When Erin Feher Montoya and her husband Danny Montoya moved into an Outer Richmond flat back in August, they should have felt daunted by the prospect of fitting their family of four into 550 square feet. But they had two things going for them. First, the Montoyas were also moving their Mission-based business, a kids’ woodworking studio called The Butterfly Joint. Setting up shop in a former ballroom downstairs from their new flat meant the family could use the commercial space as overflow when, say, a big dinner party was called for. But even more to the point, the Montoyas were experienced at small-space living, having just spent a decade in a 500-foot-condo in the Tenderloin. Erin, the design editor for San Francisco magazine, and Danny, a first-grade teacher, prided themselves on exposing their kids to the city: tourists spilling over from Union Square, restaurants of every stripe, and daily trips on mass transit. Still, they longed for a space where they could both live and work, and their new home, nestled along the northeast corner of Golden Gate Park within view of the Pacific, fit the bill. Now they’re hard at working renovating it themselves (after two months of initial help from Erin’s dad, who flew out from Cleveland). “We hired and electrician and plumber” says Erin, “but everything else we’re doing ourselves.” They call it The Cabrillo Compound.
Your living space went from 500 to 550 square feet. What do you like about small spaces?
When this place came up, it just felt right. While I imagined getting a bit more space, I knew we could make it work because we had done it for 10 years, and the square footage of our former place never really bothered us. When we got it, it was a one bedroom with a really weird layout. We designed a new floor plan and made it into a two bedroom, and all the rooms feel way bigger than we expected. Plus, we have the yard and the 1,500-square-foot shop downstairs, both of which we can use as an extension of our living space. Not to mention the park, the beach, and the whole city really.
As a parent and a person, staying home has never been my thing. Getting out with our kids is what keeps us sane. Even if we had 11 rooms, I would never be a craft-room mom who stays home and makes slime with the kids. We go to museums, to the park, we ride the buses. When both my kids were babies, whenever they would get fussy I would just take then out in the carrier and start walking and they would shut right up. Having a small space encourages that. Plus, when we’re home, we like to be close. Even having my daughter in her own room feels weird sometimes. I remember reading somewhere that couples with king-sized beds are more likely to get divorced. Danny and I still have a full-size mattress and I kind of think of our small house as a metaphor of that, just family style.
What are your top tricks for designing and organizing a small space?
I have always said “own less stuff” but moving has uncovered our dirty secret—we have lots of friggin’ stuff. I got rid of so much when we moved, and still make trips to Goodwill once every couple of weeks. But honestly, we like our stuff. Danny has a thousand records, I have the same number of books, and we really love the way our kids interact with them, so we want to keep them around. So having a place for all that is important. We aren’t there yet—Danny still needs to build all our shelving in the house—so in the meantime we have all those books and records stored with Trove. As storage solutions get built (our daughter’s new California Closets system is going in soon, and her toys and books will see the light of day once again) we call back the items we had stored. It’s a system that works really well for us right now, with this weird move and renovation we are living.
What’s your favorite spot in the house?
It’s a toss up between my bed—we have a huge window in the bedroom and at night it’s all moon and stars, while in the mornings it’s gorgeous sunlight and views of the windmill in Golden Gate Park—and the backyard, which is warm and sunny all day long. Being urban condo dwellers, we didn’t know anything about “southern facing yards,” but when our neighbor came over and mentioned it, we realized we got really lucky. Her house is just across the street but her big yard faces north and it’s blustery and cold.
How do you handle organizing all your stuff in such a small space?
With no shelves and two kids, this is currently a challenge. I’ve come to love the “artful pile,” which is my current bookshelf solution, and the beautiful chaos. Having some toys on the floor or a bike left in the yard is no longer an embarrassing mess—it’s a sign of life, and I’m cool with it. But, to be fair, Danny and I are very neat people. Our family mantra is “everything has its place” and we’re only half-joking. Our daughter knows she can’t just tornado through and leave. She needs to take care of her stuff or we pull the the classic parent move: You can’t put it away? It goes in the trash.
Let’s ponder for a moment the joys and perils of living in the Tenderloin vs. the outermost edge of town, in the Richmond.
The Tenderloin was great for us when we lived there. Sometimes we wonder in retrospect why we didn’t buy a condo in the Inner Sunset 10 years ago instead, but the truth is, back then even that would have been too far away from the action for us. My commute to work was never more than 10 minutes. We rode bikes everywhere and never needed a car. We lived directly above the Civic Center BART/Muni station and the farmers market. The restaurants were great. I miss the convenience. I now have to walk six blocks for a good cup of coffee.
But now that we live in a place where my daughter can run to her friend’s house down the street by herself, or we can stand out on the sidewalk and actually have conversations with our neighbors, we can see how crazy it was. Still, I’m glad we had both our kids down there and that our daughter got to live in it for four years. It makes us appreciate what we’ve got now. Here in the Richmond, we still have great restaurants and decent bus service, and my bike commute, though longer, is much more scenic.