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ADU Designer Profile: Ground Up Design Works


Willie Dean Photo

Quick Facts

  • Company Name: Ground Up Design Works
  • City: Portland
  • Contact Name: Willie Dean
  • Contact Phone: 608-658-3117
  • Contact Email:
  • Type of Company: Design
  • # of Years Creating ADUs: 3
  • # of ADUs Completed: 3
  • Types of ADUs Created: stand-alone detached unit (new construction)

Check out Ground Up Design Works ADU Profiles to see examples of their ADUs! For a more in-depth look, read Stew & Lisa Hulick’s ADU: Thinking Outside (& Inside) the Box and Tom Hudson’s ADU: The Newest House on the Block

Willie Dean, owner of Ground Up Design Works, has known about ADUs for as long as he can remember. As he puts it, “I’ve always known about them, I just didn’t know to call them an ‘ADU.’” (Check out the many and confusing synonyms for ADUs.)

Willie is from Wisconsin and Milwaukee has an old tradition of ‘alley houses’ which were developed in the early 20th century. They always fascinated Willie as a kid and his interest in small dwellings has grown ever since.

“When I first left home I lived in what I would now call a ‘detached bedroom.’ It was a studio built off the back of a detached garage at a family friend’s house in Longmont, Colorado. These folks had a basement apartment and a backyard cottage as well. I thought it was a great use of space!” – Willie Dean

Willie learned more about ADUs after moving to Portland, OR for graduate school and experiencing “the ADU culture in town.” (Learn How Portland Became ADU-Friendly (And How Your City Can, Too)The System Development Charge Waiver went into effect right around the time Willie graduated from architectural school, which created a spike in ADU permits. (Check out Why Does Portland Have ALL The ADUs?) Suddenly there was more demand for ADUs and the scale of these projects seemed like a good starting point for a new architect like Willie.

“As an aspiring designer I wanted to get involved in freelance design work and ADUs seemed like something I could handle on my own. I’ve always loved well-designed, small, interesting space, so this seemed like a great opportunity.” – Willie Dean

Willie’s first ADU was Tom Hudson’s ADU: A Sneek Peek at An ADU Under Construction. It wasn’t hard for Willie to decide that ADUs were worth continuing to offer as one of his services.

“What convinced me to do a second ADU? All the people that came knocking after the first one was done. There’s been a great response to my work and I feel really lucky that people continue to come to me for their designs.” – Willie Dean

Tom’s ADU was on the ADU Tour in Portland in 2014, so hundreds of people saw it, including two of Willie’s recent ADU clients.

As he designs an ADU, Willie’s major design considerations are form, space, and light. Let’s look at how Willie addresses these points.

“By ‘form’ I mean not only the massing, but how it relates to the space and the other buildings around it. There’s a relationship between the form of the house and the space created both inside and outside the box. Form informs space and space informs form; those are two sides of the same coin. For instance, in the Hulick home the offset roof is a big influencer of both the internal and the external spaces. The offset roof creates the necessary head space in the lofted area and bringing the roof down on the garden side respects the existing covered structure. It’s organic and curvilinear and I didn’t want the ADU to tower over it, so we came down to the same single story height, which makes that backyard space feel good. Since ADUs are always secondary to another house, I’m always designing an ADU in relation to the existing home.” – Willie Dean

Regarding light, Willie points out that it’s a key consideration in his designs because it can influence the feeling of spaciousness.

“Light creates drama. Light changing across planes creates a visual diversity that makes a space feel bigger than it actually is. I like to strategically place openings so that they’re either creating a view or adding daylight opening. In the Hulick house there’s a big window half-way up the stairs, so while walking up the stairs you get a view, but from the other habited spaces you just see sky and tree tops. You’d never see a person through that window and a person would never see you.” – Willie Dean

Sustainability is a consideration for Willie’s designs, too, even if the clients haven’t specifically requested it. He works with orientation of the structure on the site and the spaces within the ADU to provide natural light and ventilation. He also recommends the use of high-performance wall assemblies with high R-value and good air sealing as well as low-energy mechanical solutions like heat recovery ventilation systems and ductless mini-split heat pumps.

Willie says his design tricks are the same for small spaces as they are for any size building.

“They are just more important to get right in a small space! I like to provide a lot of natural light and views to the surrounding area. If there is a spot with a particularly long view, I’ll make it a part of the composition. I like to keep the floor plan as open as possible while still providing privacy both on the interior and from the exterior. Vaulted space features prominently in most of my designs. It makes spaces feel bigger and creates unique special interaction.” – Willie Dean

Although many ADU designers say they struggle with providing adequate storage, Willie’s experience is the opposite.

“The hardest part about storage is usually convincing the client they need it! Storage isn’t hard to fit into a design but, obviously, it does take up space. A lot of people want all the square footage to be living space and don’t give storage the weight it requires. I use any left-over space for storage: under the stairs, drawers in the risers of the stairs, in an external storage area, or in a loft if it isn’t habitable space. I also try to design space with storage furniture like dressers and bookshelves in mind. Built-ins are great too!” – Willie Dean

Willie’s greatest challenges in designing an ADU are the zoning regulations, though he notes “compared to other places in the country we have it pretty good since ADUs are actually legal here!” Other challenges include clients having tight budgets and unrealistic expectations about the cost of an ADU.

“I’m often the first professional in the building industry people have contact with, so I wind up frequently being the bearer of bad news. I am frequently helping people adjust their expectations or encouraging them to look for more money to make the project feasible.”  – Willie Dean

(Check out How much do ADUs cost? to learn more about that!)

So what advice does Willie have for homeowners considering creating an ADU on their own property?

“Make sure to involve a designer and or builder early. Make sure you have your finances figured out in advance. These can be expensive projects and a lot of people are caught off-guard when they figure out how expensive they are. It’s not because I design expensive work, quite the contrary, but people think since these buildings are small that they will be cheap. It’s just not the case. You need to keep in mind that you’re still building a small custom home.” – Willie Dean

About linamenard

Hi. My name is Lina Menard and I'm a small house dweller, designer, blogger, and builder. I'm currently collecting ADU Case Studies for Through my company Niche Consulting LLC, I help people design and build the home (and life) of their dreams! I also tell my stories about simple living in small spaces - like a travel trailer, a yurt, a backyard cottage, and tiny houses on wheels - at Niche News.

One comment on “ADU Designer Profile: Ground Up Design Works

  1. Pingback: ADU Storage Solutions | Accessory Dwellings

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This entry was posted on June 10, 2016 by in ADU Designer, ADU Professional Profiles and tagged , , , , .
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