James’ Bernal Heights Re-Make/Re-Model

published Feb 2, 2010
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Name: James Nestor
Location: Bernal Heights, San Francisco, CA
Size: 930 square feet
Years lived in: 2.5 years, owned

We were elated that James Nestor agreed to do a house tour of his amazing home. Initially, he seemed surprised that we’d want to showcase his diminutive, but unique Bernal Heights digs, but we were able to detect the deserved pride he has for his place, a house that he transformed from an unlivable dump into an inviting, visually-appealing, and space-efficient home.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

James, a globe-trotting freelance writer and the author of “Get High Now,” was looking to buy a house in 2005, during the height of the real estate boom. After four months of finding that almost everything out there was too expensive or was being fought over in frenzied bidding wars he came upon his current home.

When he first saw the house it was in a nightmarish state; potential buyers were actually walking out of it looking disgusted and horrified. Because the 1880 building was built from concrete made out of sand, the foundation was falling apart. The downstairs area was not up to code; it had strange walled-off areas, and a large gravity heater took up a large chunk of the space. The upstairs was slightly more livable, yet definitely not move-in-ready.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Against all odds and advice from weary realtors, he bought the house. James decided to create two homes from one — the upstairs space he remodeled into a nice, but conservatively-done home and sold; the downstairs he completely gutted and built-up afresh for himself.

He saw the space as a tabula rasa, which he could make perfectly fit for himself. He knocked down walls, expanded spaces, and created a bathroom where most wouldn’t think possible. Although James lists his home as 930 square feet, the actual square footage of livable space is about 650-700 square feet. The extra square footage includes a mechanical room and storage area. To avoid feeling cramped in some of the compact areas in his home, he used inspiration from tiny sailboat kitchens and bathrooms in Central American motels, where designers have to make the best use of the smallest amount of space.

James mixes all sorts of styles, pieces, and odds and ends in his decor, but it doesn’t come across as a disordered jumble; we feel it suits James pretty aptly, a guy who quotes Oscar Wilde and makes scientific element jokes in his AT House Tour Questionnaire.

AT Survey:

My/Our style: Ambition is the last refuge of failure.

Inspiration: For function, sailboat hulls; for aesthetics, I always liked the look of the rooms in 2001 (the movie, not the year). I also love the feel and look of cheap, antiquated Central American motels.

Favorite Element: Carbon

Biggest Challenge: Making something from nothing. I built this flat from the ground up. For structural reasons, the layout was nuts and looked like there was no way it could work and be livable in the end. Ended up I had to fit a kitchen in a 5 1/2′ x 11′ space. Bathroom was about 7′ x 7′. That was a challenge.

What Friends Say: They love the “multipurpose” room. They should — they are in it watching movies, eating free food at dinner parties, drinking my Tecates. I think I need new friends.

Biggest Embarrassment: Lack of condiments. That’s because I have a cocktail fridge; a full-size fridge would not fit in my kitchen. Truth be told, I’ve found that anyone living alone with a real fridge is a wasteful fool. It’s an unnecessary energy drain. Small fridges save space for other cool stuff, save loads of electricity, and best of all, force you to eat fresh. They don’t hold too much ketchup, but you’ll soon find out ketchup is gross anyway.

Proudest DIY: I built the flat with no budget and no time, using the cheapest stuff I could find. I tried to find cool, old, cheap stuff first and if that didn’t work I deferred to outlets. By some trick of logic I ended up really digging it.

Biggest Indulgence: I bought an $1100 custom sofa, which, for sofas, is cheap, but for me at the time, was a stretch. I spend most of my time at home so figured I should get something I liked and that was comfortable.

Best advice: Never listen to realtors. They print their faces on their business cards. Worse, they work in a vacuum and can’t comprehend anything outside of their little, creepy world. Every realtor said my place would be way too dark, too dank, too small, too awkward, unlivable, and would decrease the value of the house. They were wrong on everything.

Dream source: Craigslist, flea markets, and handouts from design-fickle friends.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)


Appliances: I have no idea. I love my little stove. I could get that name for you. Not much else beyond that.

Hardware: Vintage or standard stuff from Home Depot.

Furniture: Eames, EQ3 sofa, assorted Ikea, custom-made pieces.

Lighting: All lighting is recessed. I just used the cheap recessed lights from Home Depot.

Paint: Kelly-Moore

Flooring: Bamboo from the back of some guy’s house in South San Francisco. He bought way too much and sold it all to me for a few hundred (which saved me a few thousand).

Rugs and Carpets: People gave me them. I don’t know what they are.

Tiles and Stone: Glass tile in kitchen and bath custom from ModWalls.

Window Treatments: I used industral casements from a company in Emeryville that usually only builds stuff for hotels.

Beds: I use the same bed I had in college — and that was a LONG time ago!

Artwork: I splurged on a huge display of Jeff Morris art back in 1999 when I had some cash. I can’t believe I’ve have it for 10 years. This sounds cheesy, but his stuff is timeless — all great art is. The rest of the stuff is paint-by-numbers and assorted stuff I inherited.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

(Thanks, James!)

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