4 Stylish, Efficient Maine Dwellings Under 1,000 Square Feet

In an era of sky-high housing and construction costs, it’s little wonder some Mainers are seeing the appeal of a tinier abode. We caught up with six homeowners who have downsized. And by and large, they’re happy they went small.

By Sarah Stebbins
From our April 2024 Home & Garden issue
Farmhand Pia Capaldi’s tiny home in
Farmhand Pia Capaldi’s tiny home sports an “oinker pink” porch that requires frequent recoating. “In summer, the goats sit on it or I’ll come home and there will be a sheep waiting for me,” she says. “It gets a lot of wear and tear.” Photo by Erin Little

Happy Wheels

Square Feet: 160
Bedrooms: 1
Baths: 1
General Contractor: Presumpscot Woodworks

Lightbulb Moment

When artist and dancer Pia Capaldi spotted a shed-roofed tiny house on a friend’s farm, in 2015, she knew she had to build her own. “I loved the idea of a little space that I can curate,” she says. “It feels very Zen because you’re not accumulating a whole bunch of stuff.” She purchased a trailer and enlisted her friend, Durham contractor Stephen Carpenter, to help construct her wheeled retreat before she even had a place to put it. “I figured the first step was building, and then something would happen,” says Capaldi, who opted for an 8-by-20-foot shingled abode she can tow with a truck (without obtaining an oversize permit from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles). The home was nearly finished when she found a job, and a parking spot, on a York County farm. Three months later, she moved to her current location on a neighboring farm, where she works as a shepherdess.

Thoughtful Trade-Offs

To maximize the tight footprint, Capaldi designed a bedroom loft accessed by a refurbished orchard ladder as opposed to space-eating stairs. In the open kitchen-living area (where she also stores clothes in an armoire), she prioritized counter space and a roomy seating area over dining and coffee tables. “A lot of times you see fold-down tables and built-in benches, which are lovely,” Capaldi says. “But I’ve never used a dining table and I want my house to be snuggly. I want to curl up in a comforter on my couch.” Next to the sofa, a miniature wall-mounted woodstove made for a boat (and fueled with compressed-wood bricks) works in tandem with a propane wall heater in the bath at the home’s opposite end to keep things toasty.

The home’s pine-paneled interior features a copper sink from Portland’s Habitat for Humanity ReStore (set into a pine countertop where Capaldi likes to paint) and a wooden shadow box made by her grandfather. Photo by Erin Little

Less Is More

Tiny-house living “makes you think, what really matters to me?” Capaldi says. “Everything in my home is here because it means something.” The pine-paneled interior (which Capaldi thinks imparts a tree-house vibe and is less prone to cracking than drywall when the soil beneath the trailer expands and contracts), features collections of birds’ nests, animal skulls, stones, and feathers, her own paintings, and a shadow box displaying her grand- mother’s thimbles and her grandfather’s World War II medals. Clutter rarely accumulates, because where could it? “When I walk in here, it feels like an altar,” Capaldi says. “And if I want to move, I don’t have to leave it. I can move it with me.”

A little slate-tiled entry gives way to Josepha Hegan’s entire house
A little slate-tiled entry gives way to Josepha Hegan’s entire house (save her bedroom, which is tucked around a corner). She stows coats in a kitchen closet and books that survived a massive purge on living-room shelves. Photo by Rachel Sieben

Modern Love

Square Feet: 796
Bedrooms: 1
Baths: 1

Hidden Potential

Five years into living in a 2,000-square-foot South Portland condo, artist and interior designer Josepha Hegan decided, “This is ridiculous; it’s just me!” She looked for a small house in her favored mid-century style (historically not a favorite of Maine builders) for two years before she found a derelict 1969 shed-roofed ranch with beige vinyl siding and rust-colored shutters two miles from her condo. “It reminded me of the dairy bar my dad took me to as a kid,” Hegan says. The day after closing on the place, in 2019, she took a sledgehammer to a wall between the living room and what had been a tiny bedroom, and began plotting her reinvention. “Pretty much everyone I knew was horrified,” Hegan says with a laugh. “They thought I’d gone around the bend. But I knew what it could be.”

