Sorry to keep you waiting! I definitely want to tell you all about the incredible ADU’s we saw in Portland, but it’s taking me some time to organize the wealth of information and photos from this year’s Build Small, Live Large event. Plus, like last year, I think this will necessitate 2 or 3 posts. So, stay tuned!
Before we get to the ADU’s, I would like to tell you about our experience at Saturday’s workshops. Last year, we only registered for the tours. It was a valuable experience on its own because the homeowners, designers, and builders are present and agree to be very transparent about their ADU experience. It’s a rare opportunity to learn a great deal of info straight from the source – especially to learn from their mistakes! Because we have been getting even more serious about adding an ADU, we thought it would be worth it to also attend the workshops this year.
The day was split up into two sessions: Laying the Groundwork and The Design & Building Process, taught by ADU Guru Kol Peterson. Kol and his wife, Deb Delman, live in an ADU that they built, and are also the couple behind Caravan the Tiny House Hotel. Drawing from his now extensive experience, Kol teaches classes and offers consultative services to others interested in this world.
Laws governing ADU permitting and construction are municipal, so we knew going into it that most of the information would be based on Portland regulations. But, all information at this point is helpful information. Many others agreed. There were registrants from all across the US – and even a few international folks. Portland really is leading the way in this field, so it’s worth paying attention to what they’re up to.
There was a TON of info, and Kol makes a living from sharing that info…so, in fairness, I’m not going to give away all of his trade secrets. I will, however, tell you our Top 3 Takeaways:
1. Research, Research, Research
It’s so clear that we need to get serious about reading all of the ADU info on the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections website. Like I said, the codes that govern ADU construction are municipal. So, as much as there were quite a few useful tidbits at Build Small, Live Large, we will ultimately need to know the rules specific to Seattle. The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections offers a LOT of info and resources on their site. I just need to get cracking!
In addition to learning more about existing legislation, it’s also wise to pay attention to what new plans are being proposed. Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien is trying to increase affordable housing in Seattle by make it easier to build backyard cottages. In Portland, they’ve passed initiatives like waiving the System Development Charges – currently in the range of $8-12K, but expected to increase to $20K. That’s certainly a substantial savings! O’Brien’s current proposal relaxes permitting restrictions rather than giving financial incentives, but who knows?! Perhaps increased citizen involvement (that means us!) could move the needle on the latter.
Of course, we also need to do our homework on ADU designers and builders. The access that Portland’s ADU Tour gives regular old folks like us to professionals in this field is amazing. And yet, because they are not experts in Seattle zoning and construction requirements, most of them limit their practices to the Portland area. We need to find the Seattle equivalents.
2. Invest in an ADU-Specific Architect
That brings me to point #2. Kol could not stress enough the importance of working with people who know more about the ADU design/build process than you do…and, than does the average architect. ADU’s are a special little world. Working with someone who has already charted this territory can save you thousands, so it’s well worth the upfront investment.
It’s imperative to find an architect who will take you through permitting. This way, they are responsible for making sure their plans work within the parameters of ADU regulations. I have come to the conclusion that I’d like to work with a design-build company – currently eyeing this one – but Kol also recommended contracting construction-ready drawings, rather than permit-ready drawings. That way, once everything is designed and permitted, any contractor can see the project through to completion.
3. Conversion vs. New Construction
So, this one is particularly applicable to our situation. We have a 20′ x 20′ garage at the back corner of our property. It has always seemed logical for us to simply convert this existing structure into an ADU. Alas, that might not actually be the case! Kol broke it to the crowd that constructing sufficient support around an existing slab foundation can often be more costly than leveling the original structure and starting from scratch. What?!? But, there’s already this building here! We spoke to several folks on the ADU tour who corroborated with Kol’s assertion. They all said that, if they had to do it again, they would start from scratch. Fascinating!
My only concern is our setback. The current structure does not meet Seattle’s setback requirements. No biggie – there are such things as variances. I just wonder if we are more likely to qualify for a variance if working with an existing structure than starting anew. Of course, this brings us back to #1 – Research, Research, Research…and, #2, investing in someone who knows.
So, this is where we’ll start. I have a TON of reading to do, a few phone calls to make…not to mention some patience to exercise, I’m sure. It’s a time-consuming process, but after listening to and absorbing all that Kol had to say, I’m more excited than ever to embark on this adventure!