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Before the Great Recession, Stephen Smith was an architect working in downtown Portland, OR. When he got laid off, he decided to get his contractor’s license and start building. His first ADU project was Kol Peterson’s ADU: A Backyard Home, which has become “tiny house famous” here in Portland, especially after Kol began teaching his ADU Class for Homeowners and coordinating the ADU Tours.
“I’d been doing custom work for customers. Then I met Kol and after a good conversation he hired me to build his ADU. It was a tough learning curve, but I completely got on board with the idea of urban infill. This is a way we can increase density and it’s the type of residential that I want to be involved in. I did apartments as architect, but I think ADUs are the best way to add affordable housing.” –Stephen Smith
Stephen is well-aware that his business has benefited from the word-of-mouth marketing of his satisfied clients. He appreciates the mutually beneficial relationships and since it seems there is plenty of ADU work to go around, he makes a point to collaborate rather than compete. He also took a class for builders taught by Stephen Aiguier, owner of Green Hammer.
“Stephen had this saying: ‘All boats rise in the tide.’ He’s glad to teach that class to get more builders doing green. I try to do the same. I like what I do and it’s fun. I’m glad to be part of this ADU revolution. A group of builders came down from Seattle for Build Small. They’re trying to start the same thing in Seattle, so we talked about the differences and some of the design restrictions, parking, and site plans. I’m glad to help out another builder, too, as much as I can.” –Stephen Smith
As he designs an ADU, Stephen keeps several key considerations in mind. All his designs start with a site plan.
“The site plan is the most important drawing. We include the house, trees, and sun path to figure out how to orient the ADU on the site in the best way possible to make the most of the space and passive solar heating. Then the budget comes up pretty soon the conversation. I try to certify all my projects Earth Advantage Platinum. It’s not always feasible financially, but I push it. So all the windows are efficient and we use ductless mini-split heat pumps and tankless water heaters.” –Stephen Smith
Stephen’s favorite small space design tricks are storage lofts, vaulted ceilings, creative casework and cabinets, and flexible use spaces. For instance, he likes designing a space that could be an office or a bedroom or a dining room. He might include a movable island in the kitchen, use track doors as room partitions, or build bookshelves under the stairs. He packs as much storage as he can in the odd spaces that are left over. (Check out ADU Storage Solutions for more tricks.)
Stephen explains that his biggest challenges building an ADU are working with tight budgets and siting an ADU on a lot with a big tree.
“Sometimes tough decisions have to be made because of the budget. People often have unrealistic expectations about what they can afford and how custom we can make it for their budget. Sometimes it’s hard to get a big enough ADU on a site with a big tree in the middle of the yard. We can’t move the tree so have to fit around it.” –Stephen Smith
For Design-Build Portland the biggest building challenges are related to climate and building infill projects on small lots.
“It rains a lot in Portland! In the next couple months I’ll start two projects. It will be muddy and wet and everyone will be cranky. Also, there are times that because of the site and orientation we have to carry everything in by hand. A house with an alley is a beauty because you can roll up and start building. But I’ve built thirty of these now, so we’ve gotten the hang of it.” –Stephen Smith
For Stephen, the highlight of designing and building an ADU is that the scale of the projects enables them to be constructed on timelines and in locations that seem nearly impossible.
“It seems like magic. We come to a site where there’s nothing and make a building appear. Poof. There was nothing here before and now there’s an awesome living space just a couple months later. Right now I’m working late to put together a kitchen with Ikea cabinets. By end of night I’ll walk out and there will be a kitchen. It’s pretty awesome!” –Stephen Smith
So what advice does Stephen have for homeowners considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“I wish customers would go on a couple tours and see some other spaces. Be realistic about your expectations and how much money you have. Have an idea of what you think you would like and what you’re expecting out of the ADU. Are you doing a rental and trying to create the biggest thing you can get for your budget or is it a super-fine-tuned custom thing? That’s part of why you hire someone like me; I know the best things to do so I’ll help you figure it out.” –Stephen Smith