Josepha Hegan's 796 square foot 1969 shed-roofed ranch
Photo by Josepha Hegan

Fab Rehab

Working with local contractors Pete Palozzi and Tom Webster, Hegan rewired, plumbed, and dry-walled the entire house and traded wall-to-wall carpeting for stained-maple flooring. The former bedroom became a dining nook off the living area with a vintage tulip table and a new sliding glass door leading to the backyard. Behind the dining space, Hegan annexed a linen closet to create a larger bath with a stacked washer and dryer. In the galley kitchen, she updated the existing cabinets with glossy black paint, new hardware, and quartz countertops and installed a live-edge pine counter from Lovell’s Western Maine Slabworks beneath a pair of windows. Vintage and vintage-inspired elements, such as the kitchen’s UFO-like metal ceiling fixture and the bath’s groovy geometric floor tile, play up the home’s period details, including a tapered pine fireplace surround in the living room and a paneled Douglas-fir front door Hegan uncovered beneath layers of paint.

When guests sleep on the pull-out sofa in the living-dining space (middle left and right), Hegan sections off the area with a folding screen. Sunset shades set off her bedroom (upper left and bottom left). Photos by Rachel Sieben

Punchy Palette

The other side of the door is painted chartreuse, setting off vertical wood siding Hegan found beneath the vinyl and finished in a midnight-blue shade. Accent walls in the kitchen and living room mirror the exterior colors, creating a seamless transition. “I love color, but I didn’t want to divide the space into segments,” says Hegan, who juxtaposed ivory on the rest of the walls (except in her bedroom, which is rendered in a fiery coral). Many pieces from Hegan’s eclectic collection of art and furnishings have found homes here, but some basics have been hard to fit. “Right now, the dog bed’s in the shower so we don’t trip over it,” Hegan said on a recent afternoon. As for her stash of tea, “I’m not a cook, so I keep it in the oven.”

850 square foot cottage by Woodhull
What the home’s “Pizza Hut roof” (added in the ’70s) lacked in architectural merit, it made up for in construction, says Caleb Johnson (pictured at the grill). “It’s remarkably well built.” Photo by Trent Bell

Custom Cottage

Square Feet: 850
Bedrooms: 4
Baths: 2
Architect, General Contractor, and Millwork: Woodhull
Landscape Designer: Soren Deniord Design Studio

Clean Slate

The 1940s Biddeford beach house that architect Caleb Johnson and Shannon Richards purchased in 2016 “should have been a teardown,” Johnson says. “Kind of ugly” and crowned with a “Pizza Hut roof,” it had a shaky pier foundation, a leaking wall, and mildewy carpeting atop rotting floor joists. But after two years living there part-time with their blended family, the couple became attached. Johnson and Richards, who run separate design-build firms, also knew that, if given an empty lot, they’d probably erect a “modern, flat-roofed box that would stick out like a sore thumb” in their Hills Beach neighborhood of traditional cottages, Johnson says. So they poured a new concrete foundation, gutted the place, and “bathed it in beautiful materials” instead.

Built Like a Boat

The couple estimates they saved 75 square feet by opting for nautical-inspired built-in cabinetry over closets, helping to pack an open kitchen-dining-living area, four bedrooms, and two baths into what had been a three-bedroom, one-bath home. In the primary bedroom, a trapezoidal walnut-paneled wall doubles as a headboard with integrated his-and-hers wardrobes. The kids’ rooms are equipped with antique trunks for storage and foam mattresses (stashed beneath platform beds) to facilitate sleepovers. In the dining area, the couple designed a 12-foot-long leather-and-maple banquette and a pair of walnut pedestal tables they can push together when they’re hosting a crowd. From a seat at the table or in the adjacent living space, the family can watch Saco Bay through a wide stretch of glass or TV on a screen mounted next to the windows (and concealed behind a curtain when not in use).

