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“It is fun to work with the wide variety of clients that are looking for ADUs. We get to work with real people on projects that will have a tremendous impact on their lives. It is fun to guide them through the design process, explore creative solutions to their unique situations and ultimately collaborate on a great small project.” – Lucas Gray
As someone who is very interested in urban issues and affordable housing conversations, Lucas Gray of Propel Studio has been familiar with ADUs for a while now and has been engaged with the design and construction of ADUs for around 4 years. Propel’s first ADU project was one of Lucas’ neighbors in NE Portland. Since then they have had a steady stream of new clients.
“Our firm is founded on the principles of working on sustainable community based projects. ADUs perfectly fit into our philosophy and design interests. As small dwellings they add much needed affordable housing options to our neighborhoods while also allowing people some additional revenue streams. They also increase density which is vital to a sustainable and walkable city.” – Lucas Gray
Propel has also been closely engaged with the city’s rules and regulations that affect the development of ADUs. They have given written testimony on the recently updated zoning rules and design guidelines. Further, they have hosted a series of lunch-and-learn presentations at local Real Estate companies to share their expertise on the benefits, challenges, and design process involved in implementing ADUs around Portland.
For Propel, it didn’t take a lot of convincing to create a new ADU after the first project was completed:
“At first they were projects that just organically came through the door. After completing our first one for a neighbor we ended up getting others through web searches and word-of-mouth referrals. A series of clients started approaching us asking for Accessory Dwelling Units and as a small business looking to grow we couldn’t say no. We slowly have built up a strong portfolio of ADU projects across the Portland region and have even been contacted by people in Vancouver and Seattle. The first year we designed one ADU. In year two we did 4-5 designs and this year we have completed design work on around 12 so far and have another 5-6 on the boards. We project designing somewhere between 20-30 of them next year.” -Lucas Gray
ADUs quickly became the backbone of the revenue stream for this start-up and thus a vital part of their growing business. However, the more Propel worked on these projects, the more they grew to love the process and design challenges they create. As small houses, ADUs require a great deal of creativity to make efficient spaces. Further, Propel likes that they are perfect projects to experiment with sustainable technologies and materials.
As Propel works with a client, the first, and most important, design consideration is sitting down and listening to their clients.
“We have to understand what they want and need, and what their aesthetic values are before starting design work. It is also important to understand the unique aspects of the site and the constraints of the budget to ensure that the design meets the client’s expectations.” – Lucas Gray
Lucas explains that they start each project by visiting the site, taking measurements, and understanding all of the zoning codes and restrictions that apply to the project. From there they spend a lot of time listening to the clients, to understand the end use of the building, learning about their lifestyles, and what they want the spaces to look and feel like.
“Throughout this process we offer feedback on their ideas for size, layout, scope and program to dial in the best design direction. We then do precedent research to identify and share creative design features that we think meet the client’s tastes. We start sketching ideas and together with the clients we go through an iterative process that leads to the best design solution for their needs.” – Lucas Gray
Lucas emphasizes that sustainability is at the heart of everything that Propel designs. However, it is important for them to balance certain features or systems with the project budget. Depending on the client and what they can afford Propel has incorporated many sustainable features. This includes additional insulation above code minimums, low-flow water fixtures, rainwater catchment systems, energy efficient lighting and heating systems, thermal mass in exposed concrete floors, radiant heating in the floors, low VOC paint and adhesives, and many other design considerations. However, the easiest and most important sustainable design feature is to consider the site and how the ADU is oriented to make use of sun and shade. Lucas notes the cheapest way to make a more efficient, sustainable building is to use passive systems. Propel looks to utilize eave overhangs, building orientation, sun shading devices, and strategic placement of windows and doors to use the natural systems of sun movement and seasons to make their ADUs perform as efficiently as possible before relying on the other systems mentioned above.
“It is important to have conversations with our clients about the inherent smallness of ADUs . We have a frank conversation about the inherent smallness of an ADU at the earliest design meetings to get them to understand that significant downsizing is necessary. Trying to fit an entire house into a small ADU, is not easy and requires some sacrifices and creative problem solving. No matter what you do, you can’t have the same amount of storage in 800 square feet as you can in a full size house with a basement and/or garage. There are a few tricks that we like to use in our designs, but at the end of the day it is really up to the clients to make the best decisions for what they can afford and ultimately live with. ” -Lucas Gray
Propel likes to recommend using under-the-counter drawer style refrigerators to save on space. Each square foot is at a premium and kitchens are places where it is tough to fit in all of the standard sized appliances and still have adequate space to cook and clean. Going with an under-counter fridge creates additional counter space above. They also find that they are more energy efficient since clients aren’t having to cool down so much space to keep food fresh.
Another of their favorite design strategies for small spaces is to consider all of the nooks and crannies where they can add built-in storage. Finding places for built-in shelves, desks, cabinets, window seats, dining booths, or other useful items will reduce the amount of furniture needed and make the spaces feel bigger and uncluttered.
“We look for creative storage solutions. In each of our projects this has manifested itself in different ways. One client added an exterior storage shed to keep some of her stuff as well as gardening tools. We have often used vestibules that attach our ADUs to the existing house to create some “bonus” square footage that doesn’t count towards the ADU itself but can be used to store shoes, coats and other outdoor gear. Attic space within an Accessory Dwelling Unit is another way to build-in storage for items not used very often and that space doesn’t count against the square footage. In one project we even added a full excavated basement as the clients asked for some long-term storage space for bikes, and canned food.” – Lucas Gray
Lucas notes that “anyplace where you can find empty space is where you can creatively build in storage.” He continues: “For instance, if you have a built-in bench for a dining room table then the seat can lift up to offer storage below. If you have an extra deep wall cavity for plumbing, you can utilize some of that space for carve outs for soaps or other bathroom items, or inset the medicine cabinet, or build-in bookshelves from the other side.”
Other than interior design details, one of the things Propel strives for in their ADU projects is to develop a strong connection between interior and exterior spaces. With sliding doors and large windows they can create views and have interior spaces flow out to decks or patios, making the spaces feel larger than they really are.
Lucas explains that the biggest challenge in designing ADUs is the constantly fluctuating costs involved in building and ensuring that their design will meet the budget of our clients.
“With small projects it is more difficult to find contractors and sub-contractors to work on them for a reasonable price. For the most part, ADUs are a lot higher cost per square foot than typical construction, which many clients aren’t expecting when first developing their budget.” -Lucas Gray
The second issue is trying to balance clients’ aesthetic tastes with what is allowed within the city’s zoning code. Lucas notes that as a design firm Propel’s first responsibility is to design according to their client’s values.
“Of course we have our aesthetic preferences and can help clients discover what they like and don’t like throughout the design process. However, if a client is looking for a craftsman style home we don’t try to force them into doing something ultra modern. Still, we have a very modern/contemporary aesthetic in most of work and thus for the most part we attract clients that are looking for that style ADU.” – Lucas Gray
Once they develop the design direction with their clients they then have to find strategic ways to meet their clients’ expectations while also satisfying the city’s requirements.
“For some reason, the city has decided to regulate style, which I think is a terrible overreach. Many clients hire us because they want a clean modern style. However, the city codes either want you to match the style of the main house or follow some loose design standards they have developed.” [For more information about the new regulations in Portland, check out Accessory Structures Zoning Code Update Passed.] I wholeheartedly disagree with style requirements imposed by the city. The city regulations should focus only on the health and safety of these structures. There is no place for the government to impose arbitrary style laws on people building small houses on their private property. Especially since most ADUs are in backyards and are barely visible from the street! It is awful and adds time and expense onto this project type. The city should take out all regulations that affect style from their zoning code. It will save their staff significant review time, it will save architects and designers significant design time, and it will save clients money. We have had to be creative in finding ways to negotiate between the wants of our clients and the restrictions of the city. In the end I think our designs have worked out well.” -Lucas Gray
On the flip-side, one of the highlights of designing ADUs is the opportunity to work with fascinating clients:
“ADU design work is the most fun when we have great clients to work with. It is fun meeting new people and learning about their values and lifestyles. The highlight for me is discussing design ideas, aesthetic choices, and the layout of how the ADU can work internally and as part of the larger context of the site. Blending the ADU into the backyard gardens or developing exterior courtyards between the main house and new construction is what makes these projects a big success.” – Lucas Gray
So what advice does Lucas have for someone considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“The earlier in your process you can engage an architect the better as they can help answer questions and avoid mistakes. I’d also encourage people to work with the architect/design team to select a contractor early in the process. Pick someone you want to work with by interviewing them. Tell them the budget early on and let the contractor and architect collaborate throughout the design process to keep the project on budget. I don’t think waiting for the design to be complete to send it out to bid to multiple contractors is the best path. It also ends up wasting a lot of time for the contractors who don’t get the project. Just interview the architects/designers and builders and pick the one that best fits your needs and personality. Then negotiate the fees with each from there.” – Lucas Gray
When we asked if there was anything else Lucas would like to share, he added:
“Another tip is to think about the schedule of the project and the best time to start. Often people approach us in the spring or summer with the thought of designing the ADU and building while the weather is nice. It is important to consider that the design process takes a couple of months and permitting at the city also has been taking 8 weeks or longer to get approval (this city permitting process is incredibly backed up and painfully slow for these small projects). With construction estimated at around 3-6 months depending on the contractor and conditions you are looking at a 6-months to 1-year long process from start to completion. This means, if you want an ADU built next summer you should be starting the design process in the fall/winter before.” – Lucas Gray