Backyard Living

As an architect and as a builder, one of the consequences of my job is that I spend a lot of time reading building codes, zoning ordinances, deciphering overlay districts, and working with planning officials to properly navigate the bureaucracy of every day construction. It can be tedious, but at the end of the day, I kind of enjoy it. One of the things that I most enjoy is learning new terms and finding ways to use those new terms to better serve my clients. 

The new term that has recently come into my vocabulary, and what I want to talk about today, is Accessory Dwelling Unit By Right. I know, sounds sexy right? Well, you may not think so right now, but in a few more sentences you will. You see, zoning ordinances, which every city has, are guidelines and restrictions that govern new construction and development. There are zoning rules for everything from sidewalks and landscaping to lines of site at street intersections to the overall height and area of buildings and so on. And these zoning rules are broken down by Zoning Classifications such as Residential, Commercial, Office, Industrial, etc. What this means is that for anyone who lives in a R-2, R-3, R-4, and R-7A zoning districts, an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) is allowed by right, which means there is no variance process required unless you are in a historic district which is another topic for another time.

Lets talk about ADUs for a minute. What are they, what purpose do they serve and why should you consider building one on your property? 

 Traditional ADU design for a 2 car garage with studio apartment above and shared courtyard.

Traditional ADU design for a 2 car garage with studio apartment above and shared courtyard.

An ADU is exactly what it sounds like - an Accessory Dwelling Unit - or a self contained residence on the same property as another single family residence. Think of your favorite historic cities - Little Rock, Savannah, Charleston, Raleigh-Durham, Boston, D.C., etc. These cities all have within them neighborhoods that were built just prior to or just after the turn of the 20th Century. And at that time society was changing. We were moving from a more class-based (high class and low class) society to a more middle class society. This means that there were lots of properties with carriage houses, detached garages and other structures that also included a small living unit, usually above. This living unit had previously been used for either a driver, servant, housekeeper, or some other family employee yet now likely were sitting empty because society had moved on from a service based economy. Eventually these spaces started to be rented out and likely are still rented out today. These we now call Accessory Dwelling Units. They are subordinate to the main house and have their own dedicated entry.

So what purpose do they serve? This is an important question and one that requires an important answer. As the prospect of homeownership continues to look less and less likely for average middle class families in urban and suburban areas of cities like those listed above, an ADU serves a critical function for two sectors of society. For the homeowner or potential homeowner an ADU is a source of rental income, and since most municipalities require that a property with an ADU be occupied by the property owner, this can make it easier for an average family to purchase a property in a more desired neighborhood. For those that are lower on the income scale, this can mean that more desirable neighborhoods are now within their reach without having to purchase - i.e. college students, retail and restaurant workers, the entire millennial generation - since these neighborhoods are generally more walkable and have shops, restaurants, bars, parks, etc that younger generations want to take advantage of.

Lastly, why should you consider building an ADU on your property? The short, selfish answer is "money". ADUs are income producing and will increase the overall value of your property for resale. In addition, ADUs provide a vital component to the rental market. As mentioned above most millennials are not likely to be able to afford to live in older walkable neighborhoods which tend to be closer to good schools, restaurants, pubs, retail, etc. Having more young people within easy reach of these establishments will also help boost the economy which in turn will again raise your property values. The list goes on. So at the end of the day the question is not "why should you", but rather "why wouldn't you".

If you're interested in talking with us about a potential ADU project, click the "free consultation" on our website and schedule a 15 minute conversation. We can help you identify which zoning area you live in and if this project type is right for you.

 Modern ADU design for a 1 car garage with 2 bedroom apartment attached and shared courtyard.

Modern ADU design for a 1 car garage with 2 bedroom apartment attached and shared courtyard.