A Family of 4 Unwinds in 540 Square Feet

A Family of 4 Unwinds in 540 Square Feet

An extraordinarily scaled-down home and garden for a couple and their 2 kids fosters sustainability and togetherness

Interior designer Jessica Helgerson and her family had every intention of spending only a few nights in their new summer home. But the weekend turned into a few weeks, and up until this day, the Helgersons can’t bring themselves to leave. “We came over on the weekend of my birthday and never left,” says Helgerson.

It’s easy to see why. The small home, situated north of Portland on picturesque Sauvie Island, is part of a wildlife and agricultural preserve. “We fell in love with the area after our first hike, but it took a while before we found our home. We saw so much potential in this house despite finding it in a completely run-down state. Its size is definitely out of the ordinary for this area, but since we have to scale things down, we’ve all become more disciplined when it comes to what we consume and bring into the house,” says Helgerson.

Who lives here: Jessica Helgerson; her husband, architect Yianni Doulis; and their 2 kids
Location: Sauvie Island, Oregon
Size: 540 square feet; 1 bedroom, 1 bath, 1 sleeping loft
That’s interesting: The home is in its fifth use. Previously it was a single-family home in Vanport Village, a shipyard worker’s abode, a goose-checking station and an auto mechanic’s run-down rental.

contemporary exterior by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

A green roof planted with moss and ferns from the surrounding Columbia River replaced a deteriorating roof and insulates the home efficiently.

“Every room in the house works hard, and that’s really the point. We remodeled everything and gutted it and turned the interiors into a highly efficient space,” says Helgerson.

contemporary kitchen by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

Local white oak floors and a locally salvaged walnut dining table warm up the bright white cabinetry and wall cladding. Helgerson found the vintage range on Craigslist, and a wood-burning stove heats the small house.

“The stove sometimes works a little too well in the great room. We usually crack open a window in the winter, because it can get pretty hot,” she says.

Table: custom, Yianni Doulis; chairs: vintage, Paul McCobb; cladding paint: white opulence,Benjamin Moore; pendants: bought in France

contemporary living room by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

The great room “takes quite a beating,” Helgerson says. It houses the kitchen, the dining room and the living room. She and her husband designed the built-in sofas with drawers; they double as twin beds for guests and toy storage.

A walnut ladder leads the eye upward to Helgerson and her husband’s lofty nest.

Sofa, bookshelves, walnut ladder: custom, Jessica Helgerson Design

contemporary bedroom by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

The sleeping loft requires the couple to think carefully before bringing anything into the space.

“Our general thinking is that if it’s not beautiful anduseful, then we probably don’t need it,” she says.

contemporary kids by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

Two bunk beds with built-in storage, a pullout closet and a full guest bed (not shown) make up the kids’ minimalist room.
contemporary bathroom by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

Helgerson salvaged the soaking tub from a friend’s demolition site; her husband built the tub’s wood feet.

The designer admits that although sharing one bathroom with three other people proves difficult at times, the rewards far outweigh the inconveniences.

Water plants: Digs

contemporary bathroom by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

“It’s not a perfect way to live,” says Helgerson. “The toilet gets runny from working hard, and we know that the clock is ticking when it comes to our kids’ sharing a bedroom. But despite all of this, we get along pretty well for living in such a small space.”
contemporary porch by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

The house sees its fair share of family and friends coming through its front door. Just a few weeks ago, Helgerson (along with her daughter and husband) hosted a birthday party for her son, Max.

Knowing that storage was an issue, Max emailed his friends and asked for no gifts at the party. “We got him a lovely bow and arrow, which is what he had wanted, so he wasn’t deprived. One friend cheated and brought him a little box of Mexican jumping beans,” says Helgerson.

contemporary kitchen by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

The designer, who as a child split her time between France and the States, used her grandparents’ smaller, scalable European farm model as inspiration for her own garden beds and greenhouse.

Today, the family is self-sufficient for food, except for “alcohol, caffeine and most carbohydrates,” says Helgerson. They grow their own tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, onions, okra and “every type of berry that comes to mind.”

contemporary landscape by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

Although the small footprint is an organic extension of Helgerson’s design ethos, she still finds herself enjoying the process of shopping for a client and creating someone else’s vision of a home.

“I’m not about to preach to somebody else when it comes to how to live their lives,” she says. “But I think most of my clients know that my colleagues and I are pretty thoughtful about what we do. We want each and every one of our remodels to be our last [for that home].”

She admits that a part of her carries the romantic notion that her kids will someday inherit the land of their youth — but she wouldn’t be surprised if both her daughter and son declare a preference for city living once they’re a bit older.

“They might just come home one day and say that they want to live in New York City,” says Helgerson.

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