My husband, Alex McNall (a writer and vintage furniture revitalizer), and I are native Oregonians, but after a little over a year in Los Angeles we were looking for somewhere that felt like home. We weren’t quite ready to return to our hometowns. Having lived in the Bay Area a few different times growing up and in college, I knew that Berkeley, CA was the only other place I had been that felt like home. It was also a spot we had visited together when we were engaged and remembered the area fondly. The final push came after a tear-filled conversation with my Grandma after which we packed up our (less-than-desirable) K-Town apartment and drove north to Berkeley. Seven years later, after living in various Oakland, CA apartments, we looked at my Grandma’s “shed” (really a 1905 garage) once while mowing her lawn and thought out loud, “It really isn’t that small, right?” After talking with my Grandma, we decided to begin transforming her garage into our little house for the two of us… and our three dogs.
Our last home, a 500-square-foot cottage in Oakland, was pretty small, but downsizing from that (and a basement) to one 200-square-foot room was not without its challenges. When we had decided to turn the garage into our home, we made a choice to try to use as many reclaimed building materials as possible, and for as little money as possible. We used sur insulation people had leftover, doors from the Habitat ReStore, free vintage strip wood flooring from Craigslist, and reclaimed siding and ceiling panels. It felt great to be reducing our footprint a little more, but not purchasing new meant fun times — like removing hundreds of rusted nails from the flooring, dealing with bowed wood, and learning a lot more patience in waiting for materials to become available. Ultimately, with weather conditions and personal health issues interfering with our process on top of everything else, it ended up taking us about six months to move in.
As we’ve been working on my Grandma’s “main” house, some of our little house projects have had to take a backseat. We’re hoping our next project is to add a bathroom to what we call the Bitty Berkeley Bungalow — the main house is about three feet from the little house door, so it hasn’t been that big of a sacrifice to occasionally go inside during the night, but after two years, we’re ready! Finishing the backyard is also a goal this summer; we’re lucky enough to have a fairly decent sized yard for the Bay Area. We love that our space can evolve as our lives do, too: having it for guests someday, or a full-time studio space — whatever we want. It’s a freedom we never knew when we were renting. Plus, having the benefit of seeing my Grandma every day, helping her however she needs, and watching our favorite shows with her (we just finished watching Bates Motel, and she and Alex watch every Warriors game together) makes us feel beyond fortunate. —
Photography by , unless otherwise noted.
Image above: Before we moved in and transformed the garage/carriage house into the Bitty Berkeley Bungalow that it is today, it was storage for yard tools and my Grandma’s former teaching supplies. It’s pretty wild to stand in it today and see this picture and remember what it used to look like!