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Accessory dwellings had been on Nancy Abens’ mind for quite awhile by the time she decided to build one in her own backyard. Nancy was motivated to provide a space for her 86-year-old mom to live, where she could have privacy but be nearby. Nancy had seen ADUs in magazines and explored several on Portland’s ADU Tour, so she knew an ADU was a good option for her family. As Nancy did her research, she also visited with her friend Susan Moray who has an ADU of her own. (See Susan Moray’s ADU: Updating History in Ladds for more on that!)
“I was always thinking ahead to how we could take care of my mom since my dad just passed away. They were in Mexico and I couldn’t move down there, so I said, ‘You need to come up here!’” – Nancy Abens
When Nancy’s dad passed away, they sold the house in Mexico and used the money to build the ADU, which enabled them to create it without incurring any debt. The building contract for the ADU was approximately $137,000. When the permits, design fees, and appliances are added in, the cost comes up to $150,000. Nancy also remodeled her studio and dramatically changed her landscaping, so her overall project cost was closer to $165,000, though some of that cost wasn’t directly related to the ADU.
She worked with Confluence Design-Build to create plans for the ADU and then construct the building. Nancy already had a 200 square foot studio in her backyard, so as they explored design options, she considered adding a wing onto the studio to create a living space for her mom. However, the studio was an older accessory structure which was constructed close to the property line. She discovered that if they extended the footprint of her existing accessory structure she would have to comply with new zoning code regulations which would require her to create a 5-foot setback from the property line. They ultimately decided this wasn’t going to work as well as creating a separate detached structure. They reconfigured the studio to accommodate the ADU, making it slightly smaller.
Many Portland lots wouldn’t accommodate two detached structures, but Nancy’s lot is slightly larger than a typical lot. However, the lot wasn’t large enough to contain three structures and two giant trees. Nancy explains that they originally tried to design around the mature trees in the yard, but realized it wasn’t feasible.
“I really wanted to keep the Robinia pseudocacia ‘Frisia.’ I had planted the tree twenty years ago and it was glorious. The first design was building around it and trying to keep it but we couldn’t. There were a lot of changes because of the restrictions. I had a very established, private garden that was enclosed in the back by two 70-year-old rhododendrons and a variety of shrubs, a mature dogwood, and the robinia. All of that had to go. That’s been really hard for me, we had to put in the fence once all the shrubs and trees were gone. I was able to save many of my plants and have redesigned the outdoor space to work with the new building, but I really miss my trees. The whole outdoor living is important to us. It’s more like a courtyard now.”
Portland had a requirement that a detached ADU match the look of the primary dwelling (though this changed for detached ADUs within certain size restrictions when the Accessory Structures Zoning Code Update Passed), so Confluence Design-Build designed Nancy’s ADU to match the primary dwelling and the studio. All three buildings have the same siding, windows, and color scheme. However, if they’d had more flexibility, they probably would have gone a different route.
“I liked the modern designs with shed roofs and giant windows, but we couldn’t do that because we are in one of the little kit houses. So we had to give up what we would have liked to have done. It’s okay. The buildings create a courtyard and it looks really nice. But I would have done it somewhat differently.” –Nancy Abens
As the design developed, a primary consideration was making the small space feel larger. The ADU includes lots of light and high ceilings to provide a sense of space and airiness. Aging-in-place was also a key design consideration.
“It was interesting thinking about this as mom’s permanent residence. We had to think as an aging person, trying to make it as barrier-free as possible. There’s a curbless shower and a porch with a private sitting area. The inside of the house is wheelchair accessible. There is one step up to the patio, but if needed, a ramp would be easy to install. Mom’s in very good shape but we had to think about accessibility in case that changes.” -Nancy Abens
Nancy says it was exciting when they broke ground on the ADU, but the highlight of the build was seeing the finishes installed. Painting, countertops, and floors were key milestones. Nancy loves the floors, an engineered oak with a distressed finish and a dark stain, and the way they contrast with the light maple cabinets. One of her favorite features of the ADU is the little enclosed patio area that was created.
“Having that indoor-outdoor access is important to us. Mom loves sitting on her covered patio. The roof is a polycarbonate panel and is constructed with cedar posts.” –Nancy Abens
Before her mother moved in, Nancy was worried about sufficient storage space.
“I do wish that we would have been able to put in a bit more storage. Mom had to pare down a lot. All in all, however, it has worked fine. We just have used space in the main house for storage.” –Nancy Abens
Nancy notes that the ADU has created housing flexibility for her family. Her son lived in the ADU for the summer before her mom moved in. There are a variety of ways the ADU might be used in the future. See ADUs Work for Multigenerational Families and Options for ADU Owners: Rent One, Both, or Neither for more info about how ADUs are being used by families.)
“There’s a possibility that one of my two adult sons would move in. I have a sister-in-law who lives with us also. Or it’s possible we would rent it or do Airbnb. I’m not sure I could handle a long-term rental. Maybe my husband and I would live there and rent out our space. I think it’s going to be used as a family place and possibly short-term rental.” –Nancy Abens
Nancy says if she had it to do over again, she would have spent more time on the design. Specifically, she would have taken the time to ensure she really understood the implications of various design choices.
“There were some communication issues sometimes between myself, the builders, and the designer. The design was feeling rushed. Originally mom was going to come up earlier, which put pressure on me and on them. I thought the whole design process would be an unfolding kind of thing, but every time I wanted to make a change the cost went up because it was redrawn. I would have really gone through many different scenarios of the space. There were certain things I didn’t know, not being a designer, that they expected me to know. I wish there had been a little more guidance, a little more: ‘Have you considered what might happen if…’ For instance, the kitchen window was supposed to look out on the back shrubs but then they were taken out so now the window looks on my neighbor’s yard. I wish I could have moved the kitchen to another wall. But it was wonderful working with this team. Confluence Design-Build was beyond fabulous on the building.” –Nancy Abens
So what advice does Nancy have for homeowners considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“Really look at a lot of different spaces and do consider where it is sited. What are the neighbors like around it? What will you see from each window? Consider what’s happening around the ADU, not just in it. I think everybody thinks about the design and what it’s going to be like inside, but we tend to forget ‘how is this going to interact with everything around it?’” –Nancy Abens