Mary and Melinda tinkered with the idea of sharing one home. They told Joe Schneider and Kim Clements of J.A.S. Design-Build (Kevin Price of J.A.S. had designed the sisters’ Lopez home), “If you ever find a perfect house for us to downsize, let us know.”
Schneider and Clements presented potential, anyway — right across the street from their Wallingford office — in the form of a sagging 1920s house that had sat empty and defenseless under invasion by icky syringes and greedy vegetation. Perfection would take considerable tinkering.
“My first thought,” says Melinda, “was, ‘I’m giving up Mercer Island for this?’”
Yep. And Mary gave up Kirkland. (They kept the Lopez home.) And then they got down to work with J.A.S. designer Mike Freeman — remodeling and re-imagining, but not razing.
“A lot of people would have said knock it down,” Freeman says. “We tend to prefer to use what’s there. There were lots of good materials to work with: first-growth fir, 800 years old — you can’t replicate that.”
Beams were salvaged, as were the front door and sliding windows.
“For the most part, we kept the structure, the stuff you can’t see,” he says. “One of the big tricks with a big, open kitchen/dining/office all in one is to not have any walls. To get to open space in here, which really did make sense, we retrofitted the entire front of the house into a truss system.”
It’s a critically efficient, light and lovely use of space in a home with not that much of it.
“They said, ‘It’s 1,000 square feet; can you make it work?’” says Melinda.
It took some work — and some introspection — but, again: Yep.
“It’s surprising in living a life how much you amass,” Melinda says. “You think, ‘That was a different time period; I’m evolved.’ I had lots of frilly things before.”
Adds Mary: “We threw a lot of stuff away in our old households. Especially the repeats. We both have similar taste. We donated a lot.”
In the end, they saved what matters most: nostalgic things (a scale displayed on the storage wall separating the great room from the private wing “is the last thing my husband gave me,” Melinda says). Historic things (the clock at the end of the hall had hung in their family’s grocery store in Utah). Things they both love (blue-and-white porcelain). Things they both need (like clothing).
The sisters share a closet. It is not huge. But it is enough.
“People say, ‘Oh my God; that’s all you have?’ ” says Mary. “We share clothes; that helps a lot.”
The closet opens at both ends, linking the twins’ bedrooms, which both have bumpouts and are almost exactly equally sized (“Parity for the twins,” Freeman says). The bedrooms are not huge, either. But they are enough.
QUESTIONS 5 & 6
“For a house that’s this size, why would we dedicate a whole lot of space for this area?” says Freeman. “The bedrooms are a place for a bed. They’re comfortably large enough to get around a bed.”
Mary responds with a question that answers itself: “What do I use a bedroom for? To sleep.”
Did someone mention a book?
Yep! Seattle author Marc Vassallo has included the twins’ inspiring home in his inspiring new book, “Little House in the City: Living Small Within City Limits.”
It is not about “tiny houses.” It is not about bashing big houses. It is a celebration of 37 new/remodeled/even backyard houses, all under 1,800 square feet and all within the borders of 20 cities, from Toronto to Savannah.
“I call small city houses ‘the next little thing,’ ” Vassallo says. “My editor and I agreed on one thing right from the start: This would be a fun book. It has points to make about the virtues (aesthetic, philosophic, economic, practical and environmental) of small houses and city living; it’s aligned with several significant demographic and lifestyle trends; but, above all, it’s a fun book.”
Even more fun: His family’s own house in the Roosevelt neighborhood is in there, too. “My house in Seattle is small, just 950 square feet, but my home doesn’t stop at the front porch or even at the front gate,” he writes. “It includes sidewalk garden beds; the street; the neighborhood; and the whole city, all near at hand.” (Plus, two small “shed-studios” for storage, work, exercise, meditation, music — basically, backyard bonus space.)
Back in Wallingford, Mary and Melinda’s bonus space includes a 550-square-foot lower-level accessory dwelling unit they rent out; a storage/exercise space they call “The Oyster Room”; and a private, low-maintenance back patio.
And, because the sisters love to cook and entertain, gatherings naturally spill out onto the broad and welcoming front porch where, even on nonparty days, Ella their adorable dog “is our ambassador in the community,” Melinda says. “Everybody is really, really great with walking by and saying hi. We go out and sit with her.”
And therein lies a very fundamental answer to the making-a-small-space-work question.
“With a little city house, everything you need is decidedly not in your house,” Vassallo says. “Rather, you’re allowing your neighborhood and your city to become extensions of your home; this is something to celebrate.”
There are other things, too, he says: “the pleasures of living in a small house; the pleasures of living in a city; the pleasures of density and proximity, of walkable neighborhoods, of neighbors and neighborliness. The pleasures of smallness itself.”
No further questions.