How These Berkeley Empty Nesters Learned to Love Their House Again
When a Berkeley couple was faced with a choice between selling their empty nest or remodeling, they chose the latter. The end result is pocket-size perfection that maximizes every square inch.
Here’s a story that will sound familiar to anyone feeling the crunch of the West Coast housing market while staring their child-free future in the eye.
After 15 years in their 1910 Edwardian Craftsman house, and having raised two now-grown daughters, a Berkeley couple arrived at a crossroads.
Should they sell their beloved but somewhat tired 1,100-square-foot house, just a handful of blocks from Chez Panisse and a renowned East Bay culinary district? Should they cash in to the highest bidder and simplify their lives? Or could they dig in, take everything they’ve learned to love (and hate) about their house, and use that wisdom to make it the best version of itself?
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“It’s like seeing an old flame in a new light,” says Brett Foken, founder of Decorotation, the five-year-old Bay Area design firm the homeowners discovered once they decided to stay put.
Foken and her design partner Kathryn Lazarus helped their clients rekindle that spark and fall in love with their house again. The result was a two-year renovation. At first, it was difficult to see through the flaws of an older house that felt dark, cramped, and loved a little too much. But thanks to the design team’s vision, and a truckload of patience, the payoff felt more meaningful than starting over.
“When I looked back at the original brief, which was for a much smaller project, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s cute,’” Foken says with a laugh. Her clients were not looking for a full gut, but once they started imagining all of the possibilities, like functional storage in every room, and multi-purpose living areas that made the house feel more spacious and streamlined, the scope of the work crept into every square interior inch—and then out to the 2,000-square-foot lot.
Working with Chris McDermott Construction, Foken and Lazarus gutted the kitchen, adding a wall of windows and French doors to bring in new light, a built-in eating nook, a hidden laundry area, and soapstone countertops. In the living room, they refaced the fireplace in Fireclay Brick tile, and upgraded even the most minute details, adding push-button light switches, custom designed wallpaper and grasscloth, and fresh coats of moody paint from Farrow & Ball.
The clients’ two offices pull double-duty as guest rooms for frequent visits with their children. Upstairs, the primary suite is a delight, with coved ceilings and wainscoting. Outside, a full garden refresh from California landscape design studio OR.CA—including a conversation circle, a dining area, and an enviable Japanese soaking tub—was the finishing touch.
“The value of a house isn’t simply financial when it comes to older homes,” says Foken. “It’s easy to be guided by social media and caught up in trends. We didn’t pay attention to the shoulds but focused on the clients’ lifestyle, interests, and the house’s original bones. We kept going back to the phrase ‘the new heirloom.’ What that means to us is creating a home that will be cherished for generations.”
Living small but intentionally makes homeowners think carefully about what they want and need, and establishes clear priorities, says Foken.
“When you live in one place for so long, it can be hard to imagine things another way,” Foken says. “In the end, we were able to focus on every single detail, and take something old and make it new again.”