When Betsy Rickles commissioned architect Webster Wilson to design a compact retirement home in her daughter’s backyard in Portland, Oregon, she requested a flexible living space that would accommodate her needs and those of her visiting grandchildren. "There’s a fun sleeping loft with a ladder and a bed that pulls out from beneath the stairs for sleepovers with the grandchildren," Wilson says. "The large, sliding patio doors open the whole main living floor to the garden for parties or impromptu visits. And all of the built-in storage we included will help maintain a serene, uncluttered environment that’s essential for successful small-house living."
Webster’s challenge was to distill all of Betsy’s spatial and functional needs into a small backyard setting, while keeping communal yard space. "Preserving the yard was a priority for the family," Wilson says. "We were tearing down a garage, and Betsy’s family needed storage space for bikes and other items. The solution was to go vertical. We ended up with three floors—there’s a naturally lit basement level with a bike ramp and exterior entry for the family, and the two floors above that are Betsy's personal home."
The 1,024-square-foot home has a gable roof and cedar cladding. "The roof is standing-seam metal for both permanence and simple elegance," Wilson says. "The exterior walls are tight-knot tongue-and-groove cedar. The semitransparent white stain on the cedar was a real challenge that took much testing and retesting to the get perfect amount of white pigment and still allow the wood’s character to come through."
The material palette of the exterior pays tribute to both the built environment and the natural surround. "The ADU is located in the Humboldt neighborhood of Northeast Portland," Wilson says. "There’s an eclectic blend of mostly bungalows with some earlier Victorians and modern-style homes mixed in. I think Portland, in general, is supportive of thoughtful modern design—especially buildings that are well-crafted, site-integrated, and that use regional, natural materials like wood—so I didn't hesitate to push a more contemporary building, especially in its detailing and fenestration. The familiar form of the gable roof, the backyard scale, and the abundant use of wood reflect the area and blend into the neighborhood context."
The compact home’s open-plan interior is finished with rift-cut white oak flooring and cabinetry that tie in to the pale tone of the exterior siding. "The main floor is a multipurpose space for living, dining, and kitchen functions that all open to the garden," says Wilson.
The entire second floor holds Betsy’s master suite. "She didn’t want it to be closed off from the downstairs, so it was envisioned as an open room that would multifunction as a bedroom, an office, and a media room," the architect says. "The loft was specifically designed for the grandkids as a play area and sleeping zone. A guest would use the pull-out bed beneath the stairs on the first floor."
Wilson imagined the staircase as a fun piece of built-in cabinetry. "We needed more kitchen, living, and dining storage—and the stair has a three-foot depth of usable space below the treads," Wilson says. "The idea was that the bed could disappear and would look like a large cabinetry drawer when pushed in and not in use." He painted the cabinetry beneath the stairs white so it would integrate with the white wall around it. "The curved handrail is a nice feature, but it was quite a challenge to build," Wilson says. "It evokes Alvar Aalto’s bentwood furniture, and is similarly built of laminated plywood layers."
The architect flooded the home with sunlight. "It connects directly to the garden courtyard via the sliding glass patio doors, but there are also many other carefully designed windows at various heights that bring in natural light," he says. "There are clerestories above the fireplace wall and stairway. In designing small homes, it’s very important to bring in light and make the spaces feel larger and more humane than they might otherwise feel. It’s also very important to maintain privacy, so the fenestration design becomes a highly choreographed affair."
Shop The Look
Betsy couldn’t be happier with Wilson’s design for her micro retirement home. "I know it’s successful because Betsy loves it," the architect says. "There’s real warmth and a feeling of uplift and expanse as you move through the building—it’s a small space that feels wonderfully big."
Architect of Record: Webster Wilson
Construction: True Blue Construction & Remodeling
Structural Engineer: Madden & Baughman Engineering, Inc.
Landscape Design: Peter Lynn, Pomarius Nursery
Photography: Caitlin Murray
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