Integral Urban House
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48" x 68" - 2 Layer Woven Jacquard Blanket - 100% Cotton
How could a home help its residents live responsibly and ecologically, respecting the finitude of the earth’s resources? What would a household look like as a site of urban food and energy production rather than a suburban platform for conspicuous mass consumption? How might adaptive reuse reclaim decaying older homes for new use rather than bulldozing them in urban redevelopment schemes?
The Back-to-the-City Movement
Founded in Berkeley in 1974, the Integral Urban House (IUH) was an experiment in domestic self-reliance and production-centered city living. It addressed increasing American frustration with environmental pollution and industrialized food production. From its composting toilet and solar-powered water heater to its bee hives, rabbit pens, and vegetable gardens, the IUH offered an ecologically sustainable model of “urban homesteading” and an alternative to the middle-class dream home.
The counterculture ‘back-to-the-land’ movement of the late-’60s sparked fresh experiments in alternative living and collective household structure. Frustrated with mainstream politics and consumerism, a generation of young, largely white, often college-educated youths moved out to the countryside to experience life in communes and renewed connection with nature. Through trial-and-error learning, communards developed agrarian skills that informed an ethos of ecosystem custodianship.
But the back-to-the-land movement was also escapist, evading responsibility for reforming the nation’s ecological crisis at its source. On the Berkeley campus of the University of California, a team of students and young faculty members would attempt to transplant communal modes of ecological living into an urban context. They were the forerunners of what became dubbed the “back-to-the-city movement.”
In the 1971-72 school year, Sim Van der Ryn and Carl Anthony of the Department of Architecture, along with graduate student Jim Campe, devised a design studio course called “Making a Place in the Country – The Outlaw Builder’s Studio.” It brought undergraduates to forested land that Van der Ryn had purchased in Marin County adjacent to the Point Reyes National Seashore. There, they studied ecological principles on site and acquired practical construction skills. By the end of the academic year, they had built a village of communal facilities and small sleeping shelters from salvaged lumber.
Van der Ryn’s rising profile prompted meetings with like-minded architects, engineers, and biologists to discuss how sustainable design might offer ways to reconnect with natural systems and live in more satisfying ways. They partnered to form the Farallones Institute, a non-profit organization focused on urban homesteading and energy autonomy.
Why “Integral”? For the Farallones Institute, the word meant both “together” and “essential,” evoking the “integration of ideas about structure as both habitat and life-support system.” “Integral” also marked a conscious departure from the term “self-sufficiency.” Because planetary systems and processes are so thoroughly interconnected, Institute participants concluded that no one truly could be self-sufficient. Instead, they focused on the pursuit of “self-reliance” through optimized use of available resources to create a better life.
Inside the Victorian: Home Is Where The … Composting Toilet Is?
The building that would become the Integral Urban House was a dilapidated Victorian cottage most recently used by the City of Berkeley as a drug rehab center. Within a block of a neighborhood undergoing processes of “urban renewal” through the displacement of residents and the demolition of older structures, the cottage at 1516 Fifth Street showcased the alternative of retaining historic buildings and investing in their adaptive reuse.
The Farallones Institute purchased the house for less than $10,000 and quickly got to work renovating the structure using recycled timber. Junk yards and dumps were scavenged for useful material. Insulation was installed to retain heat from passive solar collectors. Nothing was wasted, upholding an ethos of sustainability through reuse.
The construction of a backyard vegetable garden and a freshwater pond promised a first harvest of produce and fish by the time residents moved in. Lettuce, tomatoes, spring onions, kale, and fruit trees were some of the first crops planted. A beehive, chicken coop, and rabbit pen to provide honey, eggs, meat, and manure fertilizer completed the edible landscape.
More technologically ambitious projects included a composting toilet, the Swedish “Clivus Multrum,” installed below the house to produce nutrient-rich compost from human and vegetable waste through a carefully controlled process of aerobic decomposition. Greywater was collected in a catchment system to water the garden. Solar collectors flanked the southern face of the house, absorbing energy to generate hot water and electricity.
