doing these things, my students would ask how I can tell them that we need to change American cities to create the density necessary to support public transit," says Hester.
Once the garage and driveway took on new roles, the couple decided to give up their car. Doing so, claims Hester, resulted in "an extraordinary improvement in the quality of life." Hester, a fitness buff, runs the two and a half miles to and from the university each day, and McNally bicycles. Another of Hester's beliefs is that it is important not to live in a segregated, elitist place. At first, says Hester, his students are slightly shocked to learn about where and how he and McNally live, then "are challenged and maybe even inspired."
Ironically, Hester's neighborhood is slowly gentrifying. Will he and McNally resist the path so many others have taken in the Bay Area-renovating a fixer-upper, building equity, and then selling their home to move to a bigger house in the hills or on a quarter-acre where the living is less dense? No, says Hester. One of the keys to their continued satisfaction with their space, he says, is good design.
"To get people to stay in dense urban areas, you need to figure out how to use small space in a way that satisfies their needs," says Hester. "Small is beautiful-but you need to make it appear spacious." In his case, a small adjustment-a three-foot extension on the kitchen and more windows-turned an uninspired room into a light-filled extension of the outdoors. While the impression of spaciousness is important, so is the attention to detail that a small landscape encourages, says Hester. "The smaller the landscape, the more intimate interactions there are. It's the little ephemeral things that count." Hester believes that the smallness of their site encourages them to constantly change things, to create things-the perfect space for an artistic couple. McNally agrees, but cautions that it depends on the couple. "If it were a battlefield, it wouldn't work," she explains. She and Hester carefully negotiate every decision about the outdoor rooms-especially decisions like where Hester's "found objects" (McNally's "junk") will be stored. "But it works well for us," says McNally. "It's a great form of recreation and relaxation to work in the yard; it's an immediate retreat." McNally also suggests that having other outlets helps one live in a small space over the long term. The two travel frequently and vacation occasionally at a house they own on the Northern California Coast.
Travel and vacations aside, the couple's roots are clearly well
established in the Berkeley flatlands. Hester is convinced they
will not "give up" and move to a bigger, "better" place. "Do we
stay because it's a matter of principle or is it that we prefer
to live here? It's probably some of both," he admits. McNally, he
says, is less self-righteous. "It's just a backyard," she says.
"It's a little different from normal. I think it's a viable model,
but it's definitely not for everyone."
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