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“ADUs are the wave of the future for our single family home neighborhoods.” –Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder and his wife Jackie Ellenz first learned about ADUs through their designer, Libby Holah. Libby and her husband Greg had previously designed a bathroom for Steve and Jackie.
“We really like Greg and Libby. Our garage was falling down so we asked them to look at what we could do with it. She asked ‘Have you ever considered an ADU?’ We asked, ‘What’s that?’ so she took us around to look at some other ADUs.” – Steve Snyder
For Jackie and Steve, there were lots of good reasons to build an ADU. They like the idea of supporting density and infill and they’re also committed to energy-efficiency. Greg is especially interested in how building technology can help us ameliorate climate change.
“I thought this could be a really cool sort of thing to do – to help a contractor think about energy-efficient design, including ideas from Passivhaus. It could be a learning experience for everyone engaged and perhaps even for a broader audience. Besides, our garage was falling down and we needed to do something with it. It seemed like the best use of our backyard space.” – Steve Snyder
As they worked with Libby and Greg Holah to design their ADU, Jackie and Steve kept in mind the lessons learned from years of reading books about small space design, Passivehaus design, and simple living. Energy efficiency was the primary guiding factor in the design. The building includes a laundry list of sustainability features:
The windows are triple-glazed and most of the windows face south to take advantage of passive solar heating.
Aging-in-place was also a design consideration for Steve and Jackie. They discussed the possibility that at some point as they get older one of them might need assistance. They realized that they could offer the ADU as a living space for someone in exchange for help.
Until December 2015, Portland required detached ADUs to match the primary house, which was just fine by Steve. He says that even if it wasn’t required, he and Jackie would have wanted to evoke the main house in their ADU. However, they also added a few extra flourishes to make the space special. For instance, they used plaster over wallboard with a venetian finish.
The only regulatory barriers they encountered related to the challenges of building an extra small home. They were required to have at least a 36” diameter floor in the shower and had to redo it since it wasn’t large enough the first time.
“Headroom at the stairs was also a challenge because we didn’t have adequate clearance, so we had to mess around with that. The other thing that was a drag was the 5-foot setback. We had to move the ADU 5 feet from the property line while the old garage was only a foot away. In some ways it feels like wasted space, but it’s not that bad. It’s a lot better than I thought it would be.” –Steve Snyder
Steve’s biggest frustration was finding contractors that were as tuned into energy-efficient building practices as he was.
“I felt like I had a vision for the project that wasn’t fully understood or maybe even shared by the builder. We had to have the plumber redo the plumbing. They were doing pipe installation in a way that sucked up wall space and had too many penetrations. The window framing was overdone, which meant that we had thermal bridging where it wasn’t necessary. So they had to tear it out and redo it. I definitely had to stay on top of things the whole time.” –Steve Snyder
Fortunately, Steve and Jackie were thrilled with the end result, but like so many other ADU owners, Steve says: “It’s a great space. I’m really, really happy with it and we did some cool stuff with it. But the highlight for me was getting the damn thing done!”
Another highlight was working with their designers, Libby & Greg Holah.
“Greg and Libby were great, really helpful, so working with them was a highlight. I felt like they were really excellent allies. They were great at thinking about problems that I saw during the construction and figuring out how to deal with them. The designer can put all this stuff on paper and the contractor can try to define what they’re going to do, but there are always holes.” –Steve Snyder
As they were building the ADU, Jackie and Steve imagined that it could serve a variety of functions. They saw it as a place they could offer to friends or acquaintances for a short or long-term stay. It’s also a possible source of income, depending on the economy and whether they’d like to rent it out.
“We never thought about Airbnb. That’s not interesting to me. If we had someone living in the backyard it would have to be someone we’re comfortable with. So far we’ve had family members who have lived there for a couple of years as well as guests. The space also serves as a part-time art studio. Everybody who has stayed here is someone we’re pretty close to. My nephew lived here while he was in school. Sometimes we’d knock on the door and go chat with him. When my brother lived there they had their own space, but it was like living with us, too. It was a nice easy interaction that ebbed and flowed. It was amazingly easy. We thought it would be harder with expectations. You almost think things could get too intense. But they didn’t. It’s a pretty sweet thing.” –Steve Snyder
Storage is a bit of an issue, and Steve notes that they would probably want to increase the storage if the ADU was used on a more formal basis such as a rental. They don’t have good closet space since the closet on the first floor is mostly occupied by the water heater and the closet under the stairs is short with the rest of the space angled away. (Check out ADU Storage Solutions for other ideas, too.)
“We didn’t really design it for storage. One cool thing we did was we put two drawers under the lowest part of the stairway that are accessible from the main part of the ADU. It’s way cool! We got that idea from another ADU. It’s how I’d like to work with the rest of the ADU if we ever get serious about improving the storage.” –Steve Snyder
Steve’s biggest disappointment with the ADU is that despite all their efforts to make it energy-efficient and use passive solar heating, it requires more energy than anticipated.
“I had it in my head that I wouldn’t have to heat the place because it’s so well insulated, but that was naïve on my part. It does require heat. Not a lot, but it’s not something you can live in with just body heat, cooking, and a light bulb. We had foam on the outside and we taped the seams. On the inside after we foamed it we dry walled it with gasketed drywall so that was two more layers of air sealing. We still had a heck of a time getting it down to 0.6 ACH [air changes per hour]. It’s hard to get Passivehaus air tightness numbers on a small building because you’re amortizing door and window space over less building volume.” –Steve Snyder
Meanwhile, Steve’s biggest surprise was that the ADU isn’t as obtrusive as he feared it might be.
“I thought there would be this looming behemoth. I worried that we were going to have this horrendous structure looming over our kitchen. But what it did was it created three spaces in our backyard. It’s helped give better shape to our yard, and now we have a little brick patio, like a plaza.” –Steve Snyder
Jackie says that if she had it to do over again she’d do the floors differently. The concrete slab is polished and they anticipated it would be bomb-proof, but they’ve discovered any stain becomes permanent. They would still probably use concrete, but might seal it differently or install another material such as tile on top.
So what advice does Steve have for homeowners considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“Be clear on your goals for your ADU, both as to how you’re going to use it and what kind of space you’d like. Spend money on the guts of the house, making it energy-efficient. Build a smaller ADU and get better quality.” –Steve Snyder