Architect Karen Curtiss of Red Dot Studio transformed a one-bedroom into a three-bedroom without increasing space.
Architect Karen Curtiss’s clients gave her only one mandate concerning the renovation of their early 20th-century cottage in San Francisco: convert the one-bedroom into a three-bedroom. The architect’s first thought was to expand, but challenges with a neighbor significantly limited the possibilities of an addition. Forced to work within the home’s existing footprint, Curtiss got creative. “My inspiration was not so much a this or a that but a how — how would it be to live there fully?” she explained. Instead of bumping out walls, she efficiently reorganized the space, increasing ceiling height on both levels by adjusting the floor plate and removing the rafters. She also introduced a central skylight that ushers light to the deepest corners of the tall, narrow structure, making it feel more spacious. In the end, she says, “I think we ended up with a better house.”
During the historical review period of the permitting process, Curtiss learned the house was previously owned by three generations of the same family — a fact that deeply informed how she approached the remodel. “We wanted [the family] to drive by and feel like, ‘Oh cool, look what they did to our old house,’” she said, explaining her decision to preserve the house’s original shape. As a reminder of its previous life, workers sandblasted the original floorplate and left it exposed to reveal “the history of little conduit holes drilled before.” They also utilized old framing members when molding the concrete retaining walls in the yard, literally “imprinting the building’s history into the walkways.”
Throughout the house, Curtiss mixed natural materials with industrial ones. Downstairs, fir and cedar wood on the doors and open-joisted ceiling balance the colder, industrial feel of the concrete floor and steel staircase railing. In the dining room, a pendant lamp from RLM Lighting hangs above a table that combines Cherner table legs with a new white laminate top. The yellow chairs are by Tolix.
Though small, the kitchen feels generously bright. Its cabinets were custom-built by Bob Clausen, a local craftsman. Curtiss selected sleek faucet fixtures by Santec and a sink by Blanco to complement the white laminate countertops. The stainless steel appliances include a Bertazzoni oven, Fisher & Payel refrigerator, and Thermador dishwasher.
“Typically in close city lots, all the light comes from the front and back of the house, so that the center becomes a dark spot,” Curtiss said, explaining her decision to install a Velux skylight above the staircase. “[It brought] a glow to the center of the house.” On the floor beneath it, she cut a hole that ushers in daylight to the lower regions of the house. It also creates a bridge separating the master bedroom from the two smaller rooms.
Curtiss describes the floor plan as “super efficient but with gracious moments.” Instead of maximizing room size, she ensured that shared spaces were adequately sized. In the upstairs hallway, that means two or three people can pass each other with relative ease.
In the master bedroom, the gable roof and balcony foster the illusion of generous space. A free-standing wall divides the sleeping space from the bathroom.
The master bath incorporates custom cabinets by Bob Clausen, fixtures by Grohe, Hansgrohe, and Kohler, and a sink by Duravit. Plush Lisbon cork carpets the floor.
The house is also Build it Green Certified, beating the sustainability requirements of Title 24 (guidelines issued by the California Energy Commission Building Energy Efficiency Program) by over 50%. The house’s laundry is hooked up to a grey water irrigation system and its gutters drain rain into barrels for reuse. The concrete also incorporates 25% fly ash.