Little by little

A trio of city homes maxing out square footage

Photo: Isaac Miller

Beyond the county line, it’s not uncommon in our area to find lavish estates with square footage numbering in the thousands. But as these city dwellers know, good things sometimes come in smaller packages. This month, we’re visiting three homes maxing out their (somewhat diminutive) space in different ways—through renovation, interior design or just plain old common sense. Take a peek.


Photo: Isaac Miller


A Fifeville cottage maxes out its footprint

By Erika Howsare

It’s not quite a “tiny house,” but it’s about the smallest structure Latitude 38 has built. After renovating a Fifeville duplex, company owners Jeff Erkelens and Joey Conover decided to build a one-bedroom cottage on the rear portion of the lot. Zoning allowed for three units, and since Latitude had already built a triplex next door, they saw an opportunity to create a mini-community here: a total of six rental units sharing outdoor space and a communal feel. “They all know each other; it’s all very friendly,” says Conover.

In such a small space (it’s just under 500 square feet), this home in the Ridge-McIntire neighborhood makes the most of each inch, with hidden storage and undersized appliances for a roomier feel. Photo: Isaac Miller

The cottage, being the smallest of all the neighboring homes, is an exercise in simple, smart design. “It’s kind of like a little boat,” says Conover. Each element has to earn its keep, and space-saving measures abound. For example, a daybed and built-in dining bench fit into a bumpout, not unlike the “rooms” that slide out from RVs (but with a much crisper, modern look). Lined with cheerful windows, this arrangement adds dimension to the long wall of the cottage and increases the interior volume but not the footprint.

While many elements are diminutive—like the kitchen appliances, all sized about 6″ more narrow than standard ones—the space avoids feeling cramped through a simple, bright aesthetic in uniform white. Shiplap walls add quiet visual texture. “The living room feels very open,” says Conover. “And the kitchen too; it’s not a low ceiling, particularly,” even though it’s under the upstairs loft. Details keep the kitchen as spacious and minimal as possible, like leaving ceiling joists exposed and putting open shelving in place of boxlike upper cabinets.

Photo: Isaac Miller

“The cottage has everything,” says tenant Jeff Boichuk, pointing out that none of the conveniences are missing here, including a washer/dryer, hidden in the bathroom. (On his wish list for the future: a projector and screen.)

Storage, of course, is a key question in any small home. The loft can be used for storage or sleeping; an upstairs catwalk accesses more storage and two full closets are on the ground floor. The dining bench doubles as a place to keep storage baskets, while the daybed conceals pull-out drawers.

Photo: Isaac Miller

A tightly spaced wooden railing, painted white, is the most distinctive design element in the main living space. The bathroom features tile that mimics reclaimed wood. “It’s really a great product because it hides dirt,” says Conover. “It doesn’t get funky looking but it also feels warm. There are many tile versions of wood now that are really good.”

One can picture a fishing cottage, say, with the same square footage but a much darker, closed-in feel; this is the opposite, spacious and airy. “The big square windows in the living room are south-facing,” says Conover. “The whole thing is super light.”

The outdoor space, shared by all tenants, includes garden areas, a big bike rack and a patio. “My neighbors in the Latitude 38 community are the best to live with, as are our Fifeville neighbors,” says Boichuk. “Living here’s awesome.”

The biggest changes to this city cottage happened in the kitchen, where an inefficient layout necessitated the help of a professional kitchen designer. Just off the kitchen, a former porch now serves as an office. Photo: Virginia Hamrick

Downsize, update

An aging city house joins the millennium

By Erika Howsare

Last year, Kathleen Haden downsized from a 5,000-square-foot house in Albemarle to a postwar city cottage that clocks in at around a quarter of that size. With her children nearly launched, she says, “My thought was just to simplify.”

She’d looked for a new nest for about two years, and liked the location of this Rugby area home, if not all its details. The kitchen and bathrooms, in particular, were due for attention. After she bought the house last November, she says, “We started renovating right away.”

The biggest changes happened in the kitchen, which had already undergone rounds of updates since it was first built in 1947. Its natural-wood cabinets were nothing special, and the layout had some inefficiencies (like the way one cabinet door couldn’t fully open because of a wall in the way).

Photo: Virginia Hamrick

Kitchen designer Lori Randle, with Cabinet Solutions, helped Haden put together a better layout and look—but one that wouldn’t require expensive changes to the locations of plumbing and electrical. The sink, refrigerator and stove would stay in the same places, but the peninsula bar shifted slightly.

Randle’s best trick was in part a solution to that blocked cabinet door—she changed a straight run of cabinetry to a corner layout. This added a surprising amount of functionality, as well as room for open shelving that, Randle says, “adds to the openness in the room.”

White cabinets, a farmhouse sink and soapstone counters bring the space up to date; Randle took the cabinetry to the ceiling and specified frameless cabinetry for neater margins and increased storage. Recessed lighting keeps the headspace as clear as possible.

Hardwood flooring was replaced and matched in the kitchen where the original material had been covered by linoleum, and most of the house got a new grayish stain on the floor.

