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Photo: Lincoln Barbour

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Tiny House: The Backstory

Jessica Helgerson is a Portland-based designer of residential and commercial interiors. With a long-standing interest in green building and sustainability, she has sat on a number of boards devoted to environmental preservation. In 2008, Helgerson and her husband bought a 540-square-foot cottage on five acres of farmland on Sauvie Island, an agricultural landmass on the Columbia River just north of Portland. The cottage was first built in the early 1940s as part of Vanport Village, a development constructed to house shipyard workers from Vancouver in Washington and Portland. When Vanport Village flooded in 1948, the small structure floated down the river to Sauvie Island, where it became the goose check station (a place where hunters would showcase the geese they had shot). Years later, it was remodelled and became a rental property.

Helgerson’s redesign was the fourth time the house had been renovated. As with most of her projects, her goal was to ensure the fundamental design and materials were classic and long-lasting, as well as being appropriate for the building and its period. Rather than extending the property, they chose to work with its existing size. Retaining only the exterior walls, the windows, doors, roof and interior were replaced almost entirely with reclaimed materials, a decision based on a combination of what looked right for the property and what was immediately on hand. "Mostly we were trying to do something beautiful and economical that felt right for the place," says Helgerson. "We love to work on old buildings because it really makes us respond in fresh ways to the existing conditions. I think when designing only new buildings, it’s easy to get formulaic. I hate to see great old buildings get torn down and replaced with ugly new ones. It seems so sad, and a waste."