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Everything You Need to Know About Designing an ADU

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“Up until a few years ago, ‘ADU’ was a term used mostly by architects, as part of their professional jargon. The acronym [accessory dwelling units] has only become part of the lexicon in the last year or so. Now, it seems as if everyone is designing, building, or dreaming about an ADU,” says Mary Maydan, founder and principal of San Francisco Bay area firm Maydan Architects

“The rise in popularity of ADUs started before the pandemic.… [But] COVID-19 took this interest to a whole new level. After sheltering in place and working from home, we are all trying to fit a lot more functions into our homes. The possibility of having an additional structure in the backyard that can house a home office, a gym, or a hangout place for the family has made ADUs hugely attractive to almost everyone.”

Curious to know what the fuss is all about? Below, we break down everything you need to know about ADUs.

What is an ADU?

An accessory dwelling unit is a fully functional living space that can fall into one of three categories:

  • Interior, within the primary residence and often is converted space in a basement or attic, for example.

  • Attached, built as an addition to the main house.

  • Detached, a separate standalone structure like a garage, shed, cottage, or carriage house.

“ADU is a very broad term and covers everything from temporary construction to backyard offices to lane houses and converted garages. The intended use has a major design and planning impact because things like plumbing, square footage, and foundation requirements add significant time and expense,” explains Robbie Friedman, cofounder of ootBox, a company that designs, builds, and fully equips 10-foot shipping containers, complete with turnkey furnishings. “If a user just wants a home office, they can probably get away without plumbing while staying under 120 square feet. If they want an in-law suite—or something that is technically habitable—it becomes an entirely different project.”

Friedman says now, 10 months into the pandemic, he’s seeing the greatest need for dedicated environments for remote learning and working from home. “Some have even brought their retail business home—such as hairstylists, tattoo artists, private practitioners, and others,” he notes. “We focus on providing 80-square-foot portable units that users can rent until their needs change.”

designing an ADU

An ADU by Palo Alto, California–based firm Maydan Architects

Dave Edwards

How to create an ADU

ADUs may be the conversion of existing spaces or new builds, depending on the space available and the needs of the clients. Maydan says her clients are primarily interested in independent additions that are designed specifically for their needs and offer additional living space, although she does see a fair amount of converting garages, which is less expensive. “However,” she says, “converted garages do require a considerable upgrade. Often a project like this requires significant electrical work, as well as new systems, such as HVAC and plumbing.”

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