A one-stop source about accessory dwelling units, multigenerational homes, laneway houses, ADUs, granny flats, in-law units…
Bryan Danger and his wife Jen first learned about ADUs when they began talking with Portland’s building department to learn how to convert their property into a legal duplex. They owned a house just off Portland’s bustling Division Street. They’d been renting their house out while they traveled in a VW bus through Mexico and Central America. When they returned home they realized that just their garage felt spacious after living in the bus. They decided to convert their garage into an apartment so that they could live in it without booting their tenants. Their first “fact finding mission” introduced them to the concept of ADUs and they realized that was what they wanted to create.
“We designed and built our first ADU as our personal home as part of downsizing and simplifying our lifestyle. We realized the freedom (financial and otherwise) that could come by living in our ADU and renting out the primary house to cover the mortgage. Designing, building and living in our ADU completely changed our lives (for the better).” –Bryan Danger
Even before they completed their Garage Sweet Home, they were bombarded with compliments and questions. People wanted to know how they could do it, too, and whether Jen and Bryan could help.
“During the build and afterwards while living in our new ADU, many neighbors asked us to share our experiences and stories. We found ourselves spending countless hours consulting and designing for free, and eventually we created zenbox to continue those conversations and help neighbors find the benefits we discovered through building an ADU. We are huge proponents of the small house and ADU movement because while we are now ADU designers, we are first and foremost ADU owners and residents. We know intimately and first hand the special needs and requirements of living comfortably in small spaces long term. We also know the benefits it can mean as an impetus for lifestyle change, income production and/or long-term flexibility.” –Bryan Danger
As they work with clients to design an ADU, Bryan and Jen keep a few key considerations in mind. First and foremost, small can be comfy.
“We believe that living small means does not have to mean giving up comfort. We like to design spaces for our clients that make them excited to downsize and move into a smaller yet more functional and more beautiful space than the one they lived in before. Some of our major design considerations are open plan and layout, natural light, connection between inside and outside, and transformable furniture/spaces that have more than a single use.” –Bryan Danger
After living in a small space on the road, Jen and Bryan think of small spaces as more than just a box to contain their objects.
“We approach small home design more like designing a sailboat than a house. Everything should have its place and everything should ideally have more than one use. This allows us to start at the lowest common denominator and design to use literally every square inch within an ADU rather than the mindset of starting with the typical house layout and trying to scale it down.” –Bryan Danger
Storage plays a big role in zenbox design’s ADUs, not just as a necessity for the occupants, but also as a buffer from the neighbors.
“We provide storage through ample use of custom cabinetry and built-ins. We tend to cover the outside walls (especially the two walls facing neighbors that are unlikely to have copious windows) with built-ins to provide storage and free up the remainder of the interior to be open and light. We like to use storage as a driving force for design rather than an afterthought forced in after the design phase.” –Bryan Danger
Sustainability is important for Bryan and Jen, too. They design all of their ADUs to be as sustainable and low-impact as possible within their clients’ budgets. Their ADU designs have included passive solar siting and design, living eco-roofs, high performance and energy efficient windows and wall systems, ample use of locally-salvaged materials, closed cell soy insulation, radiant heat flooring, low-flow fixtures, and energy efficient appliances.
Bryan describes his greatest challenge in designing an ADU as “the delicate puzzle of navigating city code requirements merged with great design at an affordable price point for our clients.”
However, he and Jen also relish the process of getting to know their clients well enough to design a space that fits their needs perfectly now but also works well into the future as their lifestyles and families change.
“We spend as much time playing the role of counselor/consultant as we do designer because we help our clients through all phases of creating an ADU. We’re a design company, but we have strong relationships with a handful of builders and can fill the role of (or structure our agreement with clients as) a design-build firm for those who want/need it. We can work with clients on design, permitting, build, outfitting and, if desired, marketing and renting the unit for long-term or short-term income.” –Bryan Danger
In Portland detached ADUs are required to match the look of the primary dwelling. When asked if their ADUs would match the main house if they weren’t required to, Bryan says:
“Yes and no. More clients would probably choose to style differently, but several of our ADUs have still been designed to almost (but not exactly) match the existing house. Many people don’t realize that there is a process within the city code that can allow the project to not match the house exactly. We have used this process to design ADUs that fit in to the neighborhood from the street but still legally allow the more modern aesthetic or appearance that several of our clients are seeking.” –Bryan Danger
So what advice does Bryan have for homeowners considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“This is not a small project or a quick process. Its worth doing it right the first time and thinking through every possibility upfront. We often counsel our clients to think not only about the current needs that brought them to building an ADU, but to truly challenge what all possible uses it could have long-term as their lifestyle and family dynamics change. They may have initially been introduced to an ADU as a possibility for offsetting their mortgage, but what about a place to house the children as they leave high school/college? What about downsizing into the ADU after the children are gone? What about a place for mom and dad to age gracefully near family? We believe the true value of ADUs lies in their flexibility over the life of the family, which is absolutely possible if the client and designer take the time up front to make sure the design allows for all possibilities.” –Bryan Danger