written by Melissa Dalton | photos by Shauna Intelisano
Many people celebrate a house purchase with champagne. Not Portland couple Jen Wantland and Bryan Scott. When they bought their 1977 ranch in 2008, Scott reached for a sledgehammer.
“Jen was still at work when I got the keys at 3 p.m.,” Scott said. “By the time she got home, I had already ripped out the entire kitchen.”
Wantland wasn’t surprised. “It was the ugliest house on the street,” she said. Although surrounded by tidy bungalows in a desirable Southeast Portland neighborhood, this house had sat neglected. Not that the neighbors could see much. A fifteen-foot-tall hedge separated the home from the sidewalk. In short order, the couple remodeled the entire interior, removed the hedge and built a climbing wall in the two-car garage for fun.
In 2010, jobs relocated them to British Columbia. “Once we knew we were leaving, we started downsizing our stuff,” Scott said. This enabled them to fit into a small studio in Vancouver and rent out their Portland ranch.
In Vancouver, Wantland clocked sixty-hour workweeks in merchandising for Lululemon Athletica, Scott was equally busy as a consultant at a tech firm. “At one point for my job, I was traveling up to twenty-six days a month,” he said. They soon realized that their professional success came at too high of a personal cost. “The live-work balance just wasn’t there,” Scott said. One day, Wantland suggested they quit their jobs and take a long vacation to “get away and reset.” They began saving money for a road trip down the Pan-American Highway through Mexico and Central America. After months of planning, they embarked in June of 2012, ultimately traveling over 18,000 miles in a 1967 VW bus through ten countries.
A year after their departure, the couple missed their Oregon home. “We realized that it wasn’t Portland that we were running away from—it was the lifestyle that we had before,” Scott said. The question became: “Instead of being gone for two years and wasting all of the money, how do we put that money to better use?” Scott said.
Their epiphany came in a flash: renovate their unused garage into a separate apartment for themselves, keep renting out the main house and live mortgage-free. Their plan proved promising. The city was waiving system development charges for new accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which would save them thousands of construction dollars. Scott could also resurrect his dormant Master’s of Architecture degree to design the ADU’s interior. By November of 2013, they were back in Portland picking up sledgehammers again, this time, to demolish the climbing wall and craft their new home.
Today, the 480-square-foot former garage feels spacious due to Scott’s smart design, which takes advantage of ten-foot ceilings and simple materials to fashion a modern industrial loft. For the layout, he allotted substantial room to common areas, since the couple enjoys entertaining. A full-sized kitchen and eat-in bar occupy one side of the room, while a comfy lounge area with gas fireplace and TV is nestled opposite. Behind the kitchen, Scott tucked a generously sized bathroom. Then he lofted the bed in the other corner, freeing up space underneath for a utility room with laundry units and storage.
Throughout the five-month build, Wantland and Scott managed the construction and executed the finish work themselves. In doing so, they put materials like plywood, concrete, steel and reclaimed wood to stylish and space-saving ends. In the kitchen, a skeleton of matte-finished steel tubing (welded by Scott) encases reclaimed Douglas fir to form the functional built-in cabinetry. At the island, a discreet hinge under the tabletop—and caster wheels below—allow the counter to swivel ninety degrees and become a table for six. Over the kitchen sink, a metal tube mounted to the ceiling suspends simple pendant lights and forms the track for the bathroom’s sliding door. In the bathroom, the walls and ceiling were plastered in waterproof concrete to create one large wet room, with ample elbow space for a double walk-in shower. Light pours in from a skylight, which recreates the atmosphere of the outdoor showers they frequently used during their trip.
On one memorable day during construction, the old garage’s opening was replaced with a sixteen-foot accordion glass door, which brings in light on rainy days and maintains an important connection to the outdoors. “We had just spent a year living in a van,” Scott said. “We slept with the cargo doors wide open every night.”
On the day that the new door was installed, the garage’s conversion into a home was complete. “The whole place transformed from a dark, cave-like garage with a rickety wooden door to a really cool day-lit, Zen-like space,” Scott said. Just outside, they swapped the old driveway slab for more artful hardscaping. A privacy screen and plantings shield a hot tub and seating area, providing an outdoor retreat, while a custom steel-and-wood pergola adds interest to the façade and defines the entryway.
On their April 2014 moving day, furniture was scarce. “We had two camp chairs and an air mattress,” Wantland said. Scott welded several stools, and they now enjoy sitting at the counter, opening the accordion door, and engaging with the neighborhood. “We’ve met more neighbors while living here than we ever did before,” Wantland said. After fielding numerous inquiries about their unique abode, they channeled their experience with downsizing and living small into a new livelihood. “This literally changed our life, so it’s something we’re very passionate about,” Scott said. Now through their firm, Zenbox Design, they design small spaces and craft custom furniture.
Since building their ADU and opening Zenbox, Wantland and Scott have gained the life-work balance absent years ago. “Our goal was to create a life that we didn’t need a vacation from,” Scott said. Wantland agreed. “There’s not one right path,” she said. “As long as you’re happy, feeling fulfilled and being true to yourself—I think that’s the whole point.”