Whimsical wallpaper, a carved-wood backsplash by Johnson in a bath (top right), salvaged doors from Kennebunk’s Old House Parts, and built-ins in nearly every room lend layers of character to the interior. Photos by Trent Bell

Good Material

“With a small house, we weren’t forced to cut corners on materials to cut costs,” says Johnson, who worked with his team to design sleek walnut kitchen cabinetry without plywood, fasteners, or hardware. A steel-topped floating base cabinet incorporates an end panel of artfully arranged nails by Brunswick sculptor John Bisbee. The interior walls are clad in textural, unpainted plaster (as opposed to “unsexy” Sheetrock), while the exterior is sheathed in thick eastern-white-cedar siding and roof shingles “that’ll take a very long time to degrade,” Johnson says. “We’ll be dead.” A door off the kitchen gives way to a rear patio and patch of grass pavers (squares of plastic cells that grass can grow through) that serves as a “party lawn” and parking area. “We regularly host 20 people here,” Richards says. “You might be eating with a plate on your lap, but because it’s so open, it works.”

James Salomon's 950 square foot ranch
A nearby home inspired the ranch’s rich navy shade (repeated on furnishings and accents inside) and James Salomon selected the citrusy front-door color. Photo by James Salomon

Ranch Revival

Square Feet: 950
Bedrooms: 2
Baths: 1
General Contractor (Bath, Deck): Richard Auclair

Empty Nesters

After raising their children in a 4,816-square-foot Portland Queen Anne, James and Susan Salomon were ready to downsize. “We had all these rooms where I’d walk through and be like, I haven’t been in here in a month,” says Susan, a psychotherapist. They sold the house quickly, in 2021, and needed somewhere to go. So they decamped to their nearby rental, a small 1944 ranch James, a photographer, had renovated with former carpenter Frank Menair five years earlier. Moving to a house that’s one-fifth the size of their old place “was a great exercise in, ‘Do we need this thing?’” Susan says. Happily, many of their favorite furnishings and nearly all of their artwork fit. The rest they gave away or relocated to their summerhouse and a spacious new backyard shed. When it arrived, James heard their young neighbor exclaim, “Dad, the shed’s almost as big as their house!”

Opening Up

To combat claustrophobia in the cramped living room, James and Menair removed a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall ceiling and built a loft, accessible by ladder, in a former attic. A steel-and-cedar balustrade around the loft (which houses an office) and nickel-gap paneling on the new vaulted ceiling add architectural oomph. The pair also took down a wall between the living space and kitchen, which received new appliances, ceramic-tile flooring, and IKEA cabinetry. Before moving in, James and Susan found more ways to optimize the footprint. Swapping a heater that sat on the living-room floor for a heat pump mounted near the ceiling freed up space for a beloved antique blanket chest. In the tiny bath, where James had cut a notch in the door to keep it from hitting the toilet, they installed a new smaller toilet, a two-foot-wide, glass-walled shower where a larger tub had been, and a petite quartz-topped vanity (and repaired the door, which now swings freely).

James and Susan Salomon ordered the living room’s sculptural wooden pendant (top left) after James accidentally recycled the box that held their initial, pricier choice. “I’m kind of OCD and like to get rid of clutter,” he says ruefully. Photos by James Salomon

Curb Appeal

Fresh navy and coral paint on the ranch’s shingles (previously covered in vinyl siding) and front door, respectively, packs a near-complementary punch, while a tidy crushed-rock path doubles as a drip edge. Behind the home, a new deck and crushed-rock patio, snuggled up against perennial gardens, expand the couple’s living space. “It feels really comfortable here,” Susan says. “But there have been tradeoffs. We can’t fit all of our kitchen stuff, so this morning I was baking banana bread and I’m like, where’s that pan? Oh, it’s in the shed.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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