Visionary Builds Tool Shed for “Cheaper Than Dirt” from The Berkeley Daily Planet

Link: Visionary Builds Tool Shed for “Cheaper Than Dirt” from The Berkeley Daily Planet.

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 [now Westbrae] 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 [now Westbrae] Commons Association coordinator, at 351-3075.


History of the Westbrae Commons (Peralta, Northside, and Karl Linn Gardens)

The Peralta and Northside gardens were originated by Karl Linn, a peace and social justice activist and retired professor of environmental design, who had organized the renovation of the community garden on the other side of Peralta Avenue after it was dedicated in his name. With its beautiful new planting beds, fence, tool shed, and handcrafted commons, the waiting list for plots had mushroomed. The much-larger, unused, and oddly shaped lot across the street beckoned. Karl and Berkeley City Councilwoman Linda Maio negotiated a contract for use of the land signed by BART and the City, and Linda lobbied the city council for $10,000 in seed money to install water lines and construct the gardens.
Neighbors held work parties to remove broken bottles, metal, concrete, and other debris that had accumulated over the years. A lengthy and challenging process of exploration, discussion and design got underway. Berkeley’s Recycling Program provided truckloads of compost to enrich the soil. AmeriCorps volunteers prepared planting beds, created networks of compacted pathways, and installed an irrigation system.
Unlike the Peralta Garden design team the Northside gardeners favored a more open-ended, do-it-yourself approach. The garden is composed of irregularly shaped beds framed with a variety of creatively recycled materials. Only two wheelchair-accessible raised beds were constructed with redwood planks.
The completion of construction in 1997 was celebrated with a fall harvest dedication ceremony. Artists were invited to create temporary art installations for the occasion. The next summer artist Sofie Siegmann led a youth group in creating a sundial with mosaic designs for the hours. The following summer she led another group in painting murals for the garden gate.
For about three years between 1998 and 2001 architect John Fordice spent weekends conducting workshops on cob, an ancient building method, using it to construct a tool shed for the Northside Garden. Cob uses a moistened mixture of soil, sand, and straw to construct walls. Participants enjoyed preparing the mixture by stomping on it with their bare feet.

First-hand account, excerpted from “Reclaiming the Sacred Commons” by Karl Linn

In 1993, at a surprise 70th birthday party, a community garden in North Berkeley was dedicated in my name for “lifelong service to community and peace.” Since the garden was overgrown and its two dilapidated tool sheds had become an eyesore, I collaborated with friends, neighbors, students, and AmeriCorps teams during the next two years, transforming the garden and adding a beautifully hand-crafted commons and tool shed made of recycled lumber. Funding for building materials was provided by the city. As we worked together on the garden, the waiting list of neighbors wanting plots, especially those who live in nearby landless apartment complexes, grew larger and larger. Looking across the street, I noticed a vacant lot fenced in with barbed wire, filled with weeds during the summer and barren during the winter. It had accumulated debris over the years and was an affront to the neighborhood. That lot and an adjacent one had been purchased by the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) and used as a construction site for the building of one of its tunnels. Seeing this large area of vacant land I imagined it becoming another community garden, providing ample space for eager gardeners on the waiting list to stake out their plots.

After a year and a half of negotiations, the City of Berkeley and BART signed a lease allowing the lots to be developed as community gardens. During the following year neighbors came together to design and construct the two new gardens, assisted by AmeriCorps teams who worked for five weeks doing heavy construction. Funding for construction material was supplied by the City of Berkeley. On October 5, 1997, we celebrated the dedication of these unique community gardens in which works of art intermingle with lush vegetation. Both the Peralta and the Northside Community Gardens feature a commons. An extensive network of pathways made of compacted, sandlike, decomposed granite (DG) provides easy wheelchair accessibility. The gardens also demonstrate a range of ecological innovations such as a bamboo trellis, a solar-powered Flowform fountain, and a high-temperature compost bin. The gardens will also accommodate ongoing outdoor art exhibits on an 18-foot-wide access road reserved for possible use by BART’s repair equipment. The gardens have become a showcase for local artists, bringing their work to the attention of contractors who wish to involve them in creating art in buildings under construction. The city provided funds for construction materials. A 52-foot-tall bamboo pole bearing colorful, fluttering Tibetan prayer flags, which the gardeners refer to as the “happy flags,” arches over the garden expressing the spirit of growing community and celebration.

The three community gardens contribute much to the growth of neighborhood community. People who lived for years as strangers adjacent to one another become friends as they work together and meet face to face. The sense of personal connection with their individual plots inspires people to have a sense of ownership, caring, and responsibility for the gardens. Since they are eager not only to grow crops and flowers but also to socialize, adding meeting places to community gardens, makes them function successfully as neighborhood commons.

Excerpt used without permission from “Reclaiming the Sacred Commons” by Karl Linn New Village Press