A Small Renaissance: Renovating a San Francisco Cottage

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The deep color of the dining area’s walls suggests a sense of separation from the kitchen, offering vibrant contrast to the green foliage and blue sky outside.
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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.
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The kitchen opens into the living room, where Alma’s dog and constant companion, Sabu, keeps watch over her front door.
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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.
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The vignette along a painted ledge in the main floor bathroom is of an antique painted vanity and a three-footed copper pot with an orchid.
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Oil paintings by Esta Kornfield harmonize with the wainscoting in the master bathroom.
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Alma displays a few of the watering cans from her extensive collection on her front porch.
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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.
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Radiant coral-red trim and red and pink pillows on Alma Hecht’s front porch bench welcome visitors, creating one of many small seating or outdoor entertaining spaces around her San Francisco cottage.
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Alma styles small corners of her house and garden as their own distinct pocket spaces. Here, a small shady retreat is nestled into the far side of her front porch—replete with furnishings, art and plantings.
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Alma hand-stained the concrete floors in her new studio and designed the watering can fountain outside on the patio.
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The view from the front door through the living room and into the dining room showcases the oak parquet floor, which dates back to the 1920s. Alma had multiple layers of flooring removed to reveal the original fir floor in the kitchen.
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Alma used repeating tones and textures throughout the house to create a smooth, elegant flow between the old space and the new.
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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.
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The walls of the media room, part of the new lower level, are finished with earth-friendly plaster. Because of the grade of the property’s natural slope, the new lower-level rooms have abundant windows and natural light.
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Alma’s Earthquake Cottage is flanked on three sides by her garden, an integral part of the overall style. 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.

A master of clever and elegant reuse, Alma Hecht is a Renaissance woman whose out-of-the-box thinking and strong eye for design helped her complete an award-winning renovation without adding much to her carbon footprint–or budget. Skilled in culinary and decorative arts, and the owner of Second Nature, a sustainable landscape design business, Alma remodeled her 1906 cottage in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood and won the Best Small Home Renovation award at the 2007 Build It Green Home Tour.

Alma’s Earthquake Cottage is one of many tiny dwellings constructed for the laborers who helped rebuild San Francisco after the Great Earthquake of 1906. It’s one of two houses on a parcel of land that slopes to the southeast. When Alma bought the property in 1999, she lived in and made minor improvements to the larger, 850-square-foot cottage that faces the street. But after renting out both cottages for a year while studying landscape design in Massachusetts, Alma returned home and had a change of heart. “I had an appointment to show a man the back cottage, and he was late,” Alma says. “I sat there in the sun waiting for him and realized how much light and sky I saw, how quiet the yard around the back cottage was with trees and shrubs for the birds … and I thought, I should live here.”

The only problem was that the smaller cottage was just 500 square feet. And as Alma’s home-based business grew, she and her dog, Sabu, were rapidly outgrowing the one-bedroom, one-bath space. “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.”

The land down under

The renovation ultimately doubled Alma’s square footage, providing her with a second bedroom and bathroom, a library/media room, a proper studio and a pocket patio. Alma refers to it as her “undition” because she built an addition under her house instead of above it.

In creating the space, Alma worked closely with a young engineer who initially presented her with a traditional grid of square rooms for her nontraditional project. She got out her triangle, turned his squares on end, cut off corners–and handed his drawing back to him. Alma knew that straight lines and 90-degree angles would make the space feel small and staid. The oblique angles and shifts in perspective she added let the space unfold more slowly.

She worked with the site’s natural slope, moving downhill from the front to the back of the house so that windows, for plentiful natural light and good airflow, could easily be included in all lower-level rooms. Glass French doors and a salvaged clerestory window are highlights of Alma’s downstairs studio.

Digging out

The first step in building the addition was to shore up the cottage so it could withstand the excavation below. “We pulled out 30,000 pounds of dirt,” Alma says. Much of that dirt was 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, all run by a compact, highly efficient Munchkin boiler.

Whenever possible, Alma worked with the cottage’s original materials–an inherently green thing to do. In the kitchen, she removed layers of vinyl tiles to expose 100-year-old fir flooring. For the addition, she chose low-VOC polyurethane to seal the floor. (VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are harmful chemicals that outgas into the air.) She stained the concrete floors in two lower-level rooms and used adhesive-free, floating cork flooring in the others. Alma covered the downstairs walls with earthen plaster and painted the upstairs walls with low-VOC Benjamin Moore paints.

Completing the vision

As the project evolved, Alma’s builder, Thomas Cunniff, became a disciple of her reduce-reuse-recycle philosophy. The use of salvaged items is among her favorite aspects of the renovation.

Alma asked Cunniff to cut a secondhand door in half and trim 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.”

The Good Stuff

• Minimal grading and destruction of the site’s trees and topsoil

• Reclaimed and reused doors, windows and hardware

• Use of recycled and/or salvaged materials whenever possible

• Energy-efficient radiant heat

• Floors made of cork, reclaimed wood and concrete stained with low-VOC polyurethane

• Low-VOC paints and earth plaster on walls

• Lots of natural daylighting

• Energy-efficient appliances

A conversation with the homeowner

What do you love most about this addition?

Alma Hecht: “I love the way the ‘undition’ stitches seamlessly with the original house and feels spacious, cozy and inviting.”

Would you do anything differently?

Alma: “I would have insisted the contractor use concrete with lower environmental impact. I would have had a truly experienced radiant heat installer. I wound up spending an extra 20 percent correcting installation errors.”

What advice would you give other homeowners who are thinking about an addition or renovation?

Alma: “A green or sustainable renovation does not need to be that much more expensive than a standard renovation. But it will take more time in the planning period to allow for sourcing used or green products, and for creative problem solving for each need you discover. Don’t give up on your vision or take ‘That’s impossible!’ for an answer. The solution is there somewhere.”

Structural engineer: Andy Forrest, (415) 566-2215;seismiczone@aol.com
Interior designer: Alma Hecht, Second Nature Design, (415) 586-6578;www.SecondNature.bz
Builder: Thomas Cunniff, (415) 378-2007,tcunniff@sbcglobal.net.

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