The concept of living small takes on new dimensions at Sylvia Matlock and Ross Johnson's house on Vashon Island. The two got along in a 384-square-foot old Pan Abode...

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THE CONCEPT OF living small takes on new dimensions at Sylvia Matlock and Ross Johnson’s house on Vashon Island. The two got along in a 384-square-foot old Pan Abode cabin for 18 years while concentrating their time and resources on their nursery, DIG Home and Garden, a few miles away. Tall madrones and firs shaded their minuscule wooden home.

“This whole remodel was about getting more light — my eyes are getting old,” says Matlock. Their cool new house is about far more than light, although there’s plenty of that pouring into the new conservatory. They added about 352 square feet, for a whopping total of 736. They gained a fresh kitchen, new bath and dining room, plus a whole new outlook to their garden, which was the hit of last summer’s Hardy Plant Society Puget Sound-area tour.

The dining room/conservatory, with lofty ceilings that peak at 14 feet, is the star of the remodel. Its metal windows pleat open like accordions so that comfy upholstered window seats seem to float above the garden. Oversized metal doors fold open to porches made of cast-iron welding tables. The floors throughout the home are heated Brazilian slate. White floaty pendant light fixtures add a striking modern touch. Most of the furniture and lighting, including a petite black leather sofa and platform bed with storage beneath, came from modern design store Current in Seattle. The simple, glass-fronted kitchen cabinets from Ikea are classed up with black soapstone countertops. The ornately carved and oversized wooden doors from AW Pottery in Lynnwood are a warm, Craftsman touch.

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How they made small feel roomy

Sylvia Matlock and Ross Johnson’s home feels roomy and comfortable despite its minimal size. Here’s why:

• Stacked, high-efficiency European (Asko brand) washer and dryer.

• High ceilings, which create volume.

• Controlled clutter. Their stuff is out of sight.

• Oversized doors and windows. With all the light coming in, the little house feels airy and open even when the windows are closed.

• Slate flooring laid in one direction throughout. The pattern expands the sense of space.

• Overhead lighting overscaled for drama; furniture chosen to take up as little space as possible. The leather sofa seats two; window seats are built in.

“Better detail was more affordable at this size,” Matlock says. “We could buy one, and buy nice.” They were able to track down a stainless-steel toilet, but designed their own stainless bathtub, built by Ballard Sheet Metal Works. A sleek Danish wood stove by RAIS warms the entire house. It has no hearth, requires little clearance and can be used for cooking; there’s even space beneath for storing wood.

Important for nursery owners, the diminutive house leaves plenty of room for the garden. All around the house and dotted through the garden are sleek, showy containers stuffed with the hottest new plants Matlock brings back from foraging trips to California nurseries. From the chartreuse portal framing the garden’s entry to the paths and stone walls winding through native and exotic plants, the garden is a quintessential Northwest woodland with the shocker of an uber-cool house at its heart.

Years ago, Johnson and Matlock designed a bigger house with a garage. But they had an epiphany along the way to construction. “We didn’t understand why we needed all that space, and couldn’t really picture how a house like that would look on this lot.” The current design was a collaboration between the couple, Vashon architect Christopher Ezzel and an engineer and designer friend, Robert Rosenbaum, who provided extensive drawings and creative ideas for trims, lighting and the conservatory.

Built by Baron Construction of Vashon, with sheet-metal work done by V.S.M. Contractors, this little house shows great vision by people willing to think outside the box to design and build, well, a box, but one clad in pre-weathered zinc. Rosenbaum says of Matlock and Johnson, “Their goal was to transform a very small and ordinary house — a cabin, really — into a very small and wonderful work of art, a gem!”

How does it feel to go through a lengthy remodel and end up with a house that’s still only 736 square feet? They almost doubled their space, says Johnson. “It feels really luxurious.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Her e-mail address is Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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