By Meghan Hall
The House, a startup institute at U.C. Berkeley, has supported more than 50 start-ups and raised $400 million in venture capital to get its businesses and Cal-affiliated entrepreneurs off the ground. After helping to back and launch so many successful companies, The House needed a true space and home of its own and reached out to local architecture firm Fennie + Mehl to help guide them through the design and construction processes. The result was a flexible, garage-inspired space that, in a nod to some of the region’s greatest innovators, encourages creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.
“The whole goal of [The House] was to really create an entrepreneurial ecosystem at UC Berkeley,” explained Fennie + Mehl’s Senior Designer and Trend Specialize, Jenna Ruth. “U.C. Berkeley has some incredibly sharp students and amazing talent, but they didn’t feel like they had a great community built or team of resources to translate all of their school work into starting companies.”
Cameron Baradar, a 2015 U.C. Berkeley graduate and the founder and managing director of The House, found the institute’s initial 7,000 square foot space more than four years ago. Right across the street from the university campus, it was formerly Copy Central and then the Cal Student Store. Although the building is slated to be demolished, Baradar and The House leased the property for the interim. Together with Fennie + Mehl, Principal Builders and several of UC Berkeley’s own architecture students, the project team began working to hash out a design concept.
“When they reached out, The House Fund had been going for a while, but they realized that the thing they were lacking was a physical space that belonged to them where they could share these resources,” said Ruth. “They had a team of architectural students ready to work on a physical space…They just didn’t have the professional chops to put it together.”
Fennie + Mehl offered its design services pro-bono, while Principal Builders waived its construction fees.
Ultimately, The House hoped to encapsulate a myriad of different uses while truly embodying start-up culture values. The project team wanted the space to have a sense of resourcefulness and flexibility, and so they fixated on a symbol often referenced in start-up stories throughout the region.
“We basically designed a metaphorical garage,” said Ruth. “It is that classic Silicon Valley-Bay Area story where great ideas start in the garage.”
The space is divided into two main sections: the front portion is comprised of a café for meetings as well as a retail shop to display start-ups’ offerings. The back has a casual lounge space with soft seating, as well as flip-top tables on castors that can be used as work spaces or rolled out of the way for larger events. The two spaces are separated by pegboard walls — traditionally meant for hanging tools—that one of the architectural students picked up from a hardware store.
Ruth added, “It was an interesting program because it wasn’t a traditional ‘any-kind-of-space.’ It wasn’t an office space; it wasn’t a meet-up space. It was this hybrid of all of these different functions that worked for the different needs they have.”
Additionally, the back can be further broken up into smaller meeting rooms or offices thanks to demountable wall partitions that line the space. They can be reconfigured into work rooms and open meet-up areas of various reconfigurations. The wall partitions, as well as much of the furniture, was contributed through Haworth. Removable carpet tiles were used as rugs throughout the space, and the back wall features a mural by a local Berkeley artist, which was later signed by Apple founder Steve Wozniak at one of The House’s meet-ups.
“It is representative of the funkiness of Berkeley but also calling out The House,” said Ruth. “I loved the feature of it because it gave the space some character unique to the house, but to have that autograph in the corner was fun.”
The autograph is also part of a removable piece of the wall—meaning that The House can take it with them in the future. Because of the building’s impending demolition, The House is looking for its next digs, stated Ruth. The institute is hoping to partner with a like-minded, community-oriented entity to share its space with, and is looking for the right partner before finding the new space. However, Ruth said that much of what currently exists in its space can be transferred elsewhere should The House wish. It’s original hub, however, has made an indelible mark and set the bar high.
“We knew there was an acute need to develop a new infrastructure – really a dedicated home – where Berkeley students, alums, researchers and professors could actively bring innovation to the market,” said Baradar. “It is only because FENNIE+MEHL stepped in that The House exists today. They directed this project from start to finish with patience and skill. Thanks to F+M, The House is the most impactful development for Berkeley entrepreneurship in a very long time.