A one-stop source about accessory dwelling units, multigenerational homes, laneway houses, ADUs, granny flats, in-law units…
[In this post the site takes a brief departure from Lina Menard’s series of pieces on local ADUs. Here we get a much more personal, first person take, as Bryan Scott tells the story of his own ADU. Thanks Bryan! — ed.]
“We live in our garage.”
The comment always draws an interesting response…and usually finds us having to move toward more backstory. Our garage/home is an ADU that we designed and built as the initial zenbox design project to fit our new lifestyle.
Our ADU is actually the culmination of several years of us redefining and redesigning our lives. 7 years ago we were living in a 5+ bedroom house with garage, attic and basement- all packed to the gills. We couldn’t imagine ever living anywhere else and couldn’t imagine how we would cram any more “important” items into our dwindling space.
Somewhere along the lines our ideals started shifting. We moved a few times for jobs and rented out our home to keep up on the mortgage while we were gone. We lived in smaller and smaller apartments and purged more and more “stuff”. We realized that with less bulk and less overhead seemed to come increased freedom and happiness. Without our mortgage, we also started a path of saving and paying off debt rather than living to (or beyond) our means each month.
After several years of stringent savings and tough decisions we found ourselves comfortable leaving our jobs temporarily to travel. Our heads were swimming with life decisions like “what we really wanted to do”, “what happiness meant to us” and the all important “kid question”. Mostly, we grew tired of feeling like we were living to work rather than working to live. We loaded up the dog and our few remaining belongings and drove our ’67 VW bus south for mexico and central america.
We drove without a plan or destination, seeking a new outlook and we began to find ourselves somewhere along the way. When we left, we assumed our trip would be a nice vacation. A “reset” button for us. What it became was a period of realization. We thought we longed for remoteness and a deserted beach. What we thought was a temporary downsizing made us realize we actually needed very little to be content and happy.
Our biggest surprise is that our time away seeking adventure actually made us long for community. For the sense of home we had known back home. After flying back for what we thought was a quick trip to see friends, we realized SE Portland felt more like home than ever. Our quick trip turned into months, staying with friends changed to renting a condo near our old home and then to us longing for a space to call our own.
We began searching for a way to have our cake and to eat it to. To be free enough to travel and jump on adventures as they arose, but to have a home base to jump off from. To live simply, but in the heart of our favorite city and its best neighborhood. To live rent/mortgage free in the middle of a thriving urban environment, yet feel free to close the doors and travel for long periods of time without worrying about our home (or our bills) while away.
Our home was still being rented, and we had no interest in (and couldn’t afford to) kick out our tenants. Having to start paying our mortgage again seemed like a prison sentence… and what would we do with all those bedrooms anyway? It finally occurred to us that the 2 car garage sat almost completely unused other than the makeshift bouldering wall we had built before leaving. If we (the 2 of us and our dog) could live comfortably in a van, than a 480sqft garage would most certainly feel spacious!
We set to work designing our perfect living and entertaining space, and figuring out how best to use the space we had available. I modeled everything in 3d to make sure we could make good decisions and that every space was used to its fullest potential.
We knew now that we didn’t need much space for the two of us, but wanted to be able to entertain and host guests like we did back in the “big house”. We wanted to have a close connection both to the outdoors and to the neighborhood around us. We quickly realized that 480sqft was much larger than we needed or would have planned (if building from scratch) but it allowed us a lot of freedom in our decisions.
We finally took our sketches to the city, they pointed out a few glitches that we worked through and eventually we filed for a parking adjustment (now that our garage would be living space, setbacks meant that our double-wide driveway wasn’t quite long enough to fit current zoning requirements).
After a few months and hurdles we finally had our adjustment and went to the city for building permits, detailed plans in tow. We expected it to be the beginning of a long, arduous process but thanks to the work we had done upfront we actually walked out with our permit the same afternoon. We were underway.
We began by leveling the garage floors to ensure we had a solid/flat foundation for the rest of our build. It was important for us to have an open/flexible plan, so the only walls we built were around the bathroom. We knew that we needed ample storage and designed 2 of our 4 walls to be almost completely built in cabinets. I welded steel frames and we collected scrap wood for months to complete the cabinet doors. Our garage definitely got worse before it got better.
The direct-vent fireplace we added (great for both economically heating a small space and for ambience) sectioned off a corner of the space for laundry/utility room, and the rest became living space. Other than a licensed plumber and electrician, we designed/created and installed pretty much everything in our ADU ourselves.
