PIngpong, Prince, and Permits: a backyard Cottage Story

“Where’s the bed?” That’s what most people ask upon entering Paul and Caroline’s 400- square-foot, backyard cottage. (Spolier: It’s a queen-sized Murphy, tucked neatly away in a poplar wood cabinet constructed by Paul).

But you’d be forgiven for first noticing the spoons and forks—purchased from Goodwill and serving as drawer pulls and cabinet handles. Or the hanging cheese grater light cover in the kitchen. Then there’s the small shrine to the musician Prince (to say Caroline is a huge fan is an understatement).


No matter where your eyes alight, it’s clear that this home is unique to its owners. And it all started with a pingpong table.


In 2014, after several years living in their Fremont house, Paul decided to tear down the garage in the backyard and create a space for his pingpong table. During that renovation process, he and Caroline got the idea to add a second floor to use it as their living space. Paul, a skilled builder, would design and build the structure. Caroline liked the idea of a change after several years in their current house on the property.

With all of the skill and purpose between the couple, why did Paul and Caroline hire Microhouse? Paul puts it simply: “Bureaucracy.”

Despite his ability to create the plans and build the home from top to bottom—doing all the framing, electrical and plumbing himself—he was hesitant to deal with the City of Seattle permitting process. Enter Bruce Parker of Microhouse.

“Bruce is so helpful because he's good at [dealing with the bureaucracy],” says Caroline. “It makes for a good team.”

Having lived in their backyard cottage for two years, is there anything Paul and Caroline would change about it?

“I might not make the roof as steep,” says Paul, who designed it with Caroline to be consistent with neighboring homes. Now, he says, flat roofs have popped up all around them. “I don't have room to put big ladders and scaffolding up around here,” he says, worried for the day he’ll have to do roof maintenance or repairs. “I would have thought about roof access a little bit more.”

For Caroline’s part, she’d go with a quieter heating system. While the convection heating works well, the loud fan bothers her. Paul comments that it’s too late to change it, then reconsiders. “Well, it's not too late. I can replace that with a radiant panel.” He pauses. “But then I'd need a bigger wall space.” Caroline laughs at this prospect. And Paul seems to agree with her sentiment. “When you're in a small space, everything affects something else,” he says.

But what the couple loves about their home far outweighs any regrets. For Paul, his favorite thing about the cottage is the light.When you wake up, the morning light glows. It doesn't actually shine through our windows onto us, it just glows.”


Caroline agrees that the light is their home’s best feature. A close second is the color. While her natural inclination was to paint the cottage purple, a neighbor had expressed negativity about it. So she waited for new inspiration. It came during a trip to her native San Francisco.


“I was walking through the Alamo Square neighborhood and I looked up at the blue sky. I thought. Wow. This is it. So I went down to the Sherman Williams and looked at their color palette.” She points out the window to the exterior color. “This is it!” (It’s officially “Quench Blue,” but Paul refers to it as “the pool.”)

In a more subtle ode to Prince, a purple bistro table and chairs sit outside the home, where Caroline enjoys her morning coffee and solitude. And a Prince-themed Little Free Library on the parking strip greets friends and neighbors. For Caroline, it’s these details—like the spoons and forks and the hanging cheese grater—that make the cottage home. And well worth the trade-off for a smaller living space. 


Her advice to anyone thinking about moving into a backyard cottage is simple. “You have to downsize. It’s doable, but you have to think twice about ‘stuff.’ I got rid of a lot of books, and I’m still figuring out where to store my clothes.”


Paul, as the builder, has two contradictory pieces of advice to would-be cottage dwellers. “One: it's all certainly possible. I mean, if one guy can build this, it can be done. You don't need PhD to do it. But you need to do it. People think, ‘Oh I'll get in an hour or two every weekend’. It's like, you're never going to have a house. That's not going to happen. So along with the, ‘Anybody could do it’ advice, it takes a lot more time and effort than you think. So you either get after it or stop dreaming. One of the two.”