Downsizing from a big house has its upside, that’s for sure: There’s less square footage to heat and cool, fewer rooms to declutter and clean. The trick is to figure out a compact size that’s just right, one where you use every inch but don’t feel cramped. That was the puzzle Steve and Janet Dowd were trying to solve as they prepared to leave the rambling, suburban Laguna Hills, California, house where they had raised their two sons and move full-time to Steve’s childhood home.

The 1940s cottage offered many pluses. Located about 300 feet from Newport Bay, the house featured a private courtyard and a living room with a charming, vaulted wood ceiling. On the minus side, it was a one-story, nondescript stucco house that totaled just 1,225 square feet; their old house held 3,800. The 8½-foot-wide kitchen would never suit serious cook Steve, and the dining room was barely bigger than a hallway, with no room for Janet’s heirloom hutch. Plus, only one of three small bedrooms had a closet, and it was tiny.

Built-in Bookcase

By the time the couple turned to local architect Carol Tink-Fox for help, their wish list had grown to include an office for Steve, a proper master suite, a laundry room, and a guest suite for visiting family, as well as a larger kitchen. They also wanted to maximize storage and views of the bay—all without destroying the vintage cottage’s character. “We really wanted to keep the house as close to original as possible,” says Steve.

Given the home’s narrow, 45-by-97-foot lot, Tink-Fox knew a second-floor addition was the only way to get the Dowds any extra space, as well as those water views. So she created a two-story section in the central portion of the house. The back, street-facing side of the house, where the garage is located, remained unchanged. But everything between it and the kitchen—the dining room, three bedrooms, a bath and a half—came down. “We essentially built a new two-story house between the kitchen and the garage,” says the architect.

Chloe, the couple’s Cavalier King Charles spaniel, got a cozy nook away from foot traffic in the bottom of a built-in bookcase, complete with doggie door and bed

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