zenbox design

Designing Small Homes and Full Lives With zenbox design


Meet Bryan and Jen Danger, a couple who quit their jobs in 2012 to live and travel in a van on a quest to “find themselves”. They returned with little money and had no choice but to convert their garage into a home. This life-changing & down-sizing experience led Bryan and Jen to launch zenbox design, and have since dedicated their lives to planning and designing small homes, also known as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s), for clients looking to down-size and spend less time inside, and more time outside, exploring the world.

Here, Bryan shares his thoughts on the growing Portland small-house movement, the significance of building small, and the relevance of interior design in small-homes.

Photography courtesy of Shauna Intelisano

zenbox design, based in Portland, was founded by couple Bryan and Jen Danger. What life experiences led Bryan and Jen to design small-homes, officially known as “Accessory Dwelling Units”?

We had jobs that kept us working far too many hours and with far too much stress.  We finally decided to downsize, grow our savings and eventually quit our jobs, move into our van and run away to “find ourselves” in 2012.  When we returned to Portland, we had purged all of our belongings, had no income and very little savings.  The one thing we did still have was our house, which we wanted to move back into but couldn’t afford the mortgage.
After moving from place to place, it dawned on us that we had a garage going completely unused and that the garage would seem like a large home to us (compared to the van).  The plan meant our tenants would keep paying our mortgage for us, which in turn would allow us to live simply and free…using our new home as more of a “home base” for our continued travels.  In Portland, almost all properties allow for a second dwelling unit like this, which is officially designated as an ADU (accessory dwelling unit).

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What particularly draws the zenbox team to small spaces?
Our new small home literally changed our life.

It allows us to live mortgage free.  It allows us to live simply but also in our perfectly custom designed home and to feel like we are waking up in a stylish resort setting each morning.  It provides us with a “home base” to travel from, and even a place to rent out on the side when traveling.  It has also now turned into a “job”, where we are getting paid to do what we love…which is helping others design and build small spaces to help transition their lives and lifestyles as well.

The small-house movement is really catching on in Portland – why do you think that is?

Good Question.

Portland is made up of a group of people that have a different mindset than most places we’ve lived/traveled/visited. Very few people in Portland are concerned with having more “stuff” or bragging about the size of their home.  Most people here are concerned more about happiness in their day to day lifestyle and with finding ways to be outdoors more often and doing what they love.

It also doesn’t hurt that our city is growing exponentially at the moment, and that has had a huge effect on rent/mortgage prices, which has everyone looking for solutions. Since rent/mortgage is one of if not the largest expense most people have to deal with, it’s by far the easiest way to begin transforming your lifestyle.

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Who is the typical zenbox client? Why do your clients desire down-sizing to small-homes?

We have a broad range of clients, from those looking to downsize and move into a small home, to those looking for a little extra income on the side to offset their mortgage, to those looking for a place to house an aging parent or a child not yet ready to flee the nest.
The best part of ADUs is that they can truly adapt over time as a family’s needs change.  Most ADU’s will likely play all of the above roles at some point in its lifespan.
Can you name some projects you are particularly proud of?
Our home, the “zen loft” is still one of our favorites…likely because of the profound impact it has had on our lifestyles.  We just wrapped up another project that we are really proud of called the “eco ADU” which is a beautiful two story design complete with custom furniture/built-ins and a green/living roof despite being only 460 sqft. We also have several projects in various phases of design at the moment that we are thrilled to see move into construction!
Each project for us has a different flare, focus and passion; which comes mostly from the input, feedback and passions of those clients we are partnering with to make them happen.

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In your opinion, what are the benefits of living in an accessory dwelling unit?

As mentioned earlier, it’s primarily about the flexibility, both immediately and over the lifespan of the building. There is really no other way for most homeowners to get such an immediate increase in value and/or income from a property they already own… nonetheless one that can change to fit their family’s needs over time.

Several of our clients will rent out the ADU immediately for maximum income to payoff the investment over a few years.  Many will transition into renting the ADU longer term or for lower cost housing as they need less from the unit. Several still will move into the ADU in the future as their kids move away so that they can remain in their neighborhood but live smaller while renting out the main/larger house to a bigger family for greater income.
Furthermore, why is it important in this day and age to build small?
Building/Living small solves so many issues and problems.

The simple fact is that there isn’t enough land for all of us and our population is growing rapidly.  Portland is an excellent example of a city going through massive growth as countless people flood in from other parts of the country.  With these new residents comes rapidly increasing housing prices and many people getting forced out of their own neighborhoods.  We can either tear down all of the historic homes to make way for modern condo-filled boxes, or we can try something different.  ADUs are one way to preserve the historic look and feel of our neighborhoods while increasing density.  It also provides a reduced mortgage or increased income to existing homeowners, which allows them to stay in the city and neighborhoods that they love.

Small homes don’t have to mean living with less or living in strife.  They simply mean a shifting lifestyle that often includes spending more time outside of your home.  Suddenly, because we live in a small home we find ourselves with lower monthly payments, which allows us more freedom.  That freedom/extra time/extra money usually means we find ourselves out enjoying our neighborhood more, spending more time in the community with friends/family/neighbors and exploring/traveling/seeing the world.

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How does zenbox typically work with interior designers?
We most often work as both the designer and interior designer for a project because these tiny homes often require custom pieces in order to maximize storage space and functionality.  Before we started designing small homes, we were designing/fabricating custom furniture and details, which inevitably spills over into our custom home designs.  We have also had clients come to the table with a focused interior designer they want to work with, which is great for the collaborative nature of our design process.

What kinds of modifications do interior designers need to consider when designing a small-home?

I think most designers approach small home design the same as they would any home design, which unfortunately results in a space divided into many smaller spaces and filled with too much clutter.

We believe strongly that minimal design is the way to maximize space in small homes. The less walls and division of space, the better.  We tend to approach our small home designs more like sailboat design. Most boats (and most efficient/comfortable small homes) have one major space that serves all functions of a home.  Most pieces of furniture in well-designed small homes also should serve more than one function, or have the ability to transform into something else depending on time of day or what function is being carried out in the space at that time.

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What’s your focus for 2017?

We have been working hard to reduce our client load – to take only the select few clients with whom we have a very similar passion and vision.  We are excited to be able to dive into each project in more depth and focus more on the details and custom pieces that truly make these projects successful and that allow our clients to live in a small space that feels and acts much, much larger than it actually is.

We are also excited to see a trend of more clients planning to move into/live in the small home right away, as it means a much deeper level of interest and commitment to the project.  To most of our recent clients, we aren’t designing their “small home”, we are simply designing their “perfect home”.

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