Students build a chicken coop — and envision the city of the future

A small clutch of hens — plus a few ducks and turkey chicks — are nesting comfortably in a new redwood four-plex in southwest Berkeley today, thanks to a group of design-minded high school students and a unique summer program at UC Berkeley.

The coop, installed Friday in Spiral Gardens at Sacramento and Oregon streets, represents the physical culmination of the four-week embARC Design Academy, a program of the College of Environmental Design. But it’s just the most visible part of an innovative and complex curriculum that draws on CED faculty, graduate students and alumni to engage young people in issues of sustainable design, urban planning and architecture.

EmbARC, in its third year, drew 20 high-school students from California, other states and other countries to campus.

The southwest Berkeley neighborhood around a vacant stretch of an old Santa Fe Railroad right-of-way came under their intense scrutiny. In just four weeks, the students got to know the neighborhood — its buildings, its inhabitants, and what makes it work (or doesn’t).

For the academy’s architecture and urban-planning segments, the students thought about who might want to live there and how to develop the area so more people could share the space in sustainable, pedestrian-friendly ways, according to faculty leader Kim Suczynski Smith, a CED instructor who has an architecture and design practice in Oakland.

The students designed housing complexes and built models of their ideas in CED’s fabrication shop and digital fabrication lab, both in Wurster Hall. They also designed a new bus stop to go on San Pablo Avenue near their complexes.

The chicken coop was the center of the design-build part of the program. EmbARC partnered with Spiral Gardens, a nonprofit urban gardening center that inhabits two blocks at the end of the Santa Fe right-of-way. The dual purpose was teaching and giving back to the community, Suczynski Smith says.

Along the way, some of the students found wild turkey chicks near Memorial Stadium that they nurtured and added to Spiral Gardens’ existing flock of chickens, plus a few ducks. “They wanted to have them be part of community,” says Suczynski Smith.

Heading up the coop-building team was CED instructor Matt Wolpe, a fabrication shop mechanician who runs his own design-build company and has co-authored a book on designer chicken coops.

He led the students in designing the coop, which was built to look like four townhouses. On Friday, he and fabrication shop manager Semar Prom took the four pieces to Spiral Gardens and put the coop together, finishing in time for the embARC students to gather there, inspect their handiwork and celebrate their graduation from the program.

Before long, the chickens and their pals had moved in and made it their own, laying eggs in the straw-filled nesting boxes.

Suczynski Smith, who has led the embARC Design Academy for three years, says the design-build aspect will likely be part of next summer’s program — but will focus on a new community project.

More photos of the graduation and information about embARC Design Academy can be found on the CED website.