Small home with a clever layout on Sauvie Island

The talented interior designer Jessica Helgerson and her family take up residence in this small, yet highly functional home located on Sauvie Island, just outside of Portland, Oregon. The agricultural island is positioned along the Columbia River, with the property itself encompassing five-acres of sprawling land. The home is comprised of only 540 square feet of living space, an experiment in reduction and reuse. Quite impressively, the home was remodeled almost exclusively with reclaimed materials and the building itself has been recycled four times! Some background information on the property reveals an intriguing history. It was first built in the early 1940s as part of Vanport Village; the development was built quite quickly in order to house shipyard workers. When the village flooded in 1948, this particular little house actually floated down the river and gave itself a new place to call home on Sauvie Island. It then became the goose-check station. Several years passed, the structure was remodeled to become a new kind of development, a rental house… with a great past!

When the designer and her husband first purchased the property back in late 2008, they decided to completely renovate it without creating an addition to the existing footprint. The interior was gutted and a new floor plan created that would maximize space. A great room was created to encompass the living room, dining room and kitchen, adding built-in sofas that are comfortable enough to double as twin beds for overnight guests. Under the sofas are drawers used to store the children’s toys, while a wall of shelving units are filled with books and a few accessories. Brand new, high-efficiency windows come right down to meet the tops of the sofas, offering a fun way for both kids and cats to come in and out of the house.

The ceiling was raised higher in the main living areas, but the bedroom and bathroom have lower ceiling heights in order to accommodate a sleeping loft above for the parent’s, which is accessed via a ladder comprised of walnut wood.

 In the children’s bedroom, bunk beds help to save space, while a full bed offers additional sleeping space for guests. Maximizing the narrow space on the wall next to the bunk beds, a pull-out closet has been installed.

In the bathroom, a freestanding tub was salvaged from the demolition site of a family friend.

Reclaimed wood siding taken from one of the barns on the property was used on the interior walls, which are well insulated. New flooring was also installed, comprised of locally sourced white oak, while the dining table was built used locally salvaged walnut. In the kitchen, the vintage range was spotted on Craigslist. The source of heat for the home comes from a wood-burning stove, which offers a charming aesthetic to the small space.

Part of the renovation project included replacing a weathered roof with a green roof, which includes plantings of moss and ferns that have been gathered along the Columbia River Gorge. The green roof provides the home with excellent insulation, not to mention a neat visual impact to this traditional white cottage. Although small, this home is warm and inviting and almost every weekend it receives guests from Portland who wish to enjoy a fabulous day in the countryside!

In addition to living in this small footprint, the designer and her husband have been working diligently towards becoming self-sustainble in terms of growing their own food. During the course of the first year living on this property, the couple constructed a 1,200 square foot green house, which offers vegetable gardens, berries and fruit trees. They also raise their own chickens for meat and eggs, they keep bees and even make their own cheese from the milk of a neighbor’s cow. Wow, this couple stays busy… and this home is so inspiring and unbelievably cute! What do you think?

Photos: Lincoln Barbour


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  • I love, love, love this house. I’d love to see a sketch of the layout, or some measurements, if that’s in any way possible. Please let me know.

  • patrick reardon

    Agreed. This is a beautiful and simple house. Love to see a layout as well with rough measurements. Well done..