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“In Portland there aren’t many vacant lots, so we don’t often get opportunities to design an all-new house. Designing an ADU is like an opportunity to design a mini-house with more freedom to be playful and try new methods or materials.” –Jack Barnes
Like so many of us, Jack Barnes grew up referring to basement suites and backyard cottages as mother-in-law apartments. His first exposure to what he calls the “Portland version of ADUs” was a garage conversion in his neighborhood. Jack followed along as his neighbor Martin Brown (one of the editors of AccessoryDwellings.org) chronicled the garage to ADU conversion. You can check out Martin’s blog bottleworld for info about his ADU.
Jack was inspired by Martin’s project and decided to get involved with the creation of ADUs himself. He enjoys the challenge of designing a highly-functional small space.
“I’ve always enjoyed small dwellings carved out of forgotten urban spaces. Designing an ADU presents unique spatial challenges, which often result in a richer design solution. In short, it is a lot more fun than designing with unlimited space.” –Jack Barnes
Jack’s first ADU was Susan Moray’s ADU: Updating History in Ladd’s. The project was a garage to guesthouse conversion. The garage was a contributing structure in a historic district, so it involved a whole suite of challenges. Nevertheless, Jack decided to continue working on ADUs because this first one was such a success.
“It was a hugely positive experience, with so much great feedback from folks who toured or stayed in the cottage, so it was hard to imagine not designing ADUs after that!” –Jack Barnes
When he begins working with new clients Jack asks them to share lots of photos on Pinterest and Houzz and to describe what they like and don’t like about each of the images. As he designs an ADU, Jack keeps these preferences in mind as well as several other design considerations, including natural light, lot placement, and privacy.
“Natural light is a huge consideration. Sometimes we might have one or two walls close to a property line where windows are not allowed, so that means we have to be even more thoughtful about how we place windows and skylights. Of course we also think a lot about how to make the ADU feel like its own space with privacy from the house, and vice versa. And unless a homeowner insists on ‘maxing out’ the ADU at 800 square feet, we prefer to keep some spaces open and spacious rather than building a full second floor. That way the ADU doesn’t feel too cramped and dark. The new ADU standards should give us some more freedom in this regard since the height limit will allow taller spaces.” -Jack Barnes
Storage is a challenge in many ADUs, simply because the square footage is limited, but Jack points out that if an ADU is intended to be used as a guesthouse, rather than a full-time residence, storage isn’t as high a priority. (Also check out ADU Storage Solutions.)
“For a short-term rental, I encourage owners to provide less storage since guests usually won’t use a big closet, so we just give that floor space over to the living areas instead. For an ADU that will be occupied long-term, I like to sneak storage into the low spaces of attics with built-in drawers or cabinets in spaces that would be too short to use for floor area. Minimizing corridors and other wasted space is always smart. And we utilize forgotten areas such as those under a stairway. We like to do clever built-ins and storage, but also just being thoughtful about when we can eliminate something from the design. As an example, maybe a freestanding island isn’t the best fit for a small space.” –Jack Barnes
Additionally, Jack has two more favorite small space design tricks to make ADUs feel bigger:
As for sustainability, it’s a driving factor in Jack’s designs, even if the project is not pursuing any certifications.
“We are big believers in using Passivhaus design principles. So first and foremost we like to make the ADU energy-efficient with regard to heating and cooling. This has the added benefit of making the space much more comfortable for the residents or guests. With an airtight shell, it is also important for us to use healthy materials and provide fresh air to the ADU occupants.” –Jack Barnes
As his ADU designs develop, the biggest challenge is often preserving the outdoor spaces for the main house and providing outdoor space for the ADU. Jack notes that ADU regulations present challenges for some properties as well.
“There are a lot of building code regulations that we need to know for an ADU. Even though this is the boring stuff, it is important to have those constraints in mind very early in the design process so that we don’t have to change the design late in the game when plans go in for permit review.” –Jack Barnes
Jack has found a niche for himself creating ADUs in historic districts, but like many other ADU designers, he is looking forward to a relaxation of Portland’s requirement that detached ADUs match the primary dwelling.
“I don’t think it is always necessary for the ADU to look like a mini-version of the main house, and in fact can sometimes seem contrived. ADUs are fun and playful projects, and it will be great when we can bring some of that playfulness to the design of ADU exteriors, window shapes, and roofs. Of course we also do a lot of work in historic districts where I think our ADUs will always tend to be a sensitive response to the main house.” –Jack Barnes
So what advice does Jack have for homeowners considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“Usually when we’re starting with new clients, I ask them to plan ahead and think about the spaces and features they really need and think about what they can do without. We end up with a much nicer design solution if we aren’t trying to cram everything in. Living in a small space is about doing more with less. The feedback I often got on the tour for Susan’s place was that it felt spacious, more so than some of the other 800 square foot ADUs. That’s because we didn’t try to do too much.” –Jack Barnes