ADU 101

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) have become more popular and acceptable in the past few years. The City of Seattle began allowing for ADUs in all residential zones (it had previously been only some south Seattle neighborhoods) in 2009. San Juan County allows for a limited number of permits for ADUs each year. The number of ADUs proposed each year has not necessitated use of the lottery system for permits, which was conceived before the recession.

Lopez Island House, garage with attached Accessory Dwelling Unit, Lopez Island, WA
(Original design: D+A Studio) See more of my ADUs.

An ADU can be attached, as in a basement apartment, or detached, as in a backyard cottage, carriage house, or alley flat. The implementation of ADUs can fulfill many goals of sustainable development, including [not so scary] density, affordable housing, and smaller house sizes. As our urban fabric is “re-knit”, neighborhoods can become more dense, creating more demand for services, therefore creating more opportunities for walkable neighborhoods and less dependence on a car.
The concept of ADUs resonates with many things happening in housing currently: attractive central cities with high barriers to entry for home ownership, long commutes, lack of diversity in housing typologies, social isolation. Slowly adding a few ADUs in established neighborhoods can add density without inherently changing the character of that neighborhood.
Truly sustainable development also includes social goals, many of which are also met by integrating ADUs: a way for homeowners to have a separate income stream, a mix of income and ages; the ability to stay in one neighborhood through varying phases of life, therefore creating lasting community: kids can live in a backyard cottage as they start on their career path, elderly parents or relatives can live in smaller spaces that require less upkeep and be close to their children and grandchildren. Extended families can live close together. Friends can create a casual co-op. An ADU can be a “tiny house.”
The term “mixed income” may be worrisome to some, but from a social standpoint, renting out an ADU can more successful than an absentee landlord renting a house, in that owners are close to the rental unit, tenants are close to their landlord, so each keeps an eye on each other. The Kentlands Development in Maryland (designed by New Urbanism pioneers DPZ)  is a neighborhood that has successfully integrated market rate, large suburban housing with backyard rental units. An oft-cited example is of a woman who lived in her ADU and rented out her large house in order to save money and pay off her mortgage.


At D+A Studio, we developed a full catalog of stock plans perfect for ADUs, backyard cottages, guest houses, vacation retreats or just simple living. Since the website for this catalog is no longer online, please contact me for more information.

Next week: A closer look at ADU rules for the City of Seattle.

An update to my original post ADU 101

The Grind of the Grid

Trends are moving towards more people living in the city, less car ownership, and a feeling for some that this whole you-have-to-get-in-a-car-to-do-anything way of living maybe isn’t the best for our physical and social health.  However, there are many disadvantage of city living: noise, traffic, cramped spaces, and the relentlessness of the grid. Density cannot be all about efficiency. There has to be green space, variety, breathing room, and some quirks or breaks in the grid.

You can help influence the future landscape of your city through the public process, but today you have to enjoy what is already here.

Explore:  even small trails and places where cars cannot go can be a delight. Look for pocket parks, public alleys, shortcuts. Seek out urban college campuses.  These can provide a great relief from the grid and can provide a park like setting.

Look for outdoor eating spaces and beer gardens. Enjoy even a few outdoor tables at a coffee shop. Take advantage of grills and roof decks on top of multifamily buildings.


Seven Hills Park in Seattle’s dense Capitol Hill neighborhood, a pocket park developed in recent years with bbq pits for public use. Photo credit

Seek out different types of housing and hidden treasures, like cottage and clustered housing communities and historic sites [Locate using the National Register of Historic Places]. Take walking tours. Become a tourist in your own city.

Don’t just take parks at face value. Look for the paved and unpaved trails. Find small forest preserves. Follow outdoor staircases [Check out Seattle Stairway Walks]. Utilize elementary school playgrounds. Explore zoos, museum campuses, botanical gardens, church grounds, docks, piers, reservoirs, creeks.

urban garden2 urban garden3

13th and Marion Community Urban Garden, behind the parking lot of the Photo Center NW, in the South Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.

Gardens can be found in many places. Look for P-patches, public gardens, botanical gardens, guerrilla gardens in traffic circles. Urban gardens can be developed in an unused section of a lot. A neighbor developed a community garden in an overgrown section behind a parking lot by simply asking the property owner. [Read about the 12th Avenue Community Garden here]

Even in places like our rapidly changing Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle, there are little urban treasures to be found. You just have to be looking.

