A Small Renaissance: Renovating a San Francisco Cottage

In San Francisco, a tiny Earthquake Cottage grows up by going underground.


| May/June 2008



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The deep color of the dining area’s walls suggests a sense of separation from the kitchen, offering vibrant contrast to the green foliage and blue sky outside.


Photography by Barbara Bourne

A master of clever and elegant reuse, Alma Hecht is a Renaissance woman whose out-of-the-box thinking and strong eye for design helped her complete an award-winning renovation without adding much to her carbon footprint—or budget. Skilled in culinary and decorative arts, and the owner of Second Nature, a sustainable landscape design business, Alma remodeled her 1906 cottage in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood and won the Best Small Home Renovation award at the 2007 Build It Green Home Tour.  

Alma’s Earthquake Cottage is one of many tiny dwellings constructed for the laborers who helped rebuild San Francisco after the Great Earthquake of 1906. It’s one of two houses on a parcel of land that slopes to the southeast. When Alma bought the property in 1999, she lived in and made minor improvements to the larger, 850-square-foot cottage that faces the street. But after renting out both cottages for a year while studying landscape design in Massachusetts, Alma returned home and had a change of heart. "I had an appointment to show a man the back cottage, and he was late," Alma says. "I sat there in the sun waiting for him and realized how much light and sky I saw, how quiet the yard around the back cottage was with trees and shrubs for the birds … and I thought, I should live here."

The only problem was that the smaller cottage was just 500 square feet. And as Alma’s home-based business grew, she and her dog, Sabu, were rapidly outgrowing the one-bedroom, one-bath space. "I’ve always been a cross between an antique collector and a Dumpster diver," Alma says. "So when I decided to add on to the cottage, I knew I would try to do it as sustainably and economically as I could."

The land down under

The renovation ultimately doubled Alma’s square footage, providing her with a second bedroom and bathroom, a library/media room, a proper studio and a pocket patio. Alma refers to it as her "undition" because she built an addition under her house instead of above it.

In creating the space, Alma worked closely with a young engineer who initially presented her with a traditional grid of square rooms for her nontraditional project. She got out her triangle, turned his squares on end, cut off corners—and handed his drawing back to him. Alma knew that straight lines and 90-degree angles would make the space feel small and staid. The oblique angles and shifts in perspective she added let the space unfold more slowly.





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