A one-stop source about accessory dwelling units, multigenerational homes, laneway houses, ADUs, granny flats, in-law units…
“I’m investing my assets in an ADU so I can have an affordable house for the rest of my life. It has become a financial plan, so that I can live on what I set aside when I retire. This unit will work well for me. I’m sure of that.” –Sharon Nielson
Sharon Nielson has worked in affordable housing finance in Portland, OR for 30 years with Central City Concern, the Portland Development Commission, and as an independent consultant. In that time, she has come across many alternative housing models, including ADUs.
“I saw ADUs as a real addition in the community development process. We need to increase density, but it’s also another way to build affordable housing. ADUs meet community goals, but mine will also fit my personal needs. After 30 years working in affordable housing, I feel like I’m walking my talk. This is a way to make housing affordable, safe, decent, beautiful, and integrated into the community.” –Sharon Nielson
Sharon has created her “forever home” in collaboration with her son Keith and daughter-in-law Stephanie by converting their garage into a mother-in-law unit. (See examples of how ADUs Work for Multigenerational Families. Keith and Stephanie’s home is located in the historic Irvington neighborhood of Portland, OR and they want it to fit right in with the other architecturally significant homes.
“I embarked on this project a couple years ago when I saw on AccessoryDwellings.org that architect Jack Barnes had assisted Susan Moray with the design of her ADU, also a garage conversion in an historic district. I mentioned it to Sharon and she knew Jack from the affordable housing world.” –Keith Pitt
As Sharon, Keith, and Stephanie worked with Jack to design the ADU, livability was their key motivation. They would have liked the ADU to be 600-700 square feet, but Keith and Stephanie also have a 3 ½ year old, so they didn’t want the ADU to “gobble up” the entire backyard. The focus was making the ADU a well-thought-out and comfortable home as Sharon ages in place. For Sharon, environmental sustainability was a given, but she emphasizes that “sustainability” encompasses long-term livability and financial security as well.
“I was definitely looking at sustainability features like skylights, durable materials, and energy-efficient appliances, but it was also about my ability to live there for the rest of my life, even if I need a walker or a wheelchair. In 500 square feet we couldn’t get to ADA standards, but we did as much as we could in the space. We made it a miniature home with a bedroom and a living room. Also, the walk score for the Irvington neighborhood is fabulous! I’m just two blocks from Whole Foods and within walking distance of the Lloyd District. That walkability will become increasingly important as I age.” –Sharon Nielson
Storage was a consideration in the design and as they planned for it in the places it would be needed: a vanity in the bathroom, a closet in the bedroom, and kitchen cabinets. (Check out ADU Storage Solutions for more ideas!) Sharon is also working out of the ADU, so she needed a simple area for a computer and printer. However, she had to downsize to move into her ADU, which included selling her furniture and many other belongings. There were a few things – such as snow tires for her car – that she stored in Stephanie and Keith’s basement.
“I don’t think either of us really envisioned there would be a lot to store. However, now that there’s no garage storage for main house, we’ll likely be building a modest shed with a similar design as main house (and ADU) in the other corner of the backyard.” –Keith Pitt
Furthermore, because their home is located in an historic district and their garage was considered a contributing structure, they had a few additional design considerations. They were required to go through a Type II Design Review and retain two walls of the existing garage.
“We went through a few different layouts of the structure. We originally thought we were going to have the front of the garage look like the front of the primary residence with similar architectural features. We likewise anticipated building out to the east, but the City said ‘No, the original, contributing structure needs to retain the look of a garage, and you’re going to build to the south, with any additional square footage of construction located behind the primary residence.’ As a practical matter, the ultimate exterior design of the structure ended up being what the City of Portland told us it was willing to accept. They were nice about it and at the end of the day it worked out.” –Keith Pitt
“Making those accommodations is in line with the primary residence and what we’ve ended up with is quite charming. To give the nod to the garage façade, we have the double French doors with the sidelights. It’s very open, wonderful, welcoming.” –Sharon Nielson
Keith notes that the double garage doors with sidelights were a suggestion from the Irvington Community Association. This was his second Type II review – he’d previously replaced vinyl slider windows in his home with windows that were more historically appropriate – so he knew that it would be a good idea to share his project with the neighborhood association and show the city that they were in support.
By the time they were finally ready to transition from design and permitting to building, they had brought Kristian Thordarson of Thordarson Construction on as their builder. They found him because Kristian did a kitchen remodel and bump out for a neighbor which required a Type II Design Review.
“Our neighbors loved him. They told me ‘He bids fair, and comes in on or under budget and he’s a solid worker.’ As we started working with him, I noted ‘Downsizing doesn’t mean downgrading. The guiding principle for this project is that we want to build a miniature Irvington home with all the features.’ I asked him to help us create an ADU that will look like someone shrunk down an historic home and stuck it in my backyard.” –Keith Pitt
Equity from the sale of Sharon’s home provided the majority of the funding for the ADU, but Keith and Stephanie have contributed, too. Originally they were hoping to complete the ADU for $150,000, but they realized partway through construction that over $200,000 was more realistic. Although their ADU is expensive on a per square foot basis – check out Making Sense of ADU Costs for more on that – Keith, Stephanie, and Sharon considers it a good long-term investment in thier comfort and happiness.
“As I’m investing in this ADU, I am building it to my comfort and my taste. I want it to be very special. Keith and I agree on that. Really, we’re creating a cottage home for me.” –Sharon Nielson
Keith points out that their total cost for the ADU includes additional projects – such as tearing out their entire driveway and replacing it with pavers – which are not technically required as part of the ADU project. They also had some unanticipated costs, as is very common with garage conversion projects, particularly in historic district.
“We did not know that we shared a party water line with our neighbors. We had to abandon the party line and build a new one. That was an extra $7,000 all in. Fortunately, Jack and Kristian both did a great job with the City in addressing this issue. The City originally wanted us to create two new lines: one for us and one for the neighbors, but they found a creative solution avoiding an additional $5,000 in potential costs.” –Keith Pitt
For both Sharon and Keith the highlight of their ADU build was working with Thordarson Construction. Keith says they feel lucky and appreciate how easy Thordarson has made the process.
“The contractor is critical. Truly with the work I’ve done for 30 years bringing the financing to affordable housing and working with contractors and architects, I can say that Kristian and his subs are amazing! I can always tell when subs are aligned with the general contractor. He has been magnificent! He’s very proactive and the fact that Kristian cares enough to ask great questions has been a real pleasure. The energy going into this house has been great! The contractor has the same caring energy as my son and daughter-in-law. He wants to see this house – this home – be wonderful for me. I think that kind of positive energy going into a residence it so important!” –Sharon Nielson
Sharon anticipates that the ADU will be her long-term residence for many years to come. She also intends for it to be her last home. However, she has considered that it is a legacy she can leave to her family.
“I’ve passed on the ability for this unit to become rentable should Keith and Stephanie want that. Or they could have it for their own personal use. I actually said, ‘We need to think about it like it’s a rental unit.’ I’m renting this unit for the rest of my life by building it, but it’s built with the understanding that there’s the option for Keith and Stephanie to rent it out.” –Sharon Nielson
Although they interact on an almost daily basis, they’ve also discussed how they can provide privacy for each other.
“The only person with unrestricted access as far as I’m concerned is little Stella. We each want our privacy, so we talked to a landscaper to put in landscaping so that my unit is separate, but not closed in by a fence. They’ll have their space and I’ll have my space.” –Sharon Nielson
Sharon is most proud of the high-end built-ins such as the custom kitchen cabinets.
“As you walk into the ADU you can see right through to where the kitchen is and we have picked very beautiful cabinets and countertops. There is lighting underneath and inside the cabinets. The kitchen is a focal point because the eye goes there first, so we wanted to make it nice, inviting, and integrated in the rest of the living space. My favorite part is that we have a kitchen island with built-in wine rack – because I love good wine – and it also serves as an eating table for a couple people, making it as multi-functional but beautiful as possible.” –Sharon Nielson
Keith notes that the price tag on the all-custom cabinets in the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom is nearly $22,000. Their original budget for cabinets was $12,000 but when they went over to Hayes Cabinets, the style they chose priced out $20,000, so they upped their cabinetry budget.
“People have different budgetary constraints, but we are allowing ourselves to splurge on a variety of things that add long-term value. You have to go into it knowing that what you think you’re going to build is likely going to cost another 20%.” –Keith Pitt
So what advice does Sharon have for homeowners considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“Whether it’s an Airbnb or a granny flat, think about what would you want to live in. Could you see yourself living there? Look at the long-term, because once you build it, it’s there and you’ve got to live with it. Also really think about how it’s going to impact your livability in your main house. Will it take up your yard? Is it in the best spot on your property? You have to use your imagination. Ask yourself ‘Would I be willing to live there? And if I stayed there, would I be comfortable?’” –Sharon Nielson