UC Berkeley students plan to build tiny, sustainable homes near Berkeley Global Campus

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A group of UC Berkeley students are starting to work on a project to provide affordable, environmentally conscious housing in the Richmond area for students and faculty at the upcoming Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay.

In anticipation of a statewide, intercollegiate design contest for tiny homes that will be initiated by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, or SMUD, in October 2016, Tiny House in My Backyard plans to transform a trailer into a roughly 250-square-foot home at UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station, the future home of the BGC.

THIMBY aims for the house to be the first of many less-than-400-square-foot houses in Richmond. The 13-student group — featuring campus juniors as well as doctoral candidates across a variety of studies — hopes the project can provide sustainable, inexpensive housing for BGC students and faculty, as well as for Richmond residents.

Ian Bolliger, THIMBY project manager and doctoral candidate in UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group, said the homes will be an appealing innovation to address gentrification but won’t solve the displacement of Richmond residents that could result from the BGC.

“The cost aspects make it a possibility for low income residents,” Bolliger said. “It’s a house you can own, and own quickly.”

Offering inexpensive housing for BGC affiliates and Richmond residents could discourage prices from rising as the BGC begins to operate, Bolliger said. He added that the units could eventually cost $40,000 to $50,000 to build, including the cost of labor. The structure must be carbon neutral — a design that the team will incorporate in future houses — as stipulated by the rules of SMUD’s Tiny House Competition.

The group is finalizing the purchase of the trailer that will form the foundation of the home and plans to start building in spring 2016, according to Bolliger. Over the summer, the group secured building materials and attended some Richmond community meetings about the BGC in order to familiarize itself with community concerns.

Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof said the BGC’s development plan does not currently include housing, although administration will be considering the topic once the initial planning phase for the campus is completed.

“Gentrification has been — and will continue to be — an important focus … of the University’s partnership with the Richmond community,” Mogulof said in an email.

THIMBY is sponsored by several local green-energy companies and UC Berkeley’s Green Initiative Fund, which is supported by a mandatory student fee of $6 per semester.

Richard Mitchell, Richmond’s director of planning and building, said that building very small dwellings as second units on existing properties is feasible in compliance with code. Tiny houses still have to adhere to full seismic, water and sewer codes, and thus are not cost effective below a certain size, Mitchell said.

Tiny houses are an established but relatively new design idea — there are several such houses in the Bay Area alone — but the academic literature around them is small, according to Michael Teitz, campus professor emeritus of city and regional planning. Building codes are not designed to accommodate the increasing popularity of tiny houses, making it difficult for developers to navigate codes and financing, he said.

At the moment, Bolliger said, THIMBY is focused exclusively on Richmond.

“It’s really evolved from three students,” he said. “It could be spread in the future, and it’s the type of project we hope continues.”

Contact Madeleine Pauker at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @powkur.