Spring makes me think of Alma Hecht’s wonderful cottage in San Francisco. The owner of Second Nature, a sustainable landscape design business, Alma is incredible at creating outdoor “rooms” that extend her home’s space. And as remodeling season begins, her renovation of a tiny dwelling, built for the laborers who helped rebuild San Francisco after the Great Earthquake of 1906, is nothing short of inspirational.
"I’ve always been a cross between an antique collector and a Dumpster diver," Alma says. "So when I decided to add on to the cottage, I knew I would try to do it as sustainably and economically as I could."
Alma’s cottage was originally just 500 square feet—not quite enough space to accommodate her living needs, her dog and home-based business. She doubled the square footage by adding a second bedroom and bathroom, a library/media room, a studio and a pocket patio through what she calls an "undition" because she built the addition under her house instead of above it. Alma worked with the site’s natural slope, moving downhill from the front to the back so that all lower-level rooms could have windows.
To shore up the cottage so it could withstand the excavation, Alma’s crew pulled out 30,000 pounds of dirt, much of which they reused as fill and support around the poured-concrete foundation. Excavating beneath the existing house meant that Alma could have energy-efficient radiant heat incorporated into the concrete foundation slab and exposed ceiling/upstairs floor.
Throughout the “undition,” Alma used salvaged items to give her home character. Her builder cut a secondhand door in half and trimmed it with vintage hardware to create French doors for her bedroom. A downstairs closet door is from an old phone booth. When Alma upgraded several upstairs windows, she reused the old ones as glass-front cabinet doors in the kitchen.
"It is responsibility combined with a sense of fun that drives me," Alma says. "Responsibility to replace what’s been taken away, to care for and be careful with what’s still here, and to enjoy the process."
Alma’s Earthquake Cottage is flanked on three sides by her garden. A spill jar welcomes visitors on the right; small trees, shrubs and vines shape an oasis. An evergreen clematis drapes the front porch, one of many scented plants that bloom at different times of the year. Photo by Barbara Bourne
Alma’s front porch bench welcomes visitors and creates one of many small seating or outdoor entertaining spaces around her San Francisco cottage. Photo by Barbara Bourne
Alma styles small corners of her house and garden as distinct pocket spaces such as this small shady retreat nestled into the far side of her front porch. Photo by Barbara Bourne
The stairwell between the original and new lower levels became a blank canvas for Alma to display this carved Moroccan panel and lantern; the antique shop owner said the lantern was from Rudolph Valentino’s estate. Photo by Barbara Bourne
The view from the front door through the living room and into the dining room showcases the oak parquet floor, which dates to the 1920s. Alma had multiple layers of flooring removed to reveal the original fir floor in the kitchen. Photo by Barbara Bourne
Alma used repeating tones and textures throughout the house to create a smooth, elegant flow between the old space and the new. Photo by Barbara Bourne
The kitchen has the original painted wooden cabinets and tile countertops. The large gilt mirror adds a sense of space, light and elegance to the room. Photo by Barbara Bourne
The kitchen opens into the living room, where Alma’s dog and constant companion, Sabu, keeps watch over her front door. Photo by Barbara Bourne
A terraced outdoor seating area features brightly colored pillows. The wall’s painted trim, sculptural objects and a mirror liven what was once dead space. Photo by Barbara Bourne
The tea and knife niche in the wall beside the stove, original to the kitchen, is painted in the dining nook’s pumpkin- spice tone. Photo by Barbara Bourne
Alma hand-stained the concrete floors in her new studio and designed the watering can fountain outside on the patio. Photo by Barbara Bourne
The deep color of the dining area’s walls separate it from the kitchen, and large French doors offer outdoor connection. Photo by Barbara Bourne
The walls of the media room, part of the new lower level, are finished with earth-friendly plaster. Because of the natural slope, the new lower-level rooms have abundant windows and natural light. Photo by Barbara Bourne