“I didn’t want a traditional kitchen,” says Haden. Instead of a dining table on the other side of the peninsula, she opted for a sofa; friend and designer Kathy Heiner helped her choose one from the Artful Lodger that’s just the right scale and shape for this small space. Vividly colored paintings (one by local artist Leslie DeVito) liven up the room.

Photo: Virginia Hamrick

The two bathrooms came in for an update too, with the same materials used in both to unify the diminutive house. New vanities, topped with a remnant of Carrara marble Haden found in Richmond, are beautiful and more practical than the pedestal sinks they replaced. “I think any time you can do drawers and not shelves, it makes the storage more dynamic,” says Randle, showing off a custom drawer with a cutout for under-sink plumbing.

There were some fortuitous details already in place in the house. “When people come in, they love that archway between the kitchen and living room,” says Haden. Another previous owner had added narrow French doors in the seating portion of the kitchen, allowing circulation out to the deck and the pleasant, private backyard.

The floor plan here is simple, with two bedrooms downstairs and one multipurpose space upstairs. One of the most appealing spots is a former porch that now serves as Haden’s office, with great views to the backyard and the street. “This is the best spot to have my coffee,” says Haden. “I sit here and watch everyone walk their dogs to the park.”

Photo: Andrea Hubbell

The art of preservation

Retaining form in a smaller space

By Lisa Martin

While many buyers look at an older house and think of gutting the interior to open it up, local artist Cate West Zahl and her family took a different approach. “I wanted to keep the bones,” says West Zahl. “I feel like the walls lend a kind of order to the place.” With two busy careers and three young children, she and her husband, David, need all the order they can get, so they decided to keep the rooms as they were to preserve “the cozy, old-house feel” while infusing the entire space with a contemporary style.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell

After two years of renting their “charming, quirky” house in Charlottesville’s Venable neighborhood, the Zahls bought it in early 2016 and began a makeover, rather than a renovation. A coat of paint inside and out, fresh landscaping and a new set of stone front steps rejuvenated the property, but West Zahl carefully balanced the old with the new. She replaced the black, tacked-on shutters with vintage white ones that properly fold, each with a small clover cut-out in the metal. “One of the clovers actually leans differently than the others,” she says. “I kind of love it.”

Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Natural light spills in from the many windows and glass doors, most of which remain uncovered. West Zahl painted the house’s interior—including the vertically hung shiplap paneling and chair rails in the living room and nursery—a crisp white to lighten the weight of the low ceilings. Built-in bookshelves in the front hall received the white paint treatment as well, as did an antique church pew that sits under the bay windows there. West Zahl and her husband are collectors, and books, vinyl records and art objects enliven and decorate the shelves.

West Zahl played to her strengths by counterbalancing the house’s older architectural style with a generous display of contemporary art. Artwork fills the walls in collage-like groupings, mixing methods and artists.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell

“My theory with art is, put it where you’ll see it, where you’re going to enjoy it yourself,” says West Zahl. Works include paintings by colleagues Hank Ehrenfried and Isabelle Abbot Baldwin, studio-mate Sarah Boyts Yoder and former teacher Lee Newman, as well as a large canvas and a series of painted cigar boxes done by her father, Tom West. Several of West Zahl’s own abstract paintings, in oil and charcoal in deep blues and soft grays, lend a modern touch without diminishing the warm feel. “I didn’t want it to be an old-fashioned, John Adams type of house,” she says, “so I’m always fighting the cute factor.”

The house looks smaller from the outside than it feels inside, and a few past renovations have made the space more family-friendly. The kitchen and playroom, on opposite sides of the house, both feature cathedral ceilings, which give the floor plan some breathing room. Transom windows (without glass) set into key walls draw a flow of light and a sense of openness through the house. Two such openings, square with tray molding inside, pull natural light into the living room from the front hall bay windows.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Despite the smaller footprint of the house, double French doors off the kitchen and living room lead to a wide deck and allow ideal circulation for a party. “I once had 60 women from the neighborhood here for a get-together,” laughs West Zahl, “and it was great.” An entrance hall horizontally connects the living and dining rooms, and provides “the luxury of anti-space,” as her interior designer mom calls it—a quiet place where West Zahl can sit, read and watch her boys play just outside.

Even as the Zahls’ newly installed front yard swing has become a central meeting point for the local kids, a bit of mystery still clings to the property. Though the house is listed in city records as having been built in 1954, neighborhood lore maintains that it was rented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. and his family while he attended law school at UVA in the late 1930s. More recently, the house belonged to Robin Carey, the well-known internet entrepreneur who rose to fame by founding the business community resource Social Media Today before her untimely death in 2015.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Several additions, including the playroom off the front hall and a rear wing that includes two bedrooms, a bath, a fireplace and an exterior door, allow the Zahl kids and parents a degree of separation. West Zahl has plans to eventually tackle the unfinished basement and enclose the carport to create a mudroom/utility room, but for now, taming the raised beds in the back garden and keeping up with her young sons and her painting are plenty. Combining the old and new in their smaller space, she says, “is really the best of both worlds.”