As my mother’s memory gets shorter, the East Coast winters that seep into her bones tend to get longer — especially when she forgets to turn up the thermostat. Mom and Dad are fierce, independent types, but it’s getting to the point where they may need to be near somebody who will look in on them every night. So I started looking into converting our two-car garage into a Granny (and Grampy) flat. “Cheer up,” I told Patrick as he grumbled over packing up his workshop. “When the kids move back in and take over the house after grad school, you and I can move out here for some peace and quiet.”
A few calls to the city (San Diego) got me a list of basic requirements for converting a garage into a collection of habitable rooms. (Codes and requirements vary from place to place — be sure to check this out!) Habitable rooms are required to receive natural light on at least 10 percent of the floor square footage — a minimum of ten square feet. Rooms must have natural ventilation — at least 5 percent of the floor square footage. Rooms used for sleeping must have an escape or rescue window. Ceiling heights must be a minimum of 7´6˝. Rooms must be provided with heating facilities capable of maintaining room temperature at 70 degrees. A smoke-detection device must be installed. At least one wall-controlled light must be installed in space. Electrical wall outlets must be spaced so that no point along the floor is more than six feet from an outlet. And the private garage may not have an opening into a room used for sleeping purposes.
So much for habitable... What about pleasant? The space was small; how to keep it from feeling cramped — how to keep Mom and Dad from feeling like they’d been stuffed into a corner? I decided to make my very first stop with Beverly Feldman, ASID, of Space San Diego in Little Italy (619-237-0727; spacesandiego.com). “Our whole focus is to maximize your living space,” said Feldman. “What’s unique about us is that, even though we have products in the store, as interior designers, we’re not bound only to the products we sell. We help people who are challenged with downsizing; we want to help people figure out how to live in their space better.”
For example, “When you live in a bigger home, you tend to buy bigger furniture.” If you’re downsizing, your overstuffed couch and matching chairs can start approaching Brobdingnagian proportions. “When you live in a smaller space, your furnishings — and their layout — become much more critical. We currently offer design packages that include furniture, typically on a smaller scale, to make your space feel bigger.”
Those design packages employ what Feldman called “Go solutions.” “The first is, ‘Go vertical.’ A great example would be stacking chairs or stools [prices start at $90]. The next is, ‘Go hidden.’ That’s an obvious one when it comes to things like Murphy beds. Another example would be the Razel Liftup Bed [prices vary by size, queen bed is $1549]. The whole mattress lifts up for storage underneath; you can put bulky things like pillows and blankets in there. And it has a chocolate leather headboard and surround; it’s quite nice. A third ‘Go hidden’ solution is the concealed door, which converts existing doorways into fully functional built-in bookcases, while retaining access to the room. You can also put a concealed door in front of a closet. The closet is then hidden by a bookshelf.”
Go solution number three was, “Go flexible.” “An example of that would be our table bed [queen-size starts at $3895]. The table can be used as a dining table or a desk, so they’re very popular for guest rooms that double as home offices. In a garage conversion, it might be your dining room table — the bed pulls down over the table in one easy motion. And for a high-end solution that’s both hidden and flexible, there’s the Zoom Room [$6795, cabinetry extra]. It’s a motorized bed; with the touch of a button on a wireless remote, the bed descends from behind a custom cabinet. Another push of a button, and it retracts, climbing vertically behind the cabinet. It’s great for the elderly, because it takes no effort to take out or put away the bed. And you can add bookshelves, a television, or an art display in the nine inches in front where the bed is hidden.”
“Go built-in,” said Feldman, “is about conforming your furnishings to the space. A 12-inch cabinet fills up more than 12 inches because of its baseboards. If you build a cabinet in, it takes up less room. Also, you can go floor-to-ceiling, which fits under ‘Go vertical.’ Built-ins are integral, a small solution that can make a big difference.”
Finally, there was “Go architectural.” “This has to do with glass, mirrors, and lights. For a garage conversion, lighting is critical. It’s important to light any space correctly, but especially a small space because you have to play up all your assets to be able to appreciate however many square feet you have. The best is flexible lighting from above. We love rail or cable lighting. They’re similar to track lighting, but more sophisticated. They both enable you to put the light fixture anywhere on the cable or rail, and then train it where the light needs to go.” The light can then work with the glass. “Instead of putting up a full wall to divide two rooms, try a glass divider. It lets light through,” and light is expansive. “There is stunning architectural glass available out there, but if that’s too costly, even just frosted glass would work well. Mirrors work with the light as well, bouncing it around to give the impression of more space. Used incorrectly, mirrors can be cheesy. But when you use them discretely, you don’t notice the mirror right away — you notice how large the room seems.”