Last month, we featured San-Diego-based architect Lily Robinson, who explained what accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are and the benefits they offer homeowners. In Part 2 of our interview, we’ll explore the design process and the ADU experience.
Q: Tell me about your property and the decision to build the ADU that you now live in?
A: The original house is a 1200-square-foot, single-story, Spanish-style home built in 1926. I bought the property in 2017 with the idea to convert the detached garage to a second living unit for my mom and dad to use as a vacation home. But during the design process, my father passed away, so I shifted the design to be for my husband and myself to live in.
We decided to keep the garage and build over it. We filed our ADU project permit in 2019 and did the work during the pandemic.
The design was very important to me, as an architect, and because my husband and I both were working from home. We needed separation between our living area and our work area, and an environment that optimized our physical and mental health.
We built a loft-style 900 square-foot residence above the existing garage. We also added a laundry room, art workshop and music studio on the ground floor adjacent to the garage, which we kept since I love the security of having my car off the street and protected.
Q: So, you are happy with how it turned out?
A: It’s perfect. Our living area is an open plan with a full kitchen along one wall, one bedroom, one bathroom and a large walk-in closet we call the dressing room. We have a seating area where the TV is, and there is enough space to accommodate my husband’s grandmother’s antique dining table which has seven leaves (to seat 12) when we need it.
We used all natural materials, with white oak wood flooring, limestone in the bathroom and granite counters in the kitchen. There are two windows on opposite walls in the bathroom for cross ventilation and views to a big tree. It’s very calming.
Q: Where is your front door? Is it behind the garage?
A: Yes. It’s very private. You reach it by going up the steps of an outdoor staircase that is sheltered by an overhang. In the back we’re also working on a garden and a pretty pathway to the staircase.
Q: You said your aim was to create an environment that optimized your physical and mental health. What does that mean?
A: We can start with the stairs. I included it into the design so that we can get our walks in, going down to the office to work and then up the stairs to our living area. There’s no bathroom on the ground floor, so we get our exercise every day.
Other optimal touches are the placement of windows for natural light, relaxing views and the prevailing sea breeze. Our ADU has cathedral ceilings, but rather than install a skylight — they always leak! — we have operable clerestory windows. They capture the afternoon breeze and help create a cross breeze without letting in the heat of the sun.
Did you know ceiling height can affect creativity and focus? I have an “idea corner” for creativity, which is a strategically placed desk in the main room with a 16-foot vaulted ceiling. When you need to focus, like in the office, a lower ceiling is better.
Q: From the outside, your ADU doesn’t look anything like the original house. Why?
A: My neighbors were surprised that the new ADU didn’t match the style of the existing house, but for me, architectural style is like fashion. I envisioned the new ADU as a younger sister to the main house — and you wouldn’t necessarily want the newest member of the family to dress like the oldest one, would you?
Q: I know you do residential remodels and room additions, but are ADUs your favorite thing to do?
A: ADUs are so much fun to design, especially when you plan to live in it. I tell people that an ADU can make your life so much better.
I have a client who built an ADU for herself on top of her parent’s one-story home. It’s only 650 square feet but it’s got everything she needs: a large bedroom, a balcony, a laundry area and a full kitchen. Not only that, but she also has great views. Her new kitchen looks out to a park in the front of the house and the bedroom … has a view of the ocean.
Q: What happened to your original house?
A: I have offered it to my mother — if she wants to move here from New York. It could also turn into a rental unit later. The rent from the house could easily cover our mortgage payment.
We might add a Junior ADU as a third rentable space in the future. Then, if we decide to retire somewhere else, we’d have income from three rental units.
Q: OK, we’ve decided we want an ADU and we call you. What then?
A: The first thing is to get your address, so I can look up the zoning and jurisdiction authority. Every single lot is different, with multiple overlays that may impact your property. It might be along a transit corridor or in a high hazard zone.
Next, I would ask you to contact the county assessor’s office and ask for the residential building record. It’s only available to the property owners and is required as part of a permit process if your existing house was built more than 40 years ago.
Then we would meet for an hour so I could ask tons of questions about your goals, your timeline and your budget. Investing in an ADU on your property can add so much to your life.
Catherine Gaugh is a freelance writer.