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How a 426-Square-Foot Cottage in Bernal Heights Evolved into a Family Home for Three

A living area with couches, a television stand, a television, a table, windows, and a large work of art on the wall.

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Photo via Patricia Chang
When Jess and Michele began house hunting, they were planning to start a family, so they made the rounds of the few two-bedrooms in their price range. They put in a few bids, but they were outbid. And outbid again. Then the couple went to see a tiny one-bedroom cottage in Bernal Heights. When the cottage was first built, in 1926, it was essentially a 426-square-foot glorified studio constructed over a garage. The most recent occupant had sealed off part of the garage and converted it into a bedroom, connected to the main house by a set of houseboat stairs. Jess and Michele—who prefer not to give their last names—fell in love with the cottage's bright interiors, white brick fireplace, quirky layout, and rustic rooms, some of which had been updated and edged in reclaimed wood by the seller, an architect. "Our realtor thought we were a little bit crazy," says Jess. "We were just like, 'We can make this work because it's so damn cute.'"

The prior owner installed a type of stairs sometimes used in houseboats to connect the main living level with a new bedroom carved out of the back of the garage.
The new bedroom and the houseboat-stair gymnastics brought the square footage up to about 720—still quite small for a future family of three. But for such a tiny house, the cottage is defiantly functional. Jess and Michele are the first couple in the house's recent history who aren't sleeping on the Murphy bed in the living room and giving over the downstairs to their offspring. (Before the downstairs was added, one prior owner had a child's twin bed jammed in a nook by the front door.)

The nook near the front door was a makeshift bedroom in a previous life. Jess and Michele turned it into a small dining room.
Two days after moving in, in September 2013, the couple found out they had a baby on the way. After entertaining the idea of reviving the makeshift bedroom by the front door, they decided to partition off part of their room for a crib. To create a visual distinction between the two spaces, they covered one wall in wood from a salvage yard and hung a reclaimed door at the head of the crib, like a screen from the staircase. Their son, Ogden, is now eight and a half months old, and the arrangement is working out well.

For Ogden's side of the bedroom, Michele collected wood pieces from a salvage yard, sanded them down, and cleaned them. Left of the wall hangs a reclaimed door, which serves as a divider from the stairs.
There's no denying the fact that everyone's sleeping in the same room—just a curtain separates the crib from the couple's bed at night—but the two sides do feel distinct. Jess and Michele's room is all black, with built-in shelves and mirrored closets that lighten up the dark walls. At above the bed, the previous owner installed a piece of reclaimed wood for a windowsill. "We think of that as our headboard," Michele says. "We try and do as much multipurpose as we can in the small space," she adds, sounding very much like an architect. (Both women at various points sounded so much like architects that we asked them more than once if they were.) Michele is a healthcare consultant; Jess, an Internet technologist.

Outside, the couple decked over what had been an unlovely concrete patio, installed a fire pit, and replaced a see-through picket fence with a more solid wood version that blocks views from the sidewalk into the bedroom. Now the deck feels like a private extension of their space. "We use it as an outdoor living room," says Jess. "It feels like we doubled our space."

Michele works from home in a former shed the couple converted into an office. The angled wall at left shows where the houseboat stairs cut in.
At the other end of the deck, just off the garage, they converted a tiny shed into a home office for Michele. With tile carried over from the bathroom and the same dark paint as the bedroom, it feels like an even smaller cottage spawned by the main house.

The small wood table by the fireplace is also a stool. Jess and Michele filled the fireplace with birch wood as a childproofing measure.
To make the one-bedroom work comfortably for three, Jess and Michele make a rule of avoiding superfluous objects, and they use every inch to the max. Hardly anything here is single-duty. The benches in the dining nook store linens; little tree-trunk-style side tables can be commandeered as stools; and the living room can convert into a guest room thanks to a Murphy bed a prior owner put in. The chest under the TV houses Ogden's toys and diapers. "We try to buy furniture we can hide things in," says Jess.

The living room came with a Murphy bed, which Jess and Michele use for guests.
One day, though, Ogden will outgrow his sleeping nook in the master bedroom. When that happens, Jess and Michele aren't sure what they'll do. One option—give him the downstairs and sleep on the Murphy bed—is the compromise several prior owners have made. Michele isn't convinced that's the way to go. "I have a theory that we can build a hallway between the bedroom door and the office, and the office can become his room," she says. "Take two feet of the deck and connect the two doors."

Above the Murphy bed, the couple put up decals of a headboard and pendant lights. "We have a thing for lights," says Jess. "We had both always wanted the multiple lightbulbs over the dining room table. We've never had the right space for it, so we decided to make it the fake one over our Murphy bed."

A living area with couches, chairs, an area rug, a television, and a table.

Behind the TV hangs a painting by an Aboriginal artist, a piece the couple bought on a trip to Australia. The only wall in the house large enough for the painting happened also to be the only wall for the TV. To balance out the two warring rectangles, Jess and Michele turned a round planter on end, drilled two holes in the bottom, mounted it on the wall, and stuck a plant in it. "It draws your attention up away from the TV," says Jess.


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