Your home can have a baby, and it’s called an ADU

If enough homeowners build newly legal backyard homes, or accessory dwelling units, they could make a significant dent in the region's housing needs, while building equity for themselves. Is this a win-win proposition, and a venue for design ingenuity? Or do a web of constraints make ADU construction difficult and costly?

A rendering for Trent Wolbe and Grace Lee’s ADU in Highland Park. Image courtesy LA Más.

Los Angeles needs to build more housing. Many Angelenos need help paying the mortgage. Is the solution to both in our backyards?

“Your house can have a baby. You can make the baby work,” said Diahanne Payne, a longtime building contractor and founder of Illegal Additions Made Legal.

“In an R1 zone, you are allowed in the state of California to turn your garage into a habitable dwelling unit. It will be an accessory to the main house. That is why it’s called an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU,” she added.

In the second show in the DnA series “This is Home in LA: From the tent to the gigamansion (and everything in between),” we explore ADUs, legal since January 2017 — and ask if they might help solve the housing crisis while adding equity to costly single-family homes. Last week we looked at tents, and what they could teach us about building affordable housing.

Thousands of Angelenos already live in or rent out a little house in their backyards, known as granny flats, or in-law units. Unlike backyard art studios, these have a kitchen, bathroom and a living area. Many are illegal.

Diahanne Payne helps homeowners make their illegal backyard homes legal. (Photo: Frances Anderton.)

“There are approximately something like 50,000 unpermitted units in Los Angeles alone. People need these units, whether it’s to rent out or for personal use. We need them now. We need the housing,” Ira Belgrade told CBS 2. After his first wife died, he built an unpermitted unit in his backyard in Hancock Park in 2009, and then wound up in a lengthy dispute with the city.

Belgrade became one of the leaders in the fight to get the laws changed around ADUs, along with elected officials like Mayor Eric Garcetti, State Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) and UCLA cityLAB‘s Dana Cuff.

Cuff has worked for 20 years with students on inventing ways “to develop housing that’s really in keeping with the suburban fabric.” CityLAB coauthored the State legislation with Assemblyman Richard Bloom, and has produced a guidebook called Building An ADU. Cuff says we could achieve Garcetti’s required “100,000 units of housing with just 20 percent” of LA’s half-million single family lots.

New ADU laws have lifted requirements for setbacks, for parking and for passageway. But even with these constraints lifted there are still a lot of head-scratchers about how to make your garage conversion legally habitable.

“Habitability means insulation, electrical, plumbing, foundation. All the rules that change your garage into a dwelling unit,” Payne says.

Meanwhile, many Angelenos are eager to build ADUs. One housing report found that in 2015, only 90 LA residents filed ADU applications. In 2017, the number skyrocketed to almost 2000.

The City of LA wanted to figure out what this might involve for a regular homeowner in building a “baby.” And to do so it needed a guinea pig.

Trent Wolbe and Grace Lee agreed to work with the city on test-building an ADU in the yard of their home in Highland Park

Two years ago Councilman Gil Cedillo’s office and the City of LA, helmed by the mayor’s innovation team, selected a Highland Park couple, Trent Wolbe and Grace Lee, to test-build an ADU. Cedillo’s office gave funds and the city brought on board a handful of nonprofits: designers LA Más, builders Habitat for Humanity, and financiers Genesis LA.

“The purpose of the entire project was to push policy, and it was to reexamine the current policies and how they reflect how people are actually living in LA these days. And so part of it was to look at the setbacks, do those still make sense in our current condition? How does the zoning work, or the code?,” Lee said.

Now there were aspects of all this that were exciting — and there some unwelcome surprises for the team.

“The tricky part about building on a hillside that is not ever really included or it is hard to estimate from the beginning design phase, is the extent of the foundations that are required. And that was exactly one of the issues in this hillside property. It was permitted through the city. But then once you start excavating you’re always finding surprises,” said the team’s engineer, Liz Mahlow, co-founder of Nous Engineering.

In this case, looser soil than anticipated meant they had to embed caissons, adding costs and time.

Then there were design challenges, like conforming to local preservation requirements. Trent and Grace’s home is in the Highland Park-Garvanza Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, or HPOZ.

“HPOZs are actually very prohibitive as it relates to the exterior design, the form, the elevation, the size,” said Helen Leung, co-executive director of LA Más. “So we’ve walked a fine line where we tried to meet all the standards, making sure it was Craftsman-inspired, but add a little bit of flavor that wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.”

The architects say they chose materials that would meet anticipated HPOZ rules, which added an extra $20-30,000 in construction costs, and they added some custom design features.

There were also a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and questions to answer.

Diagram by LA Mas shows elements of the ADU pilot project in Highland Park. (Image courtesy LA Mas.)

“We had many goals, one of which is how can we design the ADU that is contextual? How do we build an ADU that is affordable? How do we innovate on a financial process? How can the city shape their new policy and program and how can we deal with the city’s often long permitting process? All while knowing that Trent and Grace had to pay for the construction themselves,” Leung said.

The ADU will be over a 1000 square feet, with a 200 square foot garage, and will be two stories. The total price tag for the ADU will likely exceed $300,000, or over $300 per square foot.

One of the changes that has already occurred as a result of the Highland Park pilot project is that preservation oversight from HPOZs has been relaxed. Ken Bernstein, principal city planner for the Department of City Planning’s Office of Historic Resources, says “it was this case that really got us as a staff looking much more closely at the changes in state law that went into effect at about the time that we were reviewing this case.”

The groundbreaking for the pilot project took place June 2017. The backyard home is expected to be completed fall 2018. (Photo courtesy LA Más.)

“So we are not looking at materials and overall design compatibility of ADUs any longer. We can look at whether an ADU might exceed the height or width of a main structure,” Bernstein said. “So we are not imposing more soft or subjective design review to ADUs.”

For her part, Leung says that LA Más hopes to launch a one stop shop to help low to moderate income homeowners to design, build, finance and construct an ADU at a cost of two hundred dollars per square foot. That price does not include fees for architectural or engineering services or permitting.

Homeowners look to build ADUs for various reasons — for granny, as an AirBnB, as a home in order to rent out the front house — but the city hopes they can become a means of providing affordable housing, even for the homeless. The Mayor’s innovation team and the County’s Homeless Initiative are seeking homeowners to agree to let their ADU to some formerly homeless individuals or families, in exchange for financial incentives.

Wolbe, the Highland Park homeowner, says that he has learned that while the process has been super-interesting, “building in L.A. is difficult. . . and why really at the end of the day developers are the ones who do a lot of the building because it’s a very complicated process. It’s not to be taken lightly.”

He wonders if there’s a way to speed up and streamline the entire process.

“The sort of analogy I always make is, we hear these ads for Rocket Mortgage on Quicken Loans, like, ‘push button and get loan.’ It won’t be the same obviously, but if we can get to a point where there’s an app and ‘push button get a backyard house,’ that’s the ideal.”

Cover believes it can revolutionize backyard structure construction through deploying computational design and analytics. (Image courtesy Cover.)

That’s exactly what a firm called Cover has in mind. The Gardena-based company sells prefabricated backyard structures that deploy computational design and software to streamline the production. One of its investors was an early investor in AirBnB and SnapChat.

“We take care of the entire process from the design stage, to the engineering, permitting, manufacturing, delivery and installation. We’re the single point of contact for the client,” the company CEO Alexis Rivas told DnA. He claims  product, made of panels of steel and wood or composite materials, would cost — if built on a flat lot — $300 to 375 a square foot.

Cover is one of many design and tech firms promising to streamline ADU construction.

So far the firm has built backyard structures without the kitchens and bathrooms that make them full accessory dwelling units. Now they say they are getting orders for full ADUs.

In the meantime Cover also offers a useful free service: a website on which you can type in your address, answer a few questions, and  find out if you can even build an ADU on your property.

Jimenez Lai and Joanna Grant got an honorable mention in the Yes to ADUs design competition, with fanciful structures. (Image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.)

Meanwhile, some designers have more fanciful ideas in mind, such as Jimenez Lai and his firm Bureau Spectacular, which was shortlisted in Yes to ADUs!, a design competition sponsored by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. His solution: idiosyncratic structures full of character, “somewhat pleasantly human like or animal like with arms and legs and hats.”

He also that a street of ADUs should combine to form a shared piece of local infrastructure. “If they generate electricity; if they process water; if they help with a kind of community fermentation station, then there’s some agricultural or other productive use meant for the block, not for the property.”

First place winners Lilliana Castro, Allen Guillen, and Cheuk Nam Yu proposed modular, pre-fabricated structures, but also called for, reports Archinect, “turning single-family zones into borderless communities by eliminating fences and/or walls in order to create more open neighborhoods so that new units can integrate into the existing city grid.”

Lilliana Castro, Allen Guillen, and Cheuk Nam Yu won first place in Yes to ADUs, a design competition (Image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.)

Concepts like these may be a little far off in the future. Right now, the goal is to get going with building some ADUs, and have people’s homes become both income generators and participants in solving the region’s housing needs.

Even though the tide has turned in favor of ADUs, some cities and communities are still pushing back. There are also obstacles in some neighborhoods like hillsides. Even though the Highland Park pilot is a hillside site, City rules currently forbid ADUs on most hillside sites. Dana Cuff says this is because of resistance from fire prevention agencies. However, she says ADU law is definitely not yet “settled.”

Meanwhile, some communities have thrown up other roadblocks, such as mandating that a homeowner with an ADU live in the main home. Sen. Wieckowski has lead the charge in the Legislature to make it easier for homeowners to construct ADUs in California, and recently introduced a bill that would get rid of this rule, and would create an amnesty program to get pre-existing unpermitted units approved without levying fines.

The bill died in committee last week. But Senator Wieckowski says local governments can make improvements without waiting for the state. “It’s simply the curmudgeon city planners and attorneys and council members that want to have complete unfettered control over people’s houses,” adding “Everyone from the business groups the Chamber of Commerce, the architectural folks, environmentalists are all lined up in support of the legislation to liberalize and modernize the rules around ADUs.”