A one-stop source about accessory dwelling units, multigenerational homes, laneway houses, ADUs, granny flats, in-law units…
“If you give me a blank piece of paper and instruct me to draw you something, my guess is that I wouldn’t necessarily come up with anything too exciting. If you say you can’t do A, B, and C, and you have to do X, Y, and Z, then I’m going to to get creative. That’s when the creativity really comes in.” –Josh Salinger
Josh Salinger, owner of Birdsmouth Design | Build, had his first experience building an ADU when his company converted an unfinished basement into an apartment in 2011. The ADU was very small and Birdsmouth barely had the head height they needed to make the ADU code compliant. Birdsmouth added two new bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bath. They also poured a new slab, cut in three egress windows, and stained the concrete floors.
“It was very challenging to fit all of the systems into the existing joists to avoid large soffits and head-knockers. We barely pulled that one off, but we did it.” –Josh Salinger
After building his first ADU, Josh was inspired to add ADUs to his offerings because they are a good fit for his company.
“I like that they are efficient and small. I like that people can supplement their incomes by building ADUs. I like how these buildings promote infill and density within our city. They can be creative and challenging, too. They’re essentially the same as building a new home, but in a very small footprint.” –Josh Salinger
As Birdsmouth designs an ADU, the company’s driving consideration is “trying to accommodate all of our client’s goals into these small spaces.”
“If they’re trying to squeeze in two bedrooms and one and a half baths, we show them multiple options. This could affect where the stairs are located or where the couch goes. It might be more focused on the kitchen if that person likes to cook. If it’s for a rental, it may be more about durability.” –Josh Salinger
Josh notes that budget is often the biggest challenge for ADUs and it plays a big role in what the finished ADUs look like.
“Design influences budget a lot. A building with hips, valleys, bump-outs, and odd geometry costs more than building that is more cube-like and simple. We employ cost-saving tricks like wrapping windows with drywall and adding a wood sill so the overall impression is appealing. ADUs are dense. There are a lot of costs that go into these little houses. They have everything a bigger house has, but all crammed into 800 square feet or less. The market as a whole has been wreaking havoc on costs lately, too. The past six months we’ve seen some materials and labor costs jump almost thirty percent. You can’t even compare something built six months ago to what’s happening now.” –Josh Salinger
Of course, converting an existing space such as a garage or basement into an ADU brings its own set of challenges and potential surprises. For example, dual disconnect electrical meters are required by code. If the homeowner’s existing electrical panel and wiring can’t support modern systems, that will add cost to upgrade the main home’s electrical system. They may also need to hook up a new waste line if there was a party line for the sewer. If it’s a retrofit, the footings may not meet code or seismic requirements.
“If it’s an existing home, there’s always the potential for something to present itself to you. There may be structure missing or rotten sill plates. Often, there are old junction boxes buried in walls. If it’s a basement we have to figure out how to fit everything in the space to avoid soffits. It can be challenging to figure out a way to run a pipe around a joist or beam because it’s load-bearing.” –Josh Salinger
Josh notes that new construction is more a straightforward, linear path. For Birdsmouth, building a backyard cottage is pretty much like building a new home. Sometimes a small garage needs to be deconstructed for the ADU to take its place, but typically there are fewer surprises. (To read about the surprises that one ADU owner found when deconstructing his garage, check out Satish’s ADU: A Backyard Landlord Suite!)
“If it’s a detached ADU, one challenge we often encounter is deciding how we’re going to hook up the infrastructure. Do they have a sensitive flower bed they don’t want to mess up? How are we going to build this building while leaving a light footprint and minimize impact on their lives?” For detached ADUs there are also city requirements regarding matching roof pitch, window style, and siding that can complicate things.” -Josh Salinger
Birdsmouth focuses on “High Performance” building. Josh and his team pay careful attention to energy efficiency, wall assemblies, insulation, and heating and cooling systems. They often incorporate solar photovoltaic panels (PV) or heat pumps into their projects. Comfort, indoor air quality, and durability are all important to Birdsmouth, too. The company’s long-term goal is to provide high performance buildings at cost parity with typical residential custom construction.
“We really focus on energy efficiency and quality in our projects. The buildings are comfortable, last a long time, and have great indoor air quality. We intentionally locate windows and doors to bring in light and create a connection to the outdoors. I believe these buildings are better and increase the quality of life for their occupants.” –Josh Salinger
Josh notes that stairs and storage are important considerations in a small space like an ADU. Code compliant stairs need to have sufficient head height, width, railings, and the correct ratio of rise to run. They’re often difficult to fit in without overwhelming a small space.
“Sometimes the trick is putting the stairs in a corner and sometimes it’s wrapping a wall. Built-in cabinets can be a clever way to hide systems such as a ventilator or a water heater. One considers an ADU like it’s a boat or a ship and takes advantage of every little space. We’ve installed toe kick drawers and upper cabinets that go all the way to the ceiling. Lofts can be good for storage, too. Sometimes we find its better to try and accentuate things verses trying to hide them. Open shelving and coat hooks on a wall can add interest while saving space at the same time.” –Josh Salinger
Josh also works to keep spaces open, which makes them feel larger. To create open spaces, they use I-joists and web trusses to span the distance and avoid point loads through the middle of a building.
“That way you can have open floor plans. You can do a balcony and create a vaulted space. Making the ceilings taller can make a small room feel huge.” –Josh Salinger
For Josh the highlight of creating an ADU is the challenge of making a small space efficient.
“A challenge isn’t a bad thing. It’s the problem solving and creativity that can be fun. It’s the ‘Ah ha!’ moment of finding a clever solution that our team enjoys. We ask ourselves ‘How can we make this building really energy-efficient? How can we make this building feel larger than it is?’ We want good form and proportionality. We’re always trying to fit all of that in.” –Josh Salinger
So what advice does Josh have for homeowners considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“Do your homework with the good resources available out there, whether it’s Kol’s blog or AccessoryDwellings.org. Go to the city and ask questions. Take the time getting your budget in order. Choose all of your systems and finishes prior to starting construction. Get an architect and contractor on board as early in the process as possible. Take your time in the design and don’t rush it. Bring the subcontractors into the fold; every one of those people are experts in their respective fields and can offer good advice. Changing designs or finishes midstream will cost time and money, so plan ahead and make all decisions early in the process.” –Josh Salinger