This story is part of NRS reserves transformed by Proposition 84 funds, a series describing the facilities improvements and expansions at NRS reserves supported by Proposition 84 bond funds.
By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
Heritage buildings can be burdens as much as blessings. Replete with character and handcrafted details, many also lack present-day essentials such as up-to-code wiring and insulation. All of this means bringing an older structure up to code can get painful for even the most enterprising caretaker.
This was the dilemma that faced Mark Stromberg, former director of Hastings Natural History Reservation, in 2005. Responsible for one of the oldest reserves in the UC Natural Reserve System, it was his job to ensure that the motley collection of houses on the reserve were reasonably safe to inhabit, and did not cost an arm and a leg in energy costs to run.
This task, of course, was much easier said than done. Several reserve structures, including the reserve’s School House and Ranch House, dated back to the turn of the twentieth century. Both had the lead paint, funky plumbing, and antique wiring to prove it. These buildings, plus the circa-1937 Hastings Cabin, also had window panes that admitted lots of breezes, exteriors requiring serious touch up work, and doors that all but welcomed deer mice inside. All four of these buildings, plus the reserve director’s 1969 A-frame residence, lacked any kind of insulation.
“While super charming, those buildings were not great to stay in, because they were cold and drafty,” says Jen Hunter, the current director of Hastings. “They were built with construction technologies appropriate to their eras that didn’t age well.”
The worst of the lot was the reserve’s one-room Red House. Made of flimsy board and batten, and heated with a wood stove, it had all of the snugness of a garden shed.
The passage of Proposition 84 in 2006 offered a lifeline for the reserve. Providing up to $20 million in bond funds for UC Natural Reserve System facilities or land acquisitions, if the University matched the amount requested, the money promised a means to upgrade some Hastings housing stock.
When the initiative passed, Stromberg had recently received a $173,000 National Science Foundation grant to replace the rickety Red House. Using this sum as a match, plus dedicating $362,000 of the reserve’s endowment to the cause, enabled the reserve to request $535,000 in Prop. 84 funding.
Given the reserve’s long list of needs, Stromberg wanted to stretch the money as far as it could go. Prefabricated buildings, he discovered, were far less expensive than erecting new structures on site. In fact, going modular would let him replace the Red House with two complete houses. Then he could put the rest of the money towards weatherproofing and modernizing some of the reserve’s most heavily used buildings.
Replacing the Red House proved the most straightforward of the projects. Contractors demolished the old structure, then trailers transported two new houses, also painted red, to the hilltop site. Each of the new Red Houses has two bedrooms equipped with bunk beds and can accommodate a total of four people. Amenities include an open floor plan kitchen and living room, laundry facilities, and decks. One house is entirely ADA accessible, with a handicapped parking space and ramp to the deck.
The new Red Houses “are bright, have windows that open, and are fully outfitted on par with a dwelling in town,” Hunter says.
Fixing up the older buildings proved tougher. “We had a lot of weird challenges” fixing them up, Stromberg recalls.
The oldest building on the repair list was the Ranch House. Built in 1899, the house hid a number of archaic features within its wooden walls.
“The light fixtures had strange copper tubes that led to them, to feed former gas lamps,” Stromberg says. “We discovered a pit where you would put calcium carbonate and drip water on it to make acetylene gas.” This system had been replaced with primitive electrical wiring, all of which needed to be redone to meet current safety standards.
The shower in one of the house’s bathrooms also needed replacing, because it leaked into the basement. “Apparently redwood walls are not so great for holding tile; they’re too springy and soft. But short of tearing it down, we could not figure out a way to put in tile that wouldn’t crack,” Stromberg says. That’s because the hallways leading to the bathroom were too narrow to admit commercially available fiberglass showers.
Then one of the plumbers had a brainwave. “He had the idea to make a completely stainless steel shower,” Stromberg says. Though the polished metal and overhead skylight don’t match the building’s country style, “it was the only way to make the shower waterproof and durable.”
This and other surprises lurking within the old buildings forced Stromberg to submit change order after change order to UC Berkeley’s facilities department. Luckily, Stromberg had an ally inside. “Mel Dixon—what a great guy. He would explain it to them and calm the waters,” Stromberg says. “He was without a doubt the best help on the campus I could have asked for.”
Other additions to the Ranch House included new, tight-fitting doors and insulated windows. These features remedied far more than drafts. “You could sleep on the enclosed porch before, but the mice were terrible. They would run under you,” Stromberg says. Now, the seven beds on the porch are ideal places to snooze during the hot months of summer.
The rambling School House, designed by architect Hugh Comstock of Carmel fairy tale cottage fame, presented similar plumbing conundrums. For example, the 1929 school house had a bathtub made entirely of redwood. “It was like a boat that leaked straight into the basement,” Stromberg says. This unique fixture was replaced by a one-piece fiberglass tub and shower.
Builders back then shouldn’t be blamed for doing shoddy work, Stromberg says. “They were building in a remote place. With no access to a plumbing supply store, they just made do.”
The School House also got new, energy-efficient windows that maintained the historic character of the building. “We spent way more you would on a normal window because we wanted it to look almost identical to the ones already there,” Stromberg says.
New plumbing in both the School and Ranch houses replaced galvanized pipes that were nearly clogged with hard water deposits. The new plumbing, combined with up to code electrical wiring, enabled the installation of laundry facilities in both buildings.
The Hastings Cabin, which Stromberg describes as “a classic redwood shack,” had a sleeping porch that also needed new windows. Opening the originals required yanking on a rope and pulley system to swing the windows toward the ceiling. These creatively designed devices were replaced with double-hung windows matching the rest of the house.
Bond funding also paid for foam insulation to be injected into the Ranch House, School House, and director’s residence.
“We’re saving thousands of dollars per year in energy costs thanks to the new windows and insulation,” Hunter says.
Matching funds for the projects paid for new bunk beds and other furniture for the School and Ranch houses. Altogether, the Prop. 84 improvements added 30 beds to Hastings, doubling the sleeping capacity of the reserve as a whole.
Thanks to Prop. 84, says Hunter, “we can provide comfortable housing conditions to all of our users year round.”
Wildfires sparked by lightning burned many acres of Hastings Natural History Reservation in late August 2020. To help the reserve repair damage to the land and buildings from both the burns and firefighting efforts, please consider a gift to this reserve.