A ramshackle, bank-owned bungalow on a lot crowded with weeds and broken glass isn’t everyone’s idea of a dream project. But designers Kate Lydon and Anton Willis know a diamond in the rough when they see one.
Fresh from earning their master’s degrees in architecture at U.C. Berkeley, the couple had been renting in the area and searching for a "weird and quirky" home to transform for themselves when they discovered the 1,150-square-foot, 1916 cottage in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood.
"It had been extended like a telescope over the years, with additions of decreasing quality tacked on and a shotgun corridor that emphasized the length and the 12-foot-wide footprint," Anton remembers.
"Everything had been stripped out of it—it was so decrepit," Kate adds. "But it had an interesting shape, and we thought, ‘We can do something with this.’"
They began by making the place livable: redoing the foundation with continuous, board-formed concrete (which instantly made the front facade feel more contemporary), replacing the roof, painting, and extending the front porch. Their approach to renovating was guided by three things, says Anton: "Use humble materials thoughtfully; quality of space matters more than quantity; and structural moves can be design moves too."
Kate was pregnant with their eldest son when they redid the two bathrooms with slab counters fabricated by a friend and recycled Douglas fir vanities that they crafted themselves. Just before their second son was born, they turned the garage into a 250-square-foot studio/ADU for visiting grandparents.
When their plans for additional renovations stalled, they reached out to a friend from Cal, Laura Boutelle. The Oakland-based architect strategized with the couple to reenvision the house for how they live while improving the flow and plan for future needs, such as if the couple’s sons each want their own bedroom one day.
To that end, Boutelle drew up a plan to add an upstairs bedroom and bathroom, situate a new stair and bedroom suite near the center of the house, and relocate the kitchen to better connect it to the living and dining rooms.
After: Living Area
"Anton and I had originally thought of doing the renovation ourselves," recalls Kate. "But we didn’t have the focus to do that because we were doing other things. So it was really special to work with Laura, whom we love and trust."
"We shared certain beliefs," she says, "like believing that circulation should be usable space—a stairway shouldn’t just be a stairway, but a place to sit as well as a place to walk. It should be a design element that you actually inhabit."
After: Dining Area
Expanding the house sideways into the long, unused driveway allowed for the creation of a private patio where the family eats dinner most evenings.
After: Side Yard
During construction, the couple would meet on-site with Boutelle and contractor Gustavo Portillo, who’d overseen the build of their ADU. On one visit they took note of how airy and open the front-facing living room looked without the old low ceilings and decided to vault the space and add two skylights.
"There’s design that happens in drawings, but there are other design decisions that happen during construction as you see how a space is taking shape," explains Kate. "It was cool to work with an architect and a contractor who were really flexible and excited about that too."
After: Upstairs Addition
"The house feels spacious even though it’s small by most standards—without the ADU, it’s around 1,700 square feet," says Kate. "Anton and I both grew up in small houses, and we feel that helps families spend time together. We like small houses that are cleverly designed and that prioritize quality of space over quantity."
"It’s a joy to wake up in, to take care of, and to have friends over," she adds. "The house reflects how we live as a family."
More Before & After stories:
General Contractor: Gustavo Portillo, Timber Construction
Structural Engineer: Radco
Landscape Design: St. John Landscaping
Cabinetry: Steve Chu, Custom Woods Design
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