In the past year or two, major builders have accomplished an interesting slight of hand. They have recognized the need for houses with ADUs, and started selling them for tidy sums — but only while doing everything they can to pretend they have not built ADUs.
Lennar’s “Next Gen” is clearly a house with an ADU, but they don’t call it that. It’s a “home within a home,” and the video is careful not to bring up the bugaboo of renters or strangers living in the extra unit. It’s for a grandparent, a college age student, or “any family member.”
Unsurprisingly for such an intuitive concept, the sales work is going well. “In Arizona alone, over 100 have been sold,” says the article, and next year, the company will be rolling out Next Gen houses in all their markets.
Digging deeper, the NYT article describes how the ADUs are made more stealthy, so that the illusion of nuclear-family living can be maintained.
To circumvent zoning that is leery of duplexes, Lennar’s Next Gen houses run on a single electric meter, have only microwave convection ovens in the apartment, and from the outside look like other houses.
“One address, one hookup, one electric meter,” said Alan Jones, Lennar’s Arizona division president. It was Mr. Jones who took a Las Vegas architect’s concept and ran with it.
The electric meter thing shows how ridiculous institutional systems of zoning and lending can be. The number of electric meters is often used as a proxy by the lending industry or zoning/permitting departments to determine the number of units in a house. People refinancing their properties may receive frantic calls from their lending agents, saying things like “They’re ready to approve your loan, but they have one more crucial question–how many electric meters are there?” Answering “one” will probably cause less trouble because it’s more likely to match expectations for a single-family property.
Following this logic, a 100-unit prewar apartment building in Manhattan is also a single family house. Right.
In my opinion, the stealth concept may end up defeating itself when it comes to quality of life, for residents of both the main dwelling and the ADU. Recasting houses with ADUs as multigenerational homes, at least in Lennar’s case, seems to be removing some of the New Urbanist-type advantages of these dwellings. They seem to be very car-centric, meaning that aging in place could be more difficult than it looks, and sustainability may not be a big priority. The ADU in the Lennar video even has its own distinct garage!
Moreover, privacy is a crucial aspect of quality of life. The space and quiet of one’s own dwelling provides a certain amount of dignity that many people treasure. Hiding the ADU within a single family frame (often called a “carve-out” ADU) exposes the denizens of each dwelling to the sights, sounds, smells, etc of the other. It sacrifices the palpable privacy provided by detached (but utterly unstealthy) ADU forms like backyard cottages. While attached ADUs can be made to feel very separate, careful thought and special construction techniques are required (many detailed in Michael Litchfield’s book), and I’m not sure the big builders are really up to that level of craft and design.
The false contrast of “multigenerational good, accessory dwelling bad” is a curious case of conflicting emotions. People clearly desire properties that have ADU functionality, but they don’t want to give up the precious illusion that they are living a nuclear family lifestyle.
I’d say it’s time for the stealth ADUs to come out of the closet. They will eventually, anyway — because experience shows that properties built with multiple units will eventually be used as multiple units, no matter what their stated purpose. It may be grandma sleeping in the in-law unit now, but eventually it’ll be a stranger. No need to fret — new bylaws will specify they dress up as grandma to keep the illusion going.