This article was originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of Sonoma Magazine.
Justin Koenig and Jennifer Potts live with their two young sons in a home smaller than many kitchens. If that sounds cramped, it isn’t until you step inside the 320-square-foot house at Glen Ellen’s Bouverie Preserve that you truly appreciate just how tight it really is. With just a few steps, a visitor has completed the tour of the kitchen, living room, bathroom, and single closet. On either end of the tiny home are bedroom lofts — one for Kai, 6, and Toby, 9, the other for their parents.
The couple, who have been together since high school, have to be careful not to bang their heads on the ceiling when they get out of bed. Their morning routine in the kitchen is more like a dance. “There’s definitely a choreography we’re figuring out,” says Justin, a physical therapist. “I see her going for the milk, so I step over here to the toaster. You are definitely more aware of each other’s space.”
During storms, wind causes the entire house to sway. “It’s like living on a boat, basically,” says Jennifer. She is a wildlife and fire ecologist for Audubon Canyon Ranch, which owns the 535-acre preserve. Her job is the reason why the couple are afforded the rare opportunity of raising their boys in such a world-class setting. But as a concession to the preserve’s mission and in exchange for living rentfree on the site, the couple must maintain a small footprint on the landscape.
What their tiny home lacks in space, however, is more than made up for by its hillside setting. From their deck, the family enjoys an amazing view of Sonoma Valley Regional Park and Sonoma Mountain. The surrounding preserve offers limitless opportunities for the boys to explore and play. On a sun-dappled Saturday morning, Kai races an electric scooter he got for Christmas up and down the tree-lined road leading to the house, without concern for other vehicles. “That’s a pretty sweet backyard,” Jennifer says.
On spring and summer days, she delivers lunch to the boys in their tree fort via a bucket and rope-and-pulley system attached to the house. The family scours creeks for invasive crayfish, which they freeze and give to Audubon Canyon staff to feed to otters. Or they go swimming in a large pool at the former home of David Bouverie, the late London architect whose name graces the property. Frequent visitors include red-tailed hawks, deer, bobcats, and an occasional mountain lion. “They may not have city smarts. But they know how to identify birds,” Jennifer says of her boys. At night, the family soaks in a hot tub on the deck beneath a universe of stars.
Still, family closeness can at times feel claustrophobic. The family resorts to placing a Rubbermaid storage bin in the shower so their younger son can indulge his preference for taking a bath. And it’s so loud at times that Justin retreats to his Chevrolet Volt to make work calls and answer emails. In a nod to his mental health, he schedules an hour of alone time every Tuesday night in the bedroom loft, where he dons headphones and watches shows on his cellphone. Jennifer, who seems more comfortable with chaos, says she’d be fine living in a cave, without any amenities other than her cappuccino maker.
The couple concede their lifestyle is not for everyone. But they consider themselves fortunate, two years after their former residence at Bouverie Preserve was destroyed in the 2017 Nuns fire. The night the October inferno erupted, the family drove away from the preserve, sensing no imminent danger from a blaze that, at the time, appeared to be burning far in the distance. Jennifer returned the following morning to retrieve more of the family’s belongings. Instead, she drove up the hill just in time to watch their home catch fire and burn to the ground. Shocking? Yes. But she also acknowledges feeling relatively comforted by the spectacle, which she captured on video. “You think of all the people who didn’t know [whether their home was lost] for two weeks, and I watched it go down,” she says.
The couple saved some of their most meaningful possessions, including love letters and cards they gave to one another when they were dating. But they had to replace most everything else. They say the process of downsizing their lives — what they refer to as “decluttering” — has been cathartic, even freeing. “It was awesome, because you got to start from scratch,” Justin says. “Everything we acquired was necessary.”
The couple’s greatest sense of loss in the aftermath of the fire was over no longer having access to the preserve and space for their boys to grow in nature. Knowing they faced steep odds to rebuild any structures on the protected acreage of the preserve, Jennifer approached her employer with an idea to put a tiny home on the site. Justin spent hours researching options online. And then one day, the couple were watching an episode of “Tiny House Nation” when they were drawn to a home featured on the program, which turned out to be for sale. Audubon Canyon Ranch purchased the house for $55,000 and the family had it shipped to California.
Jennifer was at the preserve on the summer day in August 2018 when the cozy abode arrived on a trailer pulled by a pickup. “It was so cool. It came up the road,” she recalls. “There’s our home.”