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“I have built over 50 ADUs since 1998, and I can honestly say, I do not know of any customer who is not happy that they did it!” –Joe Robertson
Joe Robertson, owner of Shelter Solutions, has been building ADUs in Portland for nearly 2 decades. In 1997 was working for a big production builder, constructing single-family homes. His supervisor pointed out the draft code change to allow ADUs by right on single-family homes, as long as they comply with the ADU Guidelines.
“I remember thinking ‘That’s a niche market for someone to get into.’ I went about my business, but also studied ADUs and developed prototype plans.” –Joe Robertson
Joe built a website to show the potential of ADUs and posted some of his prototypes. However, the internet was fledgling in 1999, so it wasn’t generating much interest. Fortunately, it caught the attention of one important person: Joe’s first ADU client.
“She saw my website and called me up. She lived in Laurelhurst and her husband had had a stroke so she asked me to build an ADU that would be accessible. We did a roll-in-shower and a kitchen the island that could move out of the way. They moved into it and her adult daughter and grandchild moved into the bigger house. He lived out the rest of his life there and she stayed there until just a few months ago when she passed away herself. She was proud of the ADU and happy about it so she became a big advocate for ADUs and she talked me up. Nearly 20 years later, I’m just ready to pull a permit for a detached ADU that came from a reference from her!” –Joe Robertson
After he built his second ADU the Oregonian did a feature article, which resulted in lots of phone calls from curious homeowners. Joe liked building ADUs because they were both practical and creative, so he’d do a couple each year, but the bulk of his work continued to be single-family homes.
“I never really marketed it, so I built two or three ADUs per year for many years. With the recent recession and everything changing, I decided to focus on ADUs and it’s now the majority of what we’re doing. I was part of the very first SCD waiver and testified to the City Council. I was surprised how fast the word got around about the SDC waiver. That increased my inquiries three-fold and it was the major reason I shifted out of general construction into ADUs.” –Joe Robertson
Approximately 80% of Shelter Solutions work is design-build, but they do also build for clients who come to them with a design. When a client contracts with Joe for a design after the initial consultation, they start out by enlisting Shelter Solutions to compile a Feasibility Study for a fee of $1500.
“I’ve been doing Feasibility Studies as the first step in the design/build process for years and years. I started doing them when I was building custom homes 30 years ago. It gets someone started. We do preliminary plans, which include basic floor plans and elevations. It’s not permit ready plans, but it’s enough to get a sense of it and enough to get an accurate estimate. I also take it to the city and say ‘This is what we propose building’ to see if there are any issues. I’ve been doing this a long time, but sometimes I’m still surprised. Maybe it’s a special district, so there are additional requirements, or maybe the planning department changes how they interpret the code.”
Joe builds a very detailed cost estimate and puts it all together in a booklet form. The feasibility study becomes the customer’s property. He charges $1500 for the feasibility study and depending on how busy they are it usually takes 4-6 weeks. He notes that the amount of time really depends on how much back and forth goes on during the design stage.
“If the customers decide to go forward with the building contract, it’s a fixed price based on allowances. We credit the $1500 against the price on the contract. Technically they can shop it around and get other bids, but we get the job the vast majority of time. It’s worked out great for years.” –Joe Robertson
As he designs an ADU, Joe keeps a few things in mind. He likes his ADUs to blend in to their surroundings, utilize of every bit of space possible, and be energy efficiency with a small carbon footprint. He incorporates Earth Advantage and Energy Star features such as ductless mini-split heat pumps, heat recovery ventilation, blown-in insulation, tankless water heaters, robust air sealing, and LED lighting.
“There are lots of technical air sealing issues including every joint and the concealed spaces under tubs and behind fireplaces. When we do the blower door test, it always passes way over the minimum requirement.” –Joe Robertson
In order to optimize space, Joe employs a handful of design tricks. He builds storage into the eaves (since the space shorter than 5’ doesn’t count as square footage), eliminates hallways wherever possible, and makes rooms with multi-functional. He has built several ADUs above garages, which clients often liked because the garage doesn’t count as square footage. Sometimes he also incorporates attached storage sheds accessed from outside the ADU.
“We recently completed one in North Portland where we tore down an old garage and built a studio. We added exterior storage all the way down the structure with two sets of double doors. This gave main house storage, too, and he was into bikes, so they liked having a spot for bike storage, lawn equipment, and things that can be stored outside unheated.” –Joe Robertson
After building more than fifty ADUs, Joe says his biggest design challenge is fitting the ADU on the property while maintaining private space for the existing home dweller. He explains that it gets tricky when the ADU owner wants a bedroom on the main level, because it makes the footprint of the whole ADU bigger.
“We start with the site plan because it all goes back to fitting the ADU on the site. We determine this is the area the ADU can fit in and develop the plan from that, using that as a footprint. It’s easier to work out when it’s a smaller footprint and the bedrooms are upstairs, but that takes out the accessibility. At least a third of our ADUs have some accessibility principles built in. We design in grab bars and wide doors. ADUs for aging-in-place has become a niche for us. We didn’t see this coming. We thought they’d all be rental units, but only about 50% have turned out to be rentals.” –Joe Robertson
Joe says some of his favorite ADUs were built for extended families. (Read more about how ADUs Work for Multigenerational Families.) He says they’re “kind of a life estate situation.” Sometimes an elderly person whose house has become too burdensome, or who has special care needs, will sell their existing home. Rather than moving into assisted care, they will finance the building of an ADU for them to live on the adult children’s property adjacent to their home. Or maybe they build the ADU on their own property and move into it and their children move into the primary dwelling. Joe has built ADUs for both scenarios several times.
“They get a private place with their own identity, but they’re close to family and can support each other. One woman was able to stay in the neighborhood she’d lived in for 45 years. Another man sold his house to his daughter and son-in-law and moved into an ADU in the back yard. Now she is raising her kids in the house she grew up in. I love seeing an ADU accomplish the customer’s goals!” –Joe Robertson
When Shelter Solutions switches from design to building the biggest challenges become site accessibility and utility connections.
“By far the greatest challenge is that it’s hard to get equipment and materials in when you only have five or six feet between the house and ADU. We end up packing material in by hand. In lots of neighborhoods truck delivery and parking are challenges, too. Those issues need to be thought out well in advance.” –Joe Robertson
He points out that sometimes he has to run a cost-benefit analysis on the amount of time it will take his subcontractors and laborers to work on a tight site. In some cases, he’s found it’s easier to go through than around.
“In East Moreland, we’re building an ADU behind the garage and we’re leaving the garage there, so we cut large opening in back of garage so we can move materials through. We will patch it back in later. That’s not a rare situation. We have to come up with creative ways to do this and figure the costs accordingly.” –Joe Robertson
Even after an ADU is finished, Joe likes to continue a relationship on with them after the project. One of the highlights for him is getting feedback from former clients when he visits them.
“I love going back after the project has been completed and seeing how the customer is utilizing the ADU. They’re usually proud of it and want to show it off, so I try to circle back. It’s more difficult if it is a rental, but if it’s a family member, I like to wait to see how they’re living in it. They’re usually anxious for us to see how it’s working for them. I use all my customers as references.” –Joe Robertson
So what advice does Joe have for homeowners considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“It is typically well worth the commitment and involvement. Allow a year from initial planning to completion of building – and more if you’re a do it yourselfer. Spend a lot of time in the planning stage and get as many answers and decisions made as possible before starting construction. There’s a flow chart it’s going to have to travel. If everything goes smoothly this is how long it will take, so set your expectations accordingly. If you have to take more time in the planning stage than the building stage to get questions answered and decisions made, it will be a lot less stressful and a lot more likely to stay in budget.” –Joe Robertson