The goal was to inject ecological consciousness and energy efficiency into the routines of domestic life. To break from the paradigm established by the consumption-oriented suburban home, the Institute created an opposing model home that reduced dependency on external inputs with domestic equipment and habits devoted to processes of production and the reduction of waste.
As a “living laboratory,” the Integral Urban House was more than a site of experiments in sustainable design. It was also a public showcase for systems and practices of urban self-reliance that never before had been attempted at such a scale and in such detail. Unlike back-to-the-land counterculture communes, the IUH served primarily as a vehicle for sharing its research and findings with a community of shared interest. The research collective responsible for operating and maintaining the IUH opened it for public tours every Saturday afternoon from 1 to 5pm.
The design choice was strategic, rather than the byproduct of its adaptive reuse of salvaged building stock. As opposed to the cool, industrial feel of a purpose built lab building, the homey qualities of the Integral Urban House “living laboratory” allowed visitors to feel familiar and at home with a dwelling that demanded a radical recalibration of domestic habits and a lifestyle profoundly alien to the labor-saving ethos of postwar American consumerism.
The Integral Urban House remained in operation for over a decade—a respectable lifespan for a grassroots experiment in alternative living. The endeavor was not without shortcomings, however. As time wore on, the IUH confronted multiple operational problems and eventually had to close.
Sim and the Farallones Institute got a popular book out of this project. The Integral Urban House: Self Reliant Living in the City, published by the Sierra Club, became a sort of bible for urban homesteaders. Of course, there are many tensions in the idea of an autonomous house. The claim was that even an apartment dweller could switch to self-reliant homemaking and participate in an ecological revolution while keeping their urban lifestyle intact. But how many people want to come home from work, change, and then go out to slaughter and gut a rabbit? Architectural historian Sabrina Richard posits that the IUH project also dissolved due to its social disengagement from local citizens. Whole Systems Design, she maintains, failed to take into account the changing “political economy of the environment, and as such was unable to respond to many dynamic, external conditions.” The Integral Urban House worked as an ecological display until the early 1980s, at which time the neighborhood began to gentrify. And lo and behold, the new neighbors did not appreciate the smells coming out of composting toilets and rabbit hutches next door. What really ended up killing this autonomous house experiment was the fact that it wasn’t really autonomous, that flies and smells leave your yard and go next door where somebody has just mortgaged themselves to the hilt to buy a fixer-upper in the next good neighborhood.
Despite efforts by Farallones Institute members, insurmountable differences emerged that led to their project’s demise. Does the dissolution of the Integral Urban House mean that the experiment was a failure? By a financial definition of success, based upon growing profits as a business reaches maturity, the answer would be yes. But other notions of success are more appropriate for a project that was intended to explore a radical re-fashioning of modern domesticity, alternatives to ecologically degrading consumer lifestyles, and a novel ethos of environmental custodianship.
If the ambition of the Farallones Institute in creating the Integral Urban House was to generate and circulate knowledge, provide experiences unavailable elsewhere, consolidate activist networks, and generate new individual and social possibilities, the project was a success. The Integral Urban House project itself may have faded out of sight, but its legacy continues to be felt.
On a sunny day in the spring of 1973, UC Berkeley professors Jim Campe and Sim Van der Ryn stood outside Wurster Hall looking at a wooden structure in the grass. It was an odd thing, almost resembling the interior of a two story home. The structure had no walls, and a small greenhouse protruded from one side. This was the Energy Pavilion, the manifestation of a semester-long course Van der Ryn and Campe taught called Natural Energy Systems. “That was totally outlaw. We didn’t ask to do it, we just did it,” Campe said.
The experiences surrounding People’s Park proved tremendously formative for Van der Ryn. After “Bloody Thursday,” Van Der Ryn began to reconsider what it meant to build for communities and why anyone needed codes and permits at all if your ideas in and of themselves were good. “We felt that in order to do things that were creative, innovative, and affordable, you couldn’t do it with permits,” Campe told me. They called this ethic “Outlaw Building.”
“It was basically going against everything that a professional school of architecture stands for,” Castillo said. “The part about teaching students to use hammers and saws, that’s fine. But to teach students how to build stuff that’s contrary to code … — there’s no permit for anything—it’s all like in the most flagrant code violations.” To Campe and Van der Ryn, the laws and accepted practices of architects and builders didn’t always make sense. If the state or cities wouldn’t allow them to build something they thought might be good, they would build it anyway. “These were just things that outlaws would do,” Campe said.
Design for Life
Around this time the newly elected governor of California Jerry Brown—politically unorthodox in his own right— called Van der Ryn to ask if he would like to rebuild the state capitol building. Van der Ryn went to Sacramento to look over the project and prepare a report for the governor. After a few more exchanges and two more papers he wrote for the governor—on renewable energy and appropriate technology—Brown called Van der Ryn and asked him to become California’s new State Architect. To quell Sim’s worries about leaving the Farallones Institute behind, as Van der Ryn quotes him in the book Design for Life, Brown said, “Sacramento is just a sandbox for us to play in. You can go for what you want…I’m with you.”
Thinking back on the class they taught in Inverness, Jim Campe told me, “We were doing positive things and many of those became codes when Sim became State Architect,” like a class K permit in Mendocino, Humboldt, and Sonoma counties, which allowed the use of recycled materials in building.
As part of his work under Governor Brown, Van der Ryn designed the Gregory Bateson Building, a 250,000 square foot office building in Sacramento that, according to Van der Ryn’s website, uses “innovative heating, cooling and daylighting strategies as well as various analysis methods such as computer modeling of building thermal performance which have become the standard for energy efficient building design.” As the Architectural Review said in 2013, it was “The first large-scale building to embody what we now call sustainable architecture.” Today, it is widely recognized as an important piece of architectural history.
Energy-conscious architecture certainly goes mainstream with Sim’s program of energy-efficient state office buildings for Jerry Brown, for example, but that’s far from complicity with the dominant narrative of U.S. energy use. This was a radical intervention into a building type. Some of those experiments worked, some didn’t. To make the argument that they’re co-opted implies that the counterculture can never replicate itself or transform itself: it has to remain locked in a single, historical moment of resistance. But the strategies of resistance have to be able to change. You can see resistance in later projects, as well, like in Sim’s book Toilet Papers: Recycling Waste and Conserving Water. It’s very interesting, and has certain parallels with French critical theory. Do you know the book titled History of Shit?
That was a book by a French philosopher of the early 1970s, Dominique Laporte: it’s been translated by Rodolphe el-Khoury, who’s now the dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture. Both books explore an area that’s off limits for cultural discourse. In France, it’s approached by a philosophical radical through a very convoluted discourse. It’s a textual performance piece about the relationship of waste management and emergence of modern cities, nation-states, and individual identities. In Toilet Papers, Sim’s basically saying, “You know what? Shit is, shit happens, and our response to it has been, ‘Let’s make it disappear. Let’s make it disappear visually, physically, and especially culturally and mentally.’” Sim is looking for an alternative to the technological absurdity of a complex system that uses water as a resource to flush waste away and then separates the waste back out so that water can be returned to the environment.
In one of Sim’s courses, I think it’s the energy course, there is a paper written by a student which is the autobiography of a turd—the story of a turd emerging into the world, immediately being shunted through a labyrinthine set of conduits, through a building, under streets, to end up in the Bay or a sewage treatment plant. In a way, it’s impossibly vulgar, even now really crazy to think this was an undergraduate research paper, but fundamentally it’s radical for students to be thinking about ecologically vital things that are supposed to be so off limits that we can’t even discuss them.