Window on the Ecology Center

“What’s the single greatest water hog in the US?” instructor Babak Tondre asks a class of eleven at a fall Urban Drought Solutions seminar. The students had gathered in the living room of the Ecology Center’s EcoHouse for the PowerPoint presentation; soon they’ll head out to tour the permaculture garden.

“Agriculture?” several participants guess.

“Agriculture,” Tondre affirms. With agriculture claiming eighty percent of the total water consumed in the US, and with eleven percent used commercially, the impact we make with our everyday water conservation efforts at home may seem insignificant. So why take a class on
urban drought solutions? “Home is where we have most control,” Tondre explains, “so that is where we will focus.”

EcoHouse, an environmental showcase house located in North Berkeley, models how graywater, rainwater cistern, drip irrigation, living roof, solar panels, salvaged housing materials, and permaculture landscape can come together in a functional living space. A modest single-family home, the EcoHouse is unlike any other demonstration site or classroom; tour and workshop participants gather in the cozy living room for presentations and talks. But passersby can tell something’s up without ever going in the house.

You can see the solar panels from the front, and pedestrians can admire the array of drought-tolerant California native plants that inhabit the front yard. Intended to be a rain garden, the front yard incorporates berms and swales, slight raises or sloped ditches that capture rain runoff to nourish the soils, rather than letting it get washed into the streets. The back garden is designed as a food forest; the plants chosen are edible or medicinal, rather than ornamental, though many also serve that purpose. The back yard houses graywater wetland plants that help filter water for reuse in the garden. Both the front and back gardens were designed by EcoHouse cofounder Tondre, with permaculture principles in mind.

The house serves double purpose as a residence for three tenants. It’s one of two main sites for the Ecology Center’s classes, tours, and workshops, including a graywater tour and a class on how to shrink your carbon footprint. (Classes are also held at the San Pablo Avenue storefront.)

EcoHouse has been a community-involving project since its founding in 1998, when cofounders Mark Gorrell and Karl Linn purchased a house built in the 1940s. “The house was in bad shape,” Gorrell recalls. Gorrell and cofounder Greg VanMechelen, both independently contracted architects, updated the house, first by taking out vinyl, which Gorrell facetiously nicknamed “Satan’s resin.” True to the spirit of community activist Karl Linn, the cofounder of EcoHouse,
each of the house’s prominent features—from the first permitted graywater system in the city, to the drip irrigation system, to the interior paint—was installed by volunteers rather than by contracted workers. The EcoHouse is located across the street from the Peralta Community Garden and next to the Ohlone Greenway, two other legacies of Linn’s.

Incorporated as an Ecology Center program in 2007, EcoHouse is intended to serve as a community hub for education. Like the Ecology Center’s other programs, it’s also meant to be a model that can be propagated elsewhere. Although setting up and maintaining such a site requires a considerable initial investment of money and labor, Gorrell and VanMechelen, who now lead the EcoHouse general tours, say that the changes they made to the original house are easily replicable by people with average or low incomes. “It’s not elaborate or unattainable,”
says VanMechelen.

Many components of EcoHouse were acquired secondhand: The flooring came used from a house in Martinez, the cabinets from Urban Ore, paint was donated by a local business. Other energy-saving choices with larger start-up costs have led to considerable savings on the monthly energy bills, like replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, or purchasing
energy-efficient appliances. Installing proper insulation with spray-cellulose made of old newspaper and repairing ceiling cracks made the house efficient enough that all the warmth needed to heat it could be provided by the sun, the movement of people inside, and heat generated by appliances such as the refrigerator.

Some changes were made with health in mind: The linoleum floor that replaced the vinyl floor of the bathroom does not off-gas toxic chlorine fumes like vinyl does and is instead made with linseed oil, a natural product. The exterior of the house was stripped of lead paint and repainted with a non-leaded coat.

Recently, in partnership with the East Bay Municipal Utility District, EcoHouse began the process of becoming a WaterSmart home and garden showcase site. In this role, the water-conserving features of the house will be displayed, including systems for rainwater catchment,
drip irrigation, and handling graywater.

During tours, Tondre, Gorrell, and VanMechelen guide participants through these features. They hope to make EcoHouse into an even more community-accessible and usable space in the near future. “Permaculture is not just about gardening techniques; it’s a way of designing human settlements and civilization” with community at the center, he says. “It’s a way of living.”

Over the next year, Beck Cowles, who directs the Ecology Center’s interface with EcoHouse, expects to improve its educational center aspect by continuing to focus on the popular climate change and water conservation classes and workshops. These are well attended, both by people who are interested in learning about home graywater system installation, and by others who
want to adopt moderate lifestyle changes that will save water. Because class size is restricted by the facility’s size, the intimate gatherings mean there are always plenty of opportunities to ask questions.

To register for a class or tour, visit us online at Tour dates can be found at

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