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Editor’s Note: This post is an extended case study from the AARP ABCs of ADUs publication published earlier in 2019. The first post was Walt Drake’s ADU: A Father-in-Law Unit in My Own Backyard. The second was Bertha’s ADU: A Tiny Cottage in my Son’s Backyard. The third was Diane Owen’s ADU: A Carriage House. Stay tuned for one more extended case study from this project in next week.Lina Menard
In 1995, Evelyn Brom purchased her property in Seattle, WA and immediately imagined building a second house on it. The property was a through-lot, meaning that it spanned the distance between two streets. Her house, at one end of the property, fronted on one street and her garage, on the other end of the property, fronted the other street.
“I live on the perfect lot for a backyard cottage because it’s street-to-street. I never even used the garage because it was too far away. The garage was just a container.”Evelyn Brom
It made perfect sense to Evelyn to convert the garage into a house fronting the other street. However, detached accessory dwelling units (which Seattle refers to as “DADUs”) weren’t yet legal, so there wasn’t a way to create another house on her property without doing a lot division. Furthermore, Evelyn didn’t have much equity in her home yet, so she didn’t have a funding mechanism for renovating her garage. Neither Seattle nor Evelyn were quite ready for an ADU yet, but the idea stuck and began to percolate.
Five years later, Evelyn went back to grad school for a degree in public administration. As she was wrapping up the two-year program in 2000, Seattle had just started proof-of-concept around building ADUs in single-family zones. As Evelyn learned about these innovative designs through a professor reviewing her thesis, she began imagining what it might mean on her own property. She developed a concept for converting her garage to an ADU. Again, the timing wasn’t right, so Evelyn sat with the idea and continued to let it simmer.
Ten years later, in June 2010, Seattle passed a citywide ADU ordinance. By now Evelyn thought she was ready to roll, so she met with design builders to pursue the garage conversion concept further. Unfortunately, she had to step back from the garage conversion a second time because the ADU ordinance would not allow her to build the idea they developed on through-lots.
“The through-lot wasn’t allowed to have an ADU on it. I had a city planner come out to the site and he explained that on a street-to-street lot it’s considered you have two front lots. He said ‘Essentially, how can you have a backyard cottage if you don’t have a backyard?’ But he got it. The guy added: ‘This lot is perfect for an ADU!’”Evelyn Brom
Exasperated, but still determined, Evelyn instead focused her energy on remodeling her basement, which she describes as “a blessing in disguise because it gave me time to rethink, and realize new construction was the way to go on my site.”
The pine-paneled daylight basement had been her twin sons’ room. Now that they had moved out, she cleared out all the belongings they’d left behind, as well as her own 30-year accumulation of belongings. She took the basement down to the studs and reworked it into a living suite that she could rent out for additional income. The basement is not an independent dwelling, but there was sufficient privacy for both Evelyn and her roommate. If Seattle ever changes their regulations to allow a third kitchen on a single-family zoned property, Evelyn will consider adding that amenity. As she worked on the basement, Evelyn continued thinking about a way to create a little house on the other end of her lot.
“That garage conversion concept started my serious thinking about ADUs and over the 15 years it took from there, I went to charrettes, tracked policy changes, and eventually championed changing the ADU ordinance to allow through-lots.”Evelyn Brom
For Evelyn, an ADU made financial sense, but it also aligned with her core values on building density and promoting public transportation and other commuting alternatives. At this time Evelyn was carpooling to downtown Seattle in an electric car. Increasingly, she envisioned how an ADU could improve her quality of life, allow her to age in place, provide passive income, and enable her to travel . Furthermore, Evelyn was tenacious about creating an ADU on her property because she could see the bigger picture of how ADUs could benefit others across their lifespans as much as it would benefit her in her retirement planning. She explains:
“I began to see this place as my biggest resource. I’ve lived here for 23 years. I’ve planted a dozen trees on the property. I’ve gotten to be friends with my neighbors, some for over 20 years, and I wanted to maintain those connections.”Evelyn Brom
Eventually, Evelyn testified to Seattle’s City Council regarding changing the ADU regulations to allow ADUs on street-to-street lots. While she was working on the basement, she got a call from the city about an amendment to the backyard cottage ordinance to allow through-lots to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Evelyn worked with Chrystine Kim at NEST Architecture & Design to refine her ADU design. Having scraped the garage conversion concept, Chrys and Evelyn explored a 1-story ADU, but because of Seattle’s restriction that accessory structures cannot take up more than 40% of the designated backyard, Chrys ended up designing at 2-story ADU for Evelyn. (Seattle has recently updated their regulations and now allows up to 60% of the yard space to be occupied by an ADU as long as it’s only one story. Evelyn might have chosen this option if it had been available at the time.)
The modernist style of her ADU is very different from the primary dwelling, which is a bungalow, but Evelyn feel it fits into her West Seattle neighborhood and many neighbors have told her that they like it. The two-story ADU has the same roof level as the primary dwelling so that the two are in scale.
Evelyn, who had already approached the city’s planning and development office several times about her ADU, had her permit application approved immediately in September 2014. Unfortunately, she was laid off, just two weeks before her sixty-third birthday, in the same month as the final permit was issued (Oct 2015). The ADU project was funded primarily through a combination of refinancing and home equity line of credit, along with her salary earnings and credit cards. She had, by this point, built up sufficient equity in her home, especially given home values in Seattle had risen significantly.
Evelyn found her builder Ian Jones from Treebird Construction when he flipped a house across the street back in the late 90’s. Access to the site was good because Evelyn’s property is a through-lot and the ADU’s utilities are connected to the existing house, as required. So the construction process moved smoothly, with just a few snags. Only one question had to go back to engineer. The subcontractor who installed the loft flooring punctured one of her water lines, but Evelyn was able to have someone detect the location of the hole and resolve it. For Evelyn the completion of her ADU after all the time she spent dreaming and scheming was a huge accomplishment.
“I felt courageous making the move back here. It was a such a big decision. I’m really happy with how it’s working out for me and I’m really pleased with the design. I grew up in an older home and my main house is from the 40s. This is modern and I like the clean lines. Chrys focused on capturing the light with double-tier windows. As I’m getting older I really appreciate the good light. Because of the quality of windows I selected they were quite a bit more expensive, but tight and good for sound. We’re in a city environment and the first thing my next door neighbor noticed when he stepped in was how quiet it is. The ADU has a peacefulness to it.”Evelyn Brom
Evelyn explains that if she had it to do over again one thing she would do differently would be to put the high quality windows everywhere. She put in a six vinyl windows to save cost and now plans to replace them eventually. Evelyn is particularly pleased with the sustainability aspects that she and Chrys integrated into the design. She notes that she gets so much passive solar heating that she doesn’t need to use the heater as much as most other houses do during gray, drizzly Seattle winters. Chrys designed in radiant heat, all LED lights, and a tankless water heater. Evelyn then purchased insulated shades. (She’s found that this combination of features has resulted in utility bills around $50 per month.)
“It may be cool outside but will get to be mid-70s in here, so I’m very comfortable and can open doors to have fresh air. I put in an all-house fan in that’s working really well for those sunny, summer days, when it can get warm inside. I love being inside, but having an outdoor space that’s integrated. I don’t have to go downstairs and walk 30 feet out to get to my garden. It’s right here. It feels like part of the house. The big flower and vegetable garden was getting to be too much anyhow. I’m still the caretaker for the mature garden at the main house, but now I also have a very nice manageable garden space just outside the double doors of my ADU. I do walk around the block to see my ginko trees on the front boulevard.”Evelyn Brom
Evelyn wasn’t sure if she could I really live comfortably in such a small space. During her downsizing process, she created three piles: go, reuse, and stay. She notes that she had to do two rounds of downsizing because some items were easy to get rid of and some were not. The sentimental items were particularly challenging to sort through, so she stored some items in the 8’ x 8’ shed and her garage on her side of the property.
“If you have room you’ll keep it. I have a new way of living now. I’m continuing to clean out my clothes closet and to hone down on materialistic things. I’m starting to sort through what have I been storing for two years and continuing to lighten. It’s an emotional lightening, a cleansing. It’s a good thing. Speaking of lighter, when I quit working I lost ten pounds! I continue to make smart decisions in purchasing and eliminating what I don’t need or use.”Evelyn Brom
Now that she’s settled into her ADU, Evelyn is satisfied with how well it works and how well it’s integrated in the the neighborhood. She notes that because she’s on a whole new street she’s gotten to know a different group of neighbors better and now has the benefit of knowing people on both streets. “We have a great neighborhood,” Evelyn says. “Everyone knows each other and there’s lots of greeting going on.”
Evelyn’s primary house is now occupied by an extended family: a couple, Gary and Julia, their son Owen, a new baby, and Julia’s mother Nora. The three generations all moved together so Nora could watch Owen when Julia and Gary are at work. Nora, who is 75, occupies the lower level of the house which Evelyn had fixed up for a roommate to share expenses.
“It’s worked out really well. There’s a lattice fence, between the house and the ADU, so it’s friendly. Two-year old Owen’s always saying hello and “Oh-oh!” Very cute. Nora texted me on Thanksgiving: ‘I am so thankful to be living here!’ I just signed a two year lease with these folks so, for now, all is good.”Evelyn Brom
While everyone is content with the current configuration, Evelyn is pleased to know she has housing options moving forward.
“My plan to live here is a 10 year plan. I moved in here when I was 63 and I’m 65 now. I can always go back to my house which would allow one story living. I could move into the main house and have a caretaker or roommate. It feels good to have options. I’m always open to things changing because so much is unpredictable.”Evelyn Brom
So what advice does Evelyn have for someone considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“Consider whether you will you live in it or not. That makes such a difference in final finishes and therefore, the budget. Think about whether you want to be a landlord. Keep in mind it takes careful planning. As a project manager, I believe there is an equation: the longer you plan the smoother it goes, so spend the time. Have the courage to take equity out of your home. Do it because having a passive income stream cannot be overemphasized for how it helps, especially for older women. When you look at wage gaps and unpaid labor data and as women look to aging-in-place, it’s a real way to augment finances. It’s a way to take advantage of a resource without having to sell your house or perhaps, do a reverse mortgage. Women may be less likely to think they could handle something in the foreign world of building. Yes, it is daunting, but do careful study, get the right professional advice, and have confidence that you can do it!”Evelyn Brom