small is the new big

small is big

Small living has been getting bigger and bigger the last few years. Between slim wallets and the growing interest…and let’s be honest, dire need…to build more sustainably, the mcmansions of the last century seem to be falling out of favor. Can we all say hallelujah? (Any excuse for a little Leonard). When designers and architects are faced with constraints, it allows opportunity for some pretty impressive creativity. Four of this year’s AIA award winners for small projects are featured in FineHomebuilding and include the Fall House, designed by Fougeron Architects, along my very favorite stretch of California coastline. The three bedroom vacation home sits on the land quietly, following the natural curves of the site, and is wrapped in glass to honor the beauty outside. And to add my own bit of love to the story, it is near enough to Esalen to run on over for a quick tub in their natural spring fed hot tubs (that is if you tire of that awesome built-in glass tub).

And for the rest of us, small is growing as well. There are ‘tiny house’ blogs and websites, and it seems that every couple of months there’s another news story about a family downsizing and simplifying. Karen Baumann and her two large dogs live in 460 square feet in Marin County, one of the country’s most expensive areas. She says that living small allows her to spend less time cleaning and organizing and affords her more time and money for the things she loves like entertaining and traveling. Micro-apartments are also becoming quite the rage, especially in the most expensive cities around the globe. Curbed has a column dedicated to micro-dwellings which seem to get smaller and smaller. The smallest they’ve listed so far in San Francisco is a mere 200 square feet (that rents for a whopping $1275 per month). And in Paris these micro-apartments get even smaller. Architect Julie Nabucet’s 129 square foot apartment includes an elevated kitchen above a bed/couch in a drawer, linens that tuck away and a tiny bathroom.

This is a bit too small for anyone with, say, clothes, but somewhere between the 129 square foot apartment and the 2600 square foot average home size, is the right house for most of us who are trying to simplify and live within the means of our limited ecosystem.

I’m off to the Contemporary Jewish Museum for their quarterly night out….have a great night and keep in touch,

home: my prefab story

Welcome to my new garden office! Overall I’m very pleased to have such a sweet place to work, but the process was not what I expected when I ordered ‘prefab’. It’s been a long ‘5 day’ build getting the office completed and has been fraught with incorrect shipments, missing parts and not always quality workmanship. I did learn a lot and offer my newfound knowledge to anyone contemplating this process for themselves.

research your manufacturer

The photographs are great, but they won’t show you the details or explain the process. Interview people who have purchased from this manufacturer and look at several of their installations (if they are available locally…if this is a big project then travel to see installations). Talk with at least 3 previous customers and ask questions both about the quality of the finished product and about how the process went. Did everything arrive as expected and on time? Did installation take longer than expected and if so, why? What will be delivered from the manufacturer and what will be purchased locally? What parts of the building are built in the factory and what is built on site? How well did the installation team communicate with the customer? Was scheduling spelled out and adhered to? How were problems handled?


A large out-building or a residence will of course require a permit. If you are looking at a smaller out building, don’t be sold by the prefab company on a ‘permit free’ sized building. Talk to your local building department and tell them what you are planning….in detail. Find out whether a permit will be required, what type of permit(s) will be required, and what the submission requirements are in your jurisdiction. DO NOT rely on information you find on your building department’s website. Permitting could affect timing as well as the design of your building. If you are not versed in pulling building permits this may also require the help of a local designer or architect. This extra time and expense must be considered as part of your building cost. My 120′ outbuilding with electricity required a full submission (meaning I had to draw a full set of plans and drop them off at the building department for full review) and required several weeks and incurred significant permitting fees.


Understand the design of your building before you purchase. Ask for the manufacturer’s standard construction details and review them, or have someone you know who is versed in construction review them. If the manufacturer can’t provide construction details for walls, roof, millwork, etc. and specification sheets for doors, windows, lighting, hardware and other accessories, don’t make your down payment until they can provide these standard details and specifications. At this point in the process the manufacturer won’t be able to provide details specific to your project, but they can and should be able to provide you with whatever is standard. If you want something customized, discuss in detail the customization and find out how it will be handled. Is this something that will be done in the factory? Will it be customized in the field? Who will be responsible to oversee the customization and how is it communicated?


Most of the prefab manufacturers tout their ‘green’ products. Find out what they mean by green and how much they really know about building sustainably. Much of this process is hidden from the consumer so you must rely on the manufacturer’s disclosures. Although the manufacturer I went with bragged (mostly appropriately) about their ‘green’ product, I realized early on that their knowledge of sustainable construction was limited. I wanted my building sited to use to best advantage passive solar principles, something that confounded the manufacturer until the building was constructed and they saw the wisdom of the siting. In order to accomplish this I had to flip the design of the building and relocate the door to what they considered the back of the building. Don’t presume that the manufacturer knows a great deal about sustainability beyond the products that they integrate. If this is important to you, ask questions to determine how much the manufacturer knows. You may want the help of a local designer or architect who has specific knowledge in sustainable practices to be involved.

site preparation

If you are responsible to prepare the site, understand what options exist and the costs involved. Is a slab required? What size? Will your building be set on sleds? Hire a general contractor if necessary to get the work done. If a building permit is required, site preparation will be part of the building permit and details will be required of the manufacturer. This information will be required early in the process. Schedule the work to be done in time for delivery (I know….I probably don’t need to say this).

5/8/14 update:  Don’t you hate it when you wake in the middle of the night remembering something really important but too tired to do anything about it? Yup, last night. Power! Your outbuilding will likely require power, possibly a data line, maybe plumbing. It is critical that you understand what the building itself requires to function and also what you need to perform whatever tasks you plan for the interior (and exterior possibly). This information will go into your drawing set (if permitting is required), and at the very least will need to be communicated to your general contractor as part of site preparation.


Once your order is placed, ask for a schedule to include expected delivery and length of installation. Keep in touch with your factory or sales contact to verify that the project is progressing as expected through the factory and find out what is expected of you at the site. Get the installer’s name and contact information. Ask to be contacted by the installer and schedule a pre-meeting (by phone is fine) so that you understand the process.


Expect to spend more time than you expect to spend on the site during construction. There will be questions as with any construction project, but if all of the prior steps were followed they should be minimized. You will need to have an area cleared for storage of the un-built building. Plan for that ahead of time. The installers will need power to run their tools. Pets and children will need to be managed and kept safely away. Hopefully all the parts and pieces will be delivered correctly and on time. If not, your installer should be able to correct the problems. Just in case, make sure you have the name of the person that you can contact to follow up. If you are responsible to provide any finishes or accessories (I provided my own light fixtures and flooring), have it on site when the building arrives. Review the work that’s been done every evening and if you see something that doesn’t look right, say something immediately. Work should not continue until you are satisfied. Be very stubborn on this point! And hopefully, if they promise you a 5 day build, you will have a 5 day build (I’m past one month and still waiting for a few items to be finished). But better is should take longer and be done right than meet schedule and be poorly built.

I hope you find this information helpful.  Feel free to pass it on, ask questions, send me pictures of your prefab….,
LeslieOLightingOpad Sales

seven generations

“In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”

~Great Law of the Iroquois


Earth Day is April 22.  I’d like to respectfully suggest that we take the law of the Iroquois into our own hearts and start again. Let Earth Day be a new beginning of doing at least one more thing (or one less thing, depending on the thing), that will benefit those who come behind us. Here are a few suggestions.

Consider one, or all, of these 22 eco-conscious habits.

Up the health of a school. Start or join a project for Green Apple Day of Service.

Wear nothing new.  Or take it a step further…buy nothing new (except consumables, duh).

Eat slow. One of the markets I shop in lists the distance that their produce travels to get to their shelves. Buy produce that travels less than 500 miles…that way you know it is in season.

Take out your lawn and plant a garden. Cultivate it with your children, friends, neighbors…spread the wealth!

Have a great weekend….sending some special love to my sis today,


Farm City, Novella Carpenter

Farm City by Novella Carpenter

Farm City by Novella Carpenter

“I took a deep breath and plunged the little yellow seeds into the ground that was not mine.  I snaked the hose around from our backyard and sprinkled water onto the bare patch of soil.  Lana and I stood and watched the water soak in.  What I was doing reminded me a little of shoplifting, except instead of taking, I was leaving something.  But I was worried.  Couldn’t these plants be used as evidence against me?”
~Novella Carpenter, Farm City
I know….Novella Carpenter wrote this book years ago. And I’m finally reading it now. With my ridiculously destroyed back garden (see my facebook page for the reason behind that!), I am ripe for a new start. On top of the mess, we are having a drought in California, so unless it feeds my family, I’m not watering it. Eventually the grass will die, which won’t break my heart.  Then I will follow Novella’s lead and plant food which I will water very carefully so as not to waste a drop. Who knows where this will lead?

where I live

my house, circa an hour ago

my house, circa an hour ago

the Brunner house, circa 1935

the Brunner house, circa 1935

15 years ago we bought the ugly duckling house on the beautiful block. All we saw was the charm and potential of our little Victorian.  Based on what little bit of research I’ve done, our house was probably built in the 1880s by two young Irish brothers named McElnay.  The original footprint was a single story 4 room house.  It probably didn’t have much of a kitchen, and the potty was out back.  It was built simply in the style of the time, but simply at that time included plaster walls, beautiful wood trims and moldings, and high ceilings with ceiling medallions. Before we bought it, the house was added to and remodeled so that what was once a 900 square foot home with a wrap around porch grew to nearly 1800 square feet.  Not big by today’s standards, but definitely big enough for us.  Between 1880 and 2014 we believe that 4 families have lived in our house.  First the McElnays, then the Brunner family, before us the Kahlers, and finally my family.  The earliest photo I have of the house is above, from about 1935 when the Brunners owned the house.  See the cobblestone street?  Grandpa Brunner was apparently very proud of his roses and grew them in both the front and back gardens.

During and after WWII the house was subdivided and most of it was rented out to servicemen. We have found 3 different locations for kitchens during the course of our renovations.  Grandma Brunner lived in the front bedroom at one point and used the closet for a kitchen (I presume her husband had died).  Sometime during their tenure much of the wraparound porch was enclosed to create a sunroom on one side and a closet on the other.

this is one of three doorways that has the original trim

this is one of three doorways that has the original trim

But back to the ugly duckling part.  When we bought the house everything was pink, the windows were all aluminum framed, the 12′ ceilings were dropped to 10′ and a step and wrought iron railing were added in the living room.  The fireplace was gone (presuming there was one), there was vinyl flooring and shag carpet everywhere, and the beautiful wood trims had all been removed and replaced with 3″ flat oak trim.  Apparently the family before us was enamored with the tract home style of the 60s, and I don’t mean the cool designs of people like Eichler.  So over the course of 15 years we’ve moved a few walls, remodeled every room, updated systems, replaced windows and tried to fix what was ugly and broken.

the the beige/pink laminate everywhere?

the before….like the beige/pink laminate everywhere?

The final room (and it’s really silly that it’s the final room since it’s the room we use the most) was the kitchen.  We began that remodel in late 2011.  I’d done a virtual remodel at least 2 dozen times (tearing down a wall in Autocad is much cheaper than it is in real life).  We settled on a plan and our god-like general contractor came and executed it. Unfortunately my dad got ill mid-remodel and we took a bit of a hiatus before being able to finish.  Last year Steve and I finally installed our tile backsplash to finish (well almost….I still need to add undercab lights) the project.  Now I have a beautiful kitchen to go with the rest of our once again adorable Victorian home.

And I’m going to enter it into the This Old House reader remodel.  Once I take some photos with something besides my iPhone, I’ll upload them.  Suffice it to say there is no pink.

Keep in touch (and enjoy the California rain),