This new guesthouse is a mere 380 square feet — but still feels sunny and spacious

After raising three kids in Texas, education consultant Ellen Sanchez missed the outdoor lifestyle she remembered from her childhood in Westwood. So she returned to Southern California in 2004 and settled in Culver City, where she could afford a small house and was close enough to bike to the water.

The location was idyllic, but the size of the 1940s two-bedroom, one-bath cottage put a crimp in family visits, especially when her five grandkids were in tow. “One bathroom is not conducive to hosting lots of little children,” she says. “Even when I had just one couple staying, we had to coordinate showers.”

An addition seemed the obvious solution, but Sanchez wanted to provide adult guests with a private space of their own – a getaway from their getaway – while the youngsters bunked in the house with her. So she decided instead to build a separate guesthouse and turn the elongated backyard into the primary entertaining space.

Serendipity led her to the architects who would make it happen.

In 2011, Sanchez read a Los Angeles Times article about a tiny Echo Park home designed by Louis Molina and Laurent Turin of Good Idea Studio. Impressed by how Molina and Turin had maximized every square inch in a multipurpose floor plan that integrated the interiors and the garden, she hired them to come up with a guesthouse that was modern and efficient yet comfortable and inviting.

The architects were limited by Sanchez’s $140,000 budget, and the Culver City building code further complicated the design process. Since only one accessory building was allowed on a residential lot like Sanchez's, the guesthouse had to be grafted onto the existing garage. And because such a hybrid building could total only 800 square feet, anything new had to fit in a mere 380 square feet.

"We wanted to create something more interesting than the typical wood-framed stucco box with vinyl windows,” Molina says. So he and Turin used the tight budget and building restrictions not as negatives but as inspiration. “We wiggled away from orthogonal lines and had fun with the form.” 

The result is one big room with a slanted ceiling and angled walls and built-ins that give the place a tent-like sense of openness and intimacy. “Guests refer to the feeling as being really cozy,” Sanchez says.

Sheets of economical fir plywood – not drywall, which must be prepped and painted – wrap virtually every surface, each piece cut and meticulously installed by architectural designer Hector Solis to stress rather than deemphasize the varying grain patterns. 

One sloping side of the room is translucent Polygal, a recyclable polycarbonate material; it washes the guesthouse in sunlight that, in turn, warms the maintenance-free concrete floor. An alcove equipped with a microwave oven and two refrigerated drawers serves as a mini kitchen. Next to that a closet and a toilet are tucked behind doors.    

The lavatory and shower are screened by back-to-back shelves, one side for toiletries, the other for books and keepsakes. A skylight over the sink and LED soffit lights above the bedside shelving keep the room bright. Beyond the rear sliding glass door, a sitting nook is sheltered by greenery.   

Molina describes the landscaped yard between the main house and the guesthouse as central to Sanchez’s project. “It offers shared areas for a multigenerational family versus the more private areas for individuals,” he says. A wood ramp leads down from the house to a concrete-sided fire pit that echoes the shape of the guesthouse entrance. Part of the ramp is elevated, splitting off along one side of the garden to become a bench for two tables. 

"I hosted my mother’s 90th birthday party, and family from all over the country came,” Sanchez says. “We had evening meals and the big party in the backyard, which we couldn’t have done before. The fire pit gives off great heat, so we can entertain all year long. We’ve actually had two Thanksgiving dinners out there.”

As family and friends drop in more frequently, sometimes for two weeks at a time, Sanchez volunteers that the guesthouse has changed her life for the better. “I grew up in a home where all my friends gathered at our house and my parents were very welcoming,” she says. “I always wanted my home to be like that.”

And now it is.

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