Suburban Living tips for Ex-Urbanites

We’ve talked about urban living and what to consider when looking for a multifamily unit. However, a great location and vibrant neighborhood may not trump a little breathing room for many people. There are just as many charming suburbs as there are cookie-cutter ones, and there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy living in the suburbs, even if you have previously been a hard core urbanite.

The biggest disadvantage of the suburbs culturally, financially, and socially is total dependence on the car, the greatest disadvantage being the toll that it takes on ones health. Take advantage of walking and bike trails. Live in place where your kids can walk or bike to that great school. Take a stroll to the grocery or corner store, or out to dinner. Sometimes we get in our car without thinking about it when things are within reasonable to walk or bike. It is truly an enjoyable way to get around. Of course, in many large cities, public transit extends into the suburbs. Distance from a commuter line could be a major consideration when looking for a home in the suburbs. When looking at a house, make walkability one of your main considerations.

Unless you have a strict homeowner’s association, which is becoming more and more common in master planned developments, you have space for some homesteading. The new way to rebel in the suburbs is by daring to have a garden in your front yard. (See the NYT article, The Battlefront in the Front Yard) Even small back yards offer plenty of space for chickens, gardens, composting, line drying clothes, and water collection.

Sharing spaces is a great way to foster community and help curb the isolation so many can feel in car dependent places. Check out the book Superbia!: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods by Dan Chiras and Dave Wann. (See my review here) for many ideas on how to combat the dystopian movie cliche of the suburbs and create fulfilling, healthy, fun places to live.

Considerations When Buying (or Renting) a Multifamily Unit

The only constant with our cities is change. Major urban centers have been filling in what was emptied out in the 70’s and 80’s. Like during the shortage of new housing stock as a result of the Depression and World War II, there is now pent up demand due to the economy. Because of uncertainty and/or lack of jobs, young people are living at home longer and putting off buying cars and houses. In our neighborhood of Capitol Hill/First Hill just east of downtown Seattle, developers of multiple new large apartment buildings are banking on this pent up demand releasing and young people moving out on their own.

Quality multifamily living at Jackson Place Cohousing in the Central District neighborhood of Seattle

Quality multifamily living at Jackson Place Cohousing in the Central District neighborhood of Seattle

The American Dream of having a piece of dirt to call ones own may be out of reach for many in desirable urban centers. Multifamily living may not be what many had envisioned for their home, but it may be the only way to get the best location.

There are considerations for buying multifamily that are similar to single family: the location, neighborhood, Walkscore, schools, etc. How far away is the grocery store? Can I get to work without driving? These things can be figured out if you buy a pre-sale before the building is built, as we did with our condo. There are specific considerations that you should think about that apply to multifamily buildings.

  • Neighborhood noise and safety: I would recommend spending time around the building at night and on the weekends, depending on when serenity is most important to you. We live across the street from an industrial laundry that employs three shifts, therefore, every weekend morning everyone is outside on the sidewalk talking at 7am.  If you like to sleep in on weekends, this could be an issue for you.
  • Which floor?: Of course, the top floor is best to avoid footsteps above you. Street noise, however, will be amplified on the 2nd and immediately higher floors, depending on the height and setback of neighboring buildings. According to the classic urban planning book “A Pattern Language,” the fourth floor is considered the last floor from which you have engagement with the street. Also consider: What would you do if the elevator breaks? Are you physically able to get to an upper floor? If you have no elevator, is there a way for older or disabled friends or family to visit, if you have such visitors frequently?
  • Building noise: Duplexes are not required to have double walls between, and some townhouses can get by without them. If in doubt, ask about the construction (most will have double wall construction, the purpose of which is fire prevention but is very effective at side by side unit noise control). I would recommend having your Realtor go to the unit above you and to adjacent areas of concern: the trash room, stairs, hallways. Have them bound down the stairs, run through the halls or slam the dumpster lid. If you are sensitive to cigarette smoke, look for ways it could affect you when the windows are open (for instance, if your main windows open to a sidewalk outside of a restaurant, or if you see adjacent neighbors smoking on the terrace). These are small considerations, but can be seriously detrimental to your quality of life later if you seek peace and quiet in the midst of your urban jungle.
  • Visitors: Most likely, if you are in the city, there will only be parking for one or two cars. How do most of your friends and family travel? If they usually drive, is street parking available? Is the parking permit restricted and if so, are guest passes available? If your crew are frequent transit users, how are the routes around you? If being able to host book clubs, dinners or parties is important to you, this could be a major consideration.
  • Outdoor activities: How do you use outdoor space? Will you want to grill, sunbathe, garden, store your bikes, have an area for your dog? A townhouse with a yard space may be ideal, or maybe you just need a balcony for container gardening. Be sure to ask about the Home Owners Association’s policies on using the yard: even the space right outside of your door could still be considered common space and you may not be able to garden there due to landscaping care or other rules. Amenities for pets may be found in unexpected places: during low traffic hours, our parking lot serves as an ideal place for dogs to play (even though them being off leash is *technically* against the rules, as is the case with most HOA’s).
  • HOA rules: Consider other things that may be regulated by a homeowners association. These could range from the size and type of your pet, signs you can hang from your windows, plants or holiday decorations. Keep in mind that these may not only apply to multifamily buildings: most new single family master planned developments may also have similar regulations.

I hope that this list doesn’t scare anyone away from the many advantages of multifamily living: affordability, manageable size, increased energy efficiency due to shared walls and floors, predictable maintenance costs (HOA dues), no yard or exterior maintenance, proximity in and to great urban neighborhoods, and the community that can form with your neighbors.  Not all items on the list will be important to all people, but each should merit at least a small bit of consideration.

Does the Solution Have to be Microhousing?

There’s been a lot of talk about microhousing. I’ve been tweeting and following the stories in Seattle, San Francisco and New York. As of this week, Seattle may propose a moratorium. The Seattle Times explains that “because the city only counts kitchens, not sleeping units, for the purposes of development regulations, the housing avoids design and environmental review and notice to neighbors that usually is required for big, multifamily projects.” The Capitol Hill Seattle blog has a lot of background information on the issue, along with the current happenings.

My personal opinion: I think it’s reasonable that microunit buildings (150-250 SF units, sharing a common kitchen on a floor) have to go through the same hurdles with the city as any other multifamily structure. But it has to be understood that more regulation makes housing more expensive. Seattle is convening a task force to look at how to create more affordable housing, but we all know what allows for affordable housing: unchecked sprawl built by under-paid laborers. Since that’s not a possibility in our region (or the most desirable option for anyone, really) we’ve got to get creative. But is microhousing the only solution?

We need to adapt homes that are here to fit multiple people…allow privacy, anonymity, and respite while providing community and affordability. More twenty-somethings are living with their parents longer, and this is reasonable, sane solution that should not be choked out by an unrealistic expectation of rugged individualism. And there’s the old fashion concept of a roommate, or living with other family members. According to the the census data, Seattle is #23 in population and #100 out of 100 in household size. We are continually isolating ourselves. Houses with plenty of room exist, but families are getting smaller. There’s some great data in this Seattle Bubble article, (including a chart with data on the top 100 cities) and some telling information about Seattle. Author Tim Ellis comments on how “Seattle’s anti-social tendencies even extend to our own families…”

Many zoning codes do not allow this for one of the same reasons people oppose microhousing…”those kinds” of people. They don’t want brothels in their neighborhood. They don’t want slumlords renting to 10 college students. They don’t want too many people parking on their streets. There are many reasons to oppose ideas like this. But we can’t have it all. We can’t pay everyone a living wage to build and manufacture building materials that aren’t toxic and cut down on pollution and congestion while making sure every Seattlelite with a single family home has enough parking for two guests on the street outside their house while keeping housing affordable. So I think we need to look at many creative solutions with an open mind.

The project below is a custom home, which is of course only a possibility for a few people, but the chart illustrates how a modest home with a guest apartment over the garage can allow for flexible living solutions over many years. I created the chart as part of D+A Studio’s [winning] entry for the AIA Seattle What Makes it Green? Top 10 Awards.

San Juan Channel Adaptable House