Accessory Dwellings

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An economical detached bedroom for Dad

[Editor’s note: ADUs can be great at meeting the needs of families with members who need a bit of support, but they do tend to be expensive.  Here, our guest correspondent “coloradotiny” describes how she created a simpler “detached bedroom” for her aging dad.  Whether you’re going for a full ADU or not, there’s a lot to learn from her approach — Martin]

detached bedroom, exterior

When I got the call in December 2014 that my dad had a stroke, it set in motion a chain of events that changed my life.

I was only 39 at the time and faced with the daunting task of becoming my dad’s caregiver.  I wasn’t really ready to settle down into that role.  I was still dating and still felt too young to take on that responsibility.  I thought that was something I’d have to do in my 50’s but certainly not in my 30’s.  I had never wanted kids and had never been married so I was accustomed to living my life untethered.

My dad was living in California at the time and I was living in Colorado.  As soon as I learned from his doctors that he was no longer going to be able to live on his own I flew to California to assess the situation and explore the options for my dad’s care.  Unfortunately, he did not have a lot of money in retirement, he did not have enough equity in his house for a reverse mortgage and he did not have a long-term care insurance policy.  All he had was his Social Security which would in no way cover the cost of assisted living.

I was maybe a little naïve at first so I thought he could just move into my spare bedroom and we’d get along ok.  In April 2015 he did just that.  I knew immediately that it was not going to be a good long-term solution.  I no longer had any privacy and I felt like it had turned my happy home upside down.  I was constantly frustrated at having to clean up after him and our conversations were never more engaging than casual conversations about the weather.  I couldn’t imagine the next 10 or 15 years being like this.  I thought to myself, what had I done?

I really wanted to help but I couldn’t do it at the expense of my own life.  I was too young.  It didn’t seem fair.  I thought if I could just get a little space, a little privacy it’d be ok.  I immediately started brainstorming on how to build an ADU.  In my area they allow for ADU’s but what they don’t tell you is that the cost to connect to the sewer and water — many tens of thousands of dollars — makes it out of reach for someone with limited assets.

I could have done a basement apartment but that wouldn’t have given me the privacy that I wanted.  I’d still hear every footstep and I’d still feel like he was in my spare bedroom.  I could have done an addition but my house was older and I didn’t feel like opening it up and running into unforeseen issues because of its age.  I could have bought a fifth wheel or tiny house and parked it in the yard but what if a neighbor complained?  What if he progressed to a wheelchair or a walker?  How would he navigate in a tiny house?  How would he get up steps?

For three months my dad and I shared my house.  The entire time I observed.  He never cooked.  He would only make coffee.  He rarely left the house.  He really only enjoyed watching TV and taking short walks around the neighborhood.  Because he wasn’t very active he was content to only take a shower every few days.  I thought to myself, why does he need a separate kitchen and shower?  Why couldn’t I just build a detached bedroom and bathroom that utilizes a composting toilet and skip a shower and kitchen?  He could easily come into the main house for meals and showers.

As soon as I got rid of the need for water and sewer I realized that we had the money to build a him something and the planning began.  I contacted a shed builder to design it and frame it and I acted as the general contractor.  The building was permitted as a shed/studio so it only had to meet the heated space requirements.  We kept the design simple.  A one-level 12 x 28 rectangle on a monolithic slab.  The only utility it is connected to is electric.  Because it was a small structure we opted for electric baseboard heat and a ceiling fan for cooling.  Fortunately the main house had enough room in the existing electrical panel to accommodate the power to his unit.  Not having to upgrade my electrical panel saved us thousands.

I had to use subcontractors for drywall, tile and trim carpentry.  I did all the insulation and paint myself.  I saved money by using furniture I found on Craigslist to substitute for built-ins.  A refurbished hutch and butcher block kitchen cart act like his kitchenette.   He has a small refrigerator, microwave and coffee pot.  I rent a water cooler in the living area so he has water to drink and water to make his coffee in the mornings.  He uses a bus tub to store his dirty dishes and a laundry basket for his clothes and every few days I bring them into the main house to wash.

The composting toilet and portable sink were installed after the building was complete.  The vent pipe for the composting toilet goes through the roof and the pee tube goes through the exterior wall and into a 3′ hole filled with pea gravel.  The portable sink has a 5 gallon capacity and on-demand hot water heater so it acts and feels like a regular sink.  He’s able to shave and wash his hands and I only have to fill it once a week.

The project took three months to complete and cost $30,000.  It has everything he needs and nothing he doesn’t.  It would have been nice if it were connected to water and sewer but we’ve found that it wasn’t really necessary.  For our situation it was more important that we each have our own space to enjoy our lives.  I would encourage anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation to consider the simplicity of this design.  It has worked well for us.


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