When Jessica and her husband Yianni bought a five-acre property on Sauvie Island, an Oregon farming community along the Columbia River, the plan was for it to be a "project property." They would renovate a small, 540-square-foot historic building there and visit on weekends to escape from their apartment in the bustling city of Portland.
The family hadn’t planned to actually live in the cabin, which was enjoying its fourth reincarnation after having originally been a home for shipyard workers in Vanport Village in the forties, then a goose check station, and most recently a dilapidated rental property.
"We came out here to celebrate my birthday nine years ago, and never left," says Jessica. "We just absolutely had the cutest, sweetest, happiest weekend. We realized how nice it was for our family to be all mushed together, and that was that."
Renovating the home involved a complete rebuild—the only original feature of the two-bedroom, one-bath cabin is the footprint. But almost every facet of construction incorporated reclaimed, reused, or period-appropriate materials. Jessica’s design philosophy in her business, Jessica Helgerson Interior Design, is to always maintain a respect for place.
"We do a lot of renovation work, and if we’re working on an old Tudor or a midcentury, we’re going to use materials used at that time," says Jessica. "I try to avoid trends, and do what seems appropriate for the place."
For Wild Goose Farm, the directive was to maximize space, minimize material use, and create the feeling of an American farmhouse. "We built it sort of like a boat. We absolutely maximized storage and minimized clutter," says Jessica. "There is very little horizontal surface—the kids had just one tiny niche next to their bed with a little light and a pull chain."
To minimize visual clutter and make the small space more livable, Jessica painted almost everything white. "If it had had wallpaper—and pink and green and blue and yellow—I think it would have been less easy to live in," she says.
Sustainable building practices are a big part of Jessica’s work ethos, and almost everything in the home is upcycled, recycled, or reclaimed. "The wood walls are all from an old barn that was taken down on the property, the floors are Oregon white oak (a local material), and we reused a lot of old things." This includes vintage Paul McCobb chairs in the kitchen, a reclaimed bathtub in the sole bathroom, and an old stove they found in California for the kitchen.
The few new items were introduced largely out of necessity: a toilet and sink, the windows, some cabinetry, light fixtures, and a wood-burning stove—the home’s main heat source (supplemented by electric eco-heat panels in the back rooms.)
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The whole project cost just $70,000, with the majority of the expenditure going to the floors, windows, and doors, and labor costs for plumbing, electrical, and a cabinetmaker to craft the bookshelves and custom built-in sofa. "The built-in sofa was a lifesaver, easily seating a big group of friends while serving as guest beds and a bouncy house for our young kids," says Jessica.
Made from recycled PET bottles, the fabric on the sofa is basically in-destructible. "Which is a good thing, since those windows were open and the kids were scrambling in and out of them all day long."
Originally, Jessica had planned for four armchairs facing each other around a coffee table, but she shifted course on the advice of an architect/builder friend. He said they’d appreciate the empty floor space that a built-in sofa configuration afforded. It was excellent advice.
"The fact that it was open, and that we didn't have to kind of walk around everything was another lifesaver. It gave us a little bit of open space to do a cartwheel or a puzzle on the floor," says Jessica.
The family lived in the 540-square-foot home for four years, enjoying the intimacy that living on top of each other afforded them in this age where houses are just getting bigger.
"It was a really tender time," Jessica recalls. "We used to joke that it was bigger than we needed, because we’d always all be in one room. I’d take a bath, and everyone would come sit on the floor in the bathroom and talk."
There were some tougher times—the first winter, in particular, was hard. "I think we didn’t know quite how to combat cabin fever, but we learned to make a concerted effort to leave the house on the weekends during the winter and go into town and go to the movies," says Jessica. "We have really very magical memories of living there."
It was the looming threat of puberty that made the family decide it was time to build a larger home on the property. "After four years of living here, our son was 11 and puberty was around the corner," says Jessica.
He and his sister were in bunk beds, and Jessica and her husband were sleeping up in a loft with no door. "We thought we really should build a house, because we knew we would go crazy living with teenagers here!"
With the idyllic tiny home located right next to the family’s garden, their memories—and the closeness they developed in those 540 square feet—always remain nearby.
And today, the cabin has a new purpose: it’s a safe haven for a friend who is a surgeon in Portland. "She is going to quarantine from her family here, as she is going to serve as an ER doctor during the COVID-19 pandemic," says Jessica. The crisis has given the historic home its fifth, and perhaps most important role yet.
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