January 22, 2014
House Proud By SANDY KEENAN
There are more photos of this home at house slideshow.
Early in their marriage, Lily Copenagle and Jamie Kennel began crafting a plan for living, scribbling house designs and lists of must-haves on notepads and paper napkins.
The idea was simple. They would create a home that was big enough for the two of them, but small enough so that it would be easy to maintain, environmentally responsible and inexpensive to operate. And that would allow them to free up their time and funds for intellectual and recreational pursuits. Own less, live more: It sounds like a platitude, but it became their strategy.
“We never liked furnishing or cleaning or taking care of things we really didn’t need,” said Ms. Copenagle, 40, who has degrees in physics and cell biology and is associate dean of students at Reed College in Portland, Ore., where her job involves helping students stay, and succeed, in college.
As her husband said, “There’s so much more personal freedom in going smaller.”
Mr. Kennel, 38, is the director of a Portland paramedics program who plans to pursue a doctorate in education or the behavioral sciences, and is particularly interested in how small teams of emergency medical technicians and others work together in a crisis, often in tight quarters. Ms. Copenagle said, “Jamie sees people on the worst day of their life, medically, and I see them at their toughest academic moment.”
The couple married eight years ago, after they had been dating for a year, in a characteristically small ceremony — it was just the two of them — while on vacation in Nicaragua. Once they returned to Portland, they gave a party so friends and family wouldn’t disown them. And soon after, they began making lists.
Mr. Kennel, who is 6-foot-1, wanted a place that did not have the cramped rooms and low-slung doorways of the older houses they had been living in, so he wouldn’t have to remember to duck his head whenever he walked through a door.
Ms. Copenagle wanted a space that was small enough to vacuum completely in five minutes, within cord’s reach of a single outlet, so there wouldn’t have to be any unplugging and replugging of the vacuum cleaner.
And stairs were out of the question because Sirena, one of their beloved rescue dogs, is 14 and fragile; they also realized that as young and agile as they are now, they might be in a similar situation one day.
After they had settled on a neighborhood in the northern part of the city, they bought a decrepit 1950s house on a deep lot for $190,000 and tore it down, being careful to donate or repurpose anything reusable. What they threw away filled just one Dumpster.
There are more photos of this home at house slideshow.
Their neighbors were concerned about what might rise in place of the old home: a McMansion, multiple townhouses or some other hideous anomaly among the area’s modest bungalows. No one imagined that the couple would put up a tidy little house of barely more than 700 square feet — 704, to be exact — that had a vaulted green roof planted with native flora and a friendly 1960s vibe.
“My mother likes to joke that we took a perfectly good two-bedroom house and put up a room,” Ms. Copenagle said.
Mr. Kennel’s family could not fathom it either, he said: “It doesn’t fit their societal picture of success, generally. We’re doing well, so why aren’t we demonstrating that through our house?”
Even the architects they interviewed had balked at the idea, Ms. Copenagle said. “They kept telling us, ‘You really don’t want this.’ ”
After all, while living small has its share of vocal advocates, it is still underrepresented in the American housing market. In 2012, the average home built in the United States was roughly 2,500 square feet.
But this wasn’t about status or money.
“We can certainly afford a bigger place with a higher price tag,” Ms. Copenagle said. “We just don’t want it.”
So they persevered, commissioning blueprints for a design they came up with themselves, filing for permits and hiring a general contractor. Eventually, though, “it dawned on us that we were on site all the time,” Ms. Copenagle said. “And our general contractor was never here.”
Once the framing was complete, they decided to get rid of the contractor and finish most of the work themselves. It was another way to save money — and besides, “we enjoyed doing the construction work,” Ms. Copenagle said.
In all, the house, which was completed in 2012, cost about $135,000 to build, including materials and labor. (Their own labor, which isn’t part of that figure, they valued at $50,000.) Next time, they said, they will forgo general contractors, architects and real estate agents, which added another $18,000 at the outset.
Those costs were offset by grants of roughly $9,000 that the city awarded them for the green roof, and they get a break on their water bill for managing and reusing storm water with permeable pavers, a rain garden and a 550-gallon rain barrel.
The landscaping also softens the industrial feeling of the exterior and entices passers-by to stop and ring the doorbell, asking questions or offering opinions. The residents do not seem to mind. They are delighted with the way the indoor and outdoor spaces flow together, creating the impression of a more expansive home. And they are proud of their house’s performance in the energy-savings department.
None of this has gone unnoticed by the neighbors. Kim Conrow, 65, who lives next door, marveled: “On weekends, they actually go places and do things. They’re not tied to the projects most of us are tied to. I’m so charmed by the simplicity of it.”
Ms. Conrow admitted, however, that she would never be able to share a closet with her husband the way her neighbors do.
Still, the benefits of that arrangement speak for themselves. In nine months, the mortgage will be paid in full, which will leave Ms. Copenagle and Mr. Kennel with monthly costs of roughly $370 for property taxes, utilities, municipal services and insurance.
That’s good, because they will soon have to pay tuition for Mr. Kennel’s next degree. And Ms. Copenagle has bought a sleeker kayak so she can keep up with her husband as he paddles his stand-up board on the local rivers. Recently, they also bought 20 acres in northeastern Washington, completely off the grid, with incredible views of the Cascade Mountains.
The scribbling on napkins has begun again. This time, the goal is 400 square feet.
Correction: January 30, 2014
An article last Thursday about a couple’s 704-square-foot home referred incorrectly to the organisms found on the roof. They are plants, which makes them flora, not fauna.
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