For Ren Marasco, October 13, 2007, was a wonderful, low-key 31st birthday. She, along with her husband, Natale, and several friends, had spent the evening at a local pizzeria sharing old stories and jokes over a bottle of red and a margherita pie. At 9 p.m., she was still in high spirits, excitedly chatting with her mom on the phone while Natale drove them home. Then, as they turned onto their street in rural Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, Ren thought she saw smoke. Suddenly her stomach dropped.
"I knew something terrible had happened," says Ren, now 33 (pictured here with Natale, 48). Moments later, her worst fears were confirmed: Their house, a 1,400-square-foot ranch that they had just finished renovating, was in flames. Natale burst out of the car to check on their two dogs (they had escaped through the dog door and were barking out in the yard). Meanwhile, Ren called 911, and soon hook-and-ladder trucks arrived. Despite the efforts of more than 70 firemen over the next three hours, the house was reduced to ashes.
Shortly after 1 a.m., the couple took refuge at a friend’s home, where they spent a sleepless night. "It felt like the flames were burned into my retinas," says Ren. "We had stared at the fire for so long that I couldn’t see anything else when I closed my eyes."
2 of 3William Waldron
Starting (Almost) From Scratch
With trepidation, they returned to the scene early the next morning. Not only was their house destroyed but Natale’s garage workshop, from which he ran a business welding parts for planes and cars and making decorative metalwork, was also in ruins. Family treasures, like the English ceramic pitcher they had displayed at their engagement dinner, were history. And debris was everywhere. "It was nauseating to have all your personal stuff blowing around. You feel so exposed," says Ren, recounting how she found wet and tattered wedding photos on the ground. Later a neighbor showed up with Ren’s aesthetician’s license, which had landed in his yard. (She is a skin therapist at a day spa.)
Ren and Natale were left with little more than the belongings that they had had with them the night before. "Thank goodness it was my birthday, so I was wearing clothes I actually liked," she says, half joking.
The couple spent the next few weeks clearing their land—a neighbor in town lent Natale his backhoe—and meeting with insurance adjusters and inspectors. (Natale believes the fire was sparked by a faulty attic fan, but the cause was never officially determined.)
As they dealt with reams of paperwork related to the fire, Ren and Natale discussed what to do next. "We considered every option—from rebuilding to buying another house nearby to running away to Bali," says Ren. Ultimately, the two agreed that they wanted to stay put. "We like our jobs, and we didn’t want to leave our property and our families. We love the spectacular view of the mountains and the river. We didn’t want that to change," says Ren. The challenge, then, was to find an affordable way to construct a new home and Natale’s workshop, which had not been fully insured.
As it turned out, the solution was sitting right in their backyard. In 2003 Natale had acquired two tiny 1940s-era cottages that had been offered free by local developers who were clearing a parcel of land. Originally Natale had planned to combine them into a guesthouse; Ren toyed with using them to house a private spa business. But after the fire they shelved these notions. All they cared about was getting back on their land as soon as possible. "Combining the buildings to create one home made the most sense. We could do it quickly and inexpensively," says Ren. And with the money they saved by not rebuilding the main house, they could build a freestanding shop for Natale’s business.
To Ren and Natale, it seemed like a brilliant idea. Their friends and family, however, thought the couple were crazy. Surely they would drive each other batty living in an area that was smaller than their old kitchen—just 351 square feet of living space. The pair weren’t worried. "We’re both neatniks," says Ren. "And whenever we’re home, we’re in the same room anyway. We never doubted we could handle it for a second."
3 of 3William Waldron
Living Large in a Small Space
Once they had decided to live in the cottages, the couple set to work. They chose a picturesque spot at the back of their property, and with the help of a friend’s brother, Natale dug a foundation. Another friend volunteered his crane to lift the cottages into place. Meanwhile, Ren set about designing the interior. She decided that even in a tiny abode, she would not sacrifice the amenities that mattered most to her: an extra-long claw-foot tub, a queen-size bed, and plenty of high kitchen counters that were proportional to their tall frames (she’s five foot 10; he’s six foot one).
Ren was determined to make the most of every inch. "I love efficiency," she says. "So I spent a lot of time with my eyes closed, just picturing myself using the kitchen. Where would I want to put a pot down? Where would I want my utensils to sit? I tried to create rooms with clever ideas that compensated for the lack of space." For example, she tucked a narrow loft above the sofa in their bedroom to use as a reading nook, hung two clothing rods side by side to take advantage of the extra-deep closet, and mounted the dish rack over the kitchen sink.
Nine weeks after Natale started construction with the help of two local builders, the pair moved into their new home. Admittedly, it took some getting used to. For one thing, because of a construction error (a window went in where a full wall was supposed to go), they were forced to install a half refrigerator. The mistake had an upside: It yielded more sunlight and counter space. "Plus, now we buy only what we know we’ll eat in the next few days," Ren says. "A lot less food goes to waste."
Of course, the smaller footprint has its drawbacks. Ren laments that they are limited to inviting only one couple at a time over for dinner during the winter—that’s all their dining table will seat. "In the summer, we can be more social," she says. "We built a nice-size deck on the side of the house using materials salvaged from the fire." Natale admits that he misses his 1980s Viking range in the old house. "I used to love to cook," he says, "but I constantly rebel against the tiny stove we have now."
And, naturally, storage space is at a premium. Whatever the two own must fit in the kitchen’s open shelves, their shared bedroom closet, or their nightstands, leaving little room for books, CDs, or files. "As soon as I finish a novel or a magazine, I bring it out to my car so I can give it to someone else," says Ren. They’ve also found themselves storing more items on their laptop. They save bank statements as PDFs, keep digital archives of their photos rather than printing them out, and download recipes from the Internet. Ren backs up all these files on an external hard drive. "It’s become a weekly ritual," she says.
Living—and thriving—in these two rooms has proven to Ren that she is married to the right person. "Surviving the tragedy of the fire aged our relationship, but in a good way," she says. "And being in such close proximity as we are in the house has deepened our connection." As a result, the pair, who don’t plan on having children, are in no hurry to move on to bigger digs. "My grandfather always said, 'Find a woman you could survive with in a foxhole,' " says Natale. "Well, we did end up in something like a foxhole. And, sure enough, Ren makes it easy."