Great lessons for living with three big dogs and four little kids

Virginia Donohue and Mark Klaiman were living in an 800-square-foot San Francisco Victorian row house with 300 pounds of dogs ― a Great Dane, a Newfoundland, and a chocolate Labrador ― when they found out they were expecting triplets. A remodel was in order. They reorganized and extended the first-floor living space and added a second floor with three bedrooms and a playroom.

Then, when the triplets ― Sydney, Johanna, and Liam ― were 2 years old, son Quinn arrived. But Donohue and Klaiman had a lot of organizational know-how. They own a company called Pet Camp, where up to 160 dogs and 25 cats can stay while their owners are at work. Monitoring so many animals translated well to planning for a rapidly expanding family. A year and a half has passed, and the handsome, 2,600-square-foot home survives relatively unscathed, thanks to its thoughtful design.

The activity hub of the house is the kitchen/family/dining room at the rear of the first floor. “This is where we live,” says Donohue, who also points out that “everything is kidproofed.” Originally a warren of three tiny rooms and two small decks, this 11-foot-tall room now opens onto the rear yard. “Our yard is set up so we can see (the children) and they can see us,” she explains.

Sunlight is at a premium in this long, slender space, since the side walls have no openings. French doors, double-hung windows, and transom windows face the garden. At the other end of the main room, the architect added an angular opening to the new stairwell so that daylight from a second-floor skylight spills into the rear of the kitchen. 

Order out of chaos
Donohue and Klaiman maintain family harmony with a few simple rules of engagement: Toys must be stored away before meals and TV time. The kids help set the table and lend a hand in the kitchen with things like peeling carrots and putting pasta in pots. No one is allowed on the hearth if there is a fire burning. And after visits to the park, all sand gets dumped outside.

The careful planning makes it possible to enjoy the day without obsessing over small things. In summer months, for example, kids and dogs flow in and out of the French doors of the family area. Klaiman secures the doors open with hook-and-eye fasteners. “We get a few bugs but no pinched fingers or paws,” he says.

Design: Joram S. Altman, San Francisco (415/282-2626)
Interior Design/Construction: Jim Wallen, Acorn Design Studio, Oakland, CA (510/547-6581)
Color Consultant: Gail McCabe Designs, San Francisco (415/431-4395)