Accessory Dwellings

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My garage apartment — a place that redefines family

I’m pretty much an obsessive planner when it comes to big projects.  I researched and penciled out a lot of scenarios before I developed my garage into a little apartment, and I’m glad to say that between good design and the need for rental housing in my town, it both works well as a dwelling and more than pays for its own cost of construction.

Still, I never anticipated some of the benefits of having a small, self-sufficient building right next to my house, and today, four years after the place was completed, I think those surprises are some of the best reasons to build an accessory dwelling.

Exterior view of Martin's garage apartment

all photos by Martin John Brown - used by permission

Here’s my ADU: a converted garage, right next to the house I live in with my wife and child.   It’s got 440 feet of living space, which in my view is just enough to give one person a really nice space to live in.  And from the outside, it’s cute enough that I regularly see people stopping on the street to gawk and try to figure out what’s going on.  Must be the purple paint. :)

When I dreamed up the project back in 2006, my motivations were both environmental and financial.  I was fairly obsessed (read: offended) with the way that houses were getting way too large, in both size and environmental footprint.  I thought, “hey I could convert my garage into a really nice small house for 1 person to live in, rent it out, and get a few extra bucks in rent every month.”    My home town of Portland allowed “accessory dwelling units,” as such developments were called, and I had enough equity in my property I could probably get a loan to do it.   It all seemed so simple.

Well the bureaucratic process wasn’t simple, as you can read in my many old blog posts about the project.  In those posts I also detail a lot of the reasons for design decisions, and think they’ve pretty much panned out.   Architect John Perkins  used various tricks to make the space feel bigger — a vista view from the main living area (plan view), curves in the design, a cathedral ceiling with skylights, and a loft (plan view) that only filled up some of the space.

Check it out:

living area of martin's garage apartment

living area, big enough for a couch

interior of martin's garage apartment

interior looking toward kitchen

use of skylights in Martin's garage apartment

skylights provide enough natural light to read during the day

use of cathedral ceiling in Martin's garage apartment

use of cathedral ceiling increases sense of space

view from the back of the loft in Martin's ADU

the loft is a private aerie for sleeping or working

Creating this took $73,000 (total budget, including architect’s and permit fees), most of which was borrowed in a cash-out refinance of my entire property.  In terms of time, it took about a year and a half, from the initial contact with the architect to the final occupancy permit.  The contractor said the job would take 3 months but it took 6 in reality.

In Portland this place could probably rent for $900 or $1000/month, which would be a great return on my investment.  However my wife and I decided to rent the place to my wife’s Mom, who was looking for a new situation.  The deal was, we’d give her a big break on rent, and she’d help out with childcare.

I must admit to a bit of trepidation here.  What would it be like with my mother-in-law literally just a few feet away? I’m already a fairly private person, and having another household member so near seemed dangerous.

However, it’s worked out fantastically.  Both little households have complete privacy if they want it.  The windows on the houses are arranged so that neither party can see into the other’s dwelling.  We can shut the door on each other any time we want (and with all the extra insulation in the garage apartment, we can’t hear my in-law’s TV even when she blasts it).  But we are near enough that we can invite each other over for dinner, trade childcare when someone has to go to the store, and help each other in little ways.  Living with extended family has never been so natural.

In my research on ADUs I’ve learned that most properties with ADUs seem to have similar arrangements… people living with friends, caretakers, cousins, and so on.  This is a form of housing that helps people stay close by allowing a bit of separation.   Paradoxical, but it works for me. :)

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About Martin John Brown

Martin John Brown is a researcher and consultant on environment and housing. Find out more at

10 comments on “My garage apartment — a place that redefines family

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This entry was posted on October 29, 2011 by in Conversion, Detached, Garage, Projects, Under 500 SF and tagged , , , , .
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