A one-stop source about accessory dwelling units, multigenerational homes, laneway houses, ADUs, granny flats, in-law units…
“ADUs are a great option for a homeowner looking to build equity on their existing property footprint as well as providing a smart investment opportunity for rental purposes.” –Kevin Eichner
As the owner of a small building company looking to focus on new builds instead of remodels, Kevin Eichner of AK Builders, saw the tiny house movement in Portland as a unique business opportunity. Kevin had built ADUs before as a subcontractor for Rainbow Valley and Ethan Beck Homes, so he was familiar with the complications that come with small spaces and getting utilities back to the structure.
When Kevin and his wife Amy created their own construction company seven years ago, Kevin’s inspiration to offer ADUs came from a brainstorm about their own family’s housing situation. They were trying to figure out how to move Amy’s father to Portland from upstate New York. Property values are much higher in Portland, so Kevin and Amy investigated building an affordable home for Dad on their lot by constructing an ADU in their backyard. Even though they have not yet initiated that project, it kickstarted their interest in offering contractor services in the small home movement.
AK Builder’s first ADU was built in 2014 in SE Portland and featured on the 2015 ADU Tour. The client had his plans done and everything ready for permit when his designer suggested AK Builders.
“There were definitely learning curves with the first ADU, but I got lucky by having a client that was very easy to work and collaborate with as we navigated our way through the first full build ADU project. If I could have done anything differently, it would have been to work more closely with the client in the design phase since there were some ways we could have made things easier and less expensive, but the design was done and we still worked effectively with the existing design. I really enjoyed the process of building the first ADU since I learned a lot about how to create efficiencies the next time around. Now I want to share my knowledge in this growing niche.” –Kevin Eichner
Kevin points out that building an ADU is much like building a small custom home, with an important caveat:
“Building an ADU is actually a little harder because you have so many things in a tight area. Everything has to be thoughtfully planned and located. The approach that I take is to keep an open mind, adapt to new challenges, and be flexible.” –Kevin Eichner
Kevin notes that flexibility is critical when building ADUs, particularly if they are conversions of existing spaces. Before ADUs were allowed by right in Portland, many people were converting spaces within their homes. In some cases, these were permitted ADUs, but more often they were “practical ADUs.”
“I have done a number of basement conversions and the benefit was versatility. A basement conversion can either be an additional living space for the house or a full separate unit, if mapped out in the correct way. Sometimes it was a grey area for the city of Portland, so ADU’s were a more clear cut way of developing additional living space on a person’s current property. When the market was down, we took on a variety of attached projects like basement conversions to keep the business afloat through the recession. As the market improved, we were able to shift to more detached new construction as demand started to pick up.” –Kevin Eichner
Kevin notes that when the market dips people often work with what they have and convert existing space such as basements or garages into living space. (Check out Tips for Basement to ADU Conversions and Tips for Garage to ADU Conversions.) When the economy picks up again, people are more likely to choose detached options.
(Kevin’s current project is not only detached, it’s also not even on the ground! AK Builders is currently building a tree house for a client that is intended to be an extra bedroom for guests from out of town. The shell is now complete and AK Builders will be turning their attention to the finishes shortly. It’s not an ADU, but it’s such a cool project, I couldn’t help but tell you about it. Watch the AK Builders website for updates!)
AK Builders encourages their clients to consider building to Energy Star Certified standards. They offer a menu of options in their contract that allow the homeowner to upgrade or downgrade the features of the home. Some upgrade options include improved insulation, triple paned windows, heat pumps, pre-wiring for solar panels, as well as many other features that will make an ADU more efficient for the lifetime of the home. A client can also choose to downgrade to code-required sustainability features, but Kevin finds many clients recognize the long-term benefits of investing in energy efficiency.
“The way I negotiate ADUs is on a cost-plus contract, making costs very transparent for the client to see all the options laid out so they can choose a path as budgets permit. We try to keep the process organized and smooth, but change orders from homeowners make for a few bumps in the road. Some changes can be easily accommodated and some are more challenging from a budget standpoint, planning or scheduling constraints. For instance, if someone wants to go from a tankless to a regular water heater once the project is well underway, we have to figure out where to put that when it would have been easier to map out during the design phase.. Lastly, if the project design allows for it, I like to utilize reclaimed materials in areas that can be a main focal point to the home.” –Kevin Eichner
Like so many other builders, Kevin says that the biggest challenge with building an ADU is budget.
“It’s the biggest issue because everyone is on a tight budget. Some are realistic with the numbers, but forget about a lot of details, and there are a lot of things they don’t have in their equation. I have consistently found that clients are usually off on their estimates by about $20,000, depending on whom they get for their architect and engineer. For example, we just wrapped up the Carlton Street ADU and the amount of hardware and fasteners the engineer required for that project was more than what was required for a 3000 square foot house I recently completed in Lake Oswego! That definitely threw us off the original budget” –Kevin Eichner
For Kevin, the highlight of building an ADU is working with clients to manifest their ideas and visions into the project.
“ADUs give me a creative outlet while at the same time working with them and manifesting their dreams into the build. The owner for the first ADU didn’t really know what he wanted for interior finishes like trim and railings. As the project came along I was like, ‘Let’s expose the beams and leave those open to give it some context. We have a vaulted ceiling and a weird wall, so we could probably make an opening and the light will come through. Also, the owner of the Carlton Street ADU was great as well. That client had a lot of design knowledge to bring to the table since he’s an architect himself. It’s a nice ADU that both him as an architect and me as a contractor can be very proud of.” –Kevin Eichner
So what advice does Kevin have for homeowners considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“The first thing I would advise is to partner with a good architect that has experience with designing small spaces. Set a realistic budget and have some contingency room built into it. Do your homework and find a builder that you feel comfortable with. Taking the ADU Class for Homeowners is definitely helpful.. Any extra knowledge you can get helps the process go more smoothly. Remember to have fun, get creative with the space, and enjoy the process of building the project.” –Kevin Eichner
When I asked if Kevin had any parting thoughts, this was his response:
“Yeah! Talk Multnomah County out of increasing property taxes on ADU’s. I’ve had four prospective ADUs stop in their tracks in the past couple months because clients don’t know what they’ll be able to afford due to the increased tax. There was great interest and growth with ADUs and a lot of them are now starting to dry up because of this. It’s frustrating once you get good momentum on something that the City is backing and then someone comes in and puts their hand out to slow things down” –Kevin Eichner