Small is the new green

Increasing environmental awareness along with economic and demographic trends favor smaller house sizes. Many cities are doing their part by updating zoning codes to allow cottage housing and small backyard cottages (detached ADU's) on residentially zoned lots. Seattle and Portland are two cities which allow backyard cottages up to 800 sq. ft. in size. These small houses provide opportunities for families, while increasing housing stock density and diversity. Continue reading for more information about small house design and Seattle's backyard cottage ordinance or contact us to find out if your lot is eligible for a backyard cottage.

Tuesday, February 14

backyard cottage open house Saturday

Come see what all the fuss is about and join us for a unique opportunity to tour a backyard cottage in Ballard.  Saturday February 18th from 1:30 - 2:30 pm.  819 NW 90th St.



This newly built cottage is 800 sq. ft. and includes a ground floor art studio and 2nd floor 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, carriage apartment. 


Saturday, January 7

Ballard Backyard Cottage Completes an Intergenerational Family Home

Last year Ballard residents Drew and Jacob decided to tear down their "scary little garage" and build a backyard cottage. Fast forward to this week and they are now living in an intergenerational family compound, sharing their property with Drew’s parents. Let's see what they built.


The cottage nearing completion in December


The cottage is small even by backyard cottage standards. In Seattle, backyard cottages are limited in size by their overall gross square footage and their footprint is limited as a percentage of lot size. In this case, the parent lot is relatively small limiting the allowable footprint to a mere 14 ft x 24 ft.   To maintain the minimum required side yard setback the top floor of the cottage is even smaller.



On a winters day the cottage is filled with natural light


Even given the limited footprint we were able to create a comfortable living room, kitchen, powder and laundry room on the ground floor.  The height of backyard cottages is also limited.  To increase the apparent size of the cottage we left the ceilings joists exposed. This also adds a sense of rustic warmth which is further enhanced by the owner's furnishings and choice of fixtures.



The kitchen: compact but designed for use

The kitchen is compact but designed for people who like to cook.  The refrigerator and stove are both compact 24 in x 24 in. The table fits into a nook with a bench but is also expandable so that the whole family can eat together.  A pantry is located under the stair and to the left of the table is the entry to a powder room that also contains a washer and dryer. 



The bedroom: cozy with big windows and