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The design alone of this 600-square-foot home situated in coastal Maine is impressive. Full of natural elements and simple yet sophisticated touches, it’s the picture of elevated minimalism. The house becomes exponentially more impressive, however, when you consider that the homeowners built the entire thing themselves—from scratch, in about nine months, and using only a small crew in the dead of a snowy winter to pull everything together. 

Julie O’Rourke, founder of kidswear brand Rudy Jude, and her husband, Anthony Esteves, crafted their home atop a five-acre plot that they share with Esteves’s mother. “We both love early New England architecture and the rural vernacular of Maine,” O’Rourke says. “It was important for us to have homes that settle themselves easily into the natural environment, both with shape and material use.” 

Photography by Julie O’Rourke

Photography by Greta Rybus

The home—affectionately dubbed the Soot House after the deep black, fermented, soot-based paint that coats its exterior—feels surprisingly spacious given its size. The couple and their two children rely on simple pieces in timeless silhouettes and durable materials to marry function and form in limited square footage.

Photography by Greta Rybus

By buying most of their furniture locally—luckily there’s an abundance of antiques shops nearby—O’Rourke and Esteves ensured even the most utilitarian items, like a ladder next to the tub, felt unique. “We both love the simplicity of Shaker-style pieces, as well as more utilitarian, farmhouse-style pieces,” says O’Rourke. “We added in some more modern things to keep it from looking too old.” One of their contemporary choices happens to be a comfy IKEA sofa.

O’Rourke cites her love for sentimental objects as central to her design approach. “I’ve always been interested in how and why people save things and bring them from place to place,” she says. “We moved a lot when I was growing up, and I had a box of my ‘special items’ that would be the first thing I would unpack and arrange.”

Photography by Julie O’Rourke

Arranging those special things also comes naturally. “I would also spend hours making floor plans and finding the best spots for furniture,” O’Rourke remembers. “My mother is the same way and has gifted me the ability to draw a full and accurate floor plan, including closets and pantries, without even walking into a space. It’s one of my best talents.”

O’Rourke also discovered a bunch of small-space secrets along the way that have helped to make her home as harmonious as possible. Read on for her top tips.

One thing she wishes she knew before she lived in a tiny space…

“You really can’t have any clutter; everything needs to have a home. I wouldn’t describe either of us as minimalists, but it’s so much nicer to see the corners of this space and bare walls than it is to see stacks of books or bundles of random keepsakes.”

One thing she would have done differently…

 “We would have added a lot more creative storage and probably another closet. We installed a huge bathtub, which is nice, but I wish we had used some of that space for a coat closet.”

One thing she thinks every small space should have…

“A lot of outdoor space! In the summer, it feels like our space triples in size because we have the deck and the yard and the woods.”

One fail-proof hack that will make a room feel bigger…

“Big fixed-pane windows: This is both a good design hack and a budget hack. We only have three new operable windows in the space and the rest are fixed, which saved us so much money. Also, if you can divide a space with open shelving or a step-down, it will feel infinitely bigger.”

This story was originally published on July 27, 2018. It has been updated with new information.