Our island/bar not only seats three people while dinner is being prepared, but rolls/swings out so we can eat in the sunshine, or further to seat 6 when we host friends for dinner or games. We designed/built some simple furniture of steel and reclaimed wood, and have been happy to learn along the way that others are interested in having us build some for them as well.
We realized that lofting our bed over the utility space would create even more room, and a set of storage cabinets could be pulled out to double as “stairs” for the dog. We scoured craigslist for months to find a sectional that fit our space and that can also be “transformed” into a bed for guests that need to stay the night.
Our bathroom was one of two “luxury items” for us. We still built it on the cheap, but after living in a van for a year and longing for showers it was important for us to have a zen bathroom. We opted for a “wet room” like the ones we see when traveling. It has no curb into the shower and has simple concrete floors and walls like most of the outdoor showers we used over the past year. A skylight makes us almost believe we are outside and the dual shower heads complete our “spa-like” aspirations.
Our other luxury item was the replacement for our rickety old wooden garage door. The city required the old one be replaced, but we weren’t comfortable simply adding an extra door and some windows, or in moving the entry off to the side of the house. We originally intended a new glass garage door, but found out quickly from the city that no rollup door on the planet meets the weather requirements of the residential building codes.
There was a workaround. An option to increase other systems in the project to make up for the poor weather-tightness of the door…but in reality we would simply be paying for more heat/wasting more resources long term. It seemed shortsighted to patch one problem with another and our whole goal is to reduce future bills rather than increasing them. We weighed options from two sets of french doors to a sliding system, always with ample light and addressing the street in mind.
In the end, we chose an accordion style door system that folds/slides open to literally remove any line between indoors and out. Its U-values are through the roof and its beauty is amazing. The day it was installed our cave-like garage instantly transformed into a cozy loft space. That feeling we had each morning in our van when we threw open the cargo doors had just come back to life. As soon as the sun peeks out from the clouds we slide our doors open and almost immediate conversations begin with neighbors walking by…the sense of community we were searching for had returned as well.
Rather than building an ADU tucked away in the back yard, we feel lucky that our garage was front and center. That we now live in close proximity to the street that connects us to our neighbors. We wake up to dozens of bikes commuting to work and we chat with people walking home at the end of their day. Some have mistaken our space for a newly opening bar/restaurant and anyone that takes the time to stop is welcome for at least a tour and a happy hour wine pour. In the two months we’ve spent living in and finishing out our garage we have met and spent time with more neighbors than we met collectively in the years we lived inside the house.
Our project took longer and cost more than we expected- most do. Take a lesson from us however, and don’t try budgeting for any major project while spending pesos and trading beer for mechanics! We spent almost every day for 5 months (and almost $60k) building and outfitting our new home from scratch. That’s a luxury of time and savings that many don’t have, and we easily could have cut corners or outfitted our home far cheaper if it were intended to be a simple rental. For us, the money we saved for another year of vacation seemed far better spent ensuring a continued lifestyle. Time is the one commodity we currently have, so we prefer to look at the countless hours spent converting our garage into our perfect home as a creative journey rather than as an expense…
In our minds, this project was an investment in our freedom and our future. Had we decided to simply move back into the house…we would have been spent the same funds on our mortgage over the next 2.5years. As it currently stands our tenants are paying our mortgage, and if we live in our garage at least that long the project will have been free. Every day after that, or each time we rent the garage during our travels- is simply a gift.
Our minimal lifestyle certainly isn’t a perfect fit for everyone, and it wasn’t always easy. Likewise, our ADU may seem tediously small to some, but to us its designed perfectly around our lifestyle and dreams. To us it borders on luxurious, and we wish only that we would have thought of it years ago.
We honestly don’t know how long the current phase of our lives will continue, but we’ve tried to make sure we’ll be comfortable here for as long as that lasts. Like any home, the garage may require some modifications over time as our lifestyle changes, as we age, or if we decide its time for our family to grow…but we are no longer stuck believing (as we once did) that we have to pay now the giant mortgage to fit a lifestyle we may never have. For now the ADU is the answer to many of our dilemmas- financial, lifestyle, community and freedom- and for that we are truly thankful.
For a more detailed story about our ADU you can read through that period in our blog, and if you’re interested in a personal tour or any help designing your own project you can reach us at Zenbox ADU Design. Just let us know when you’ll be stopping by for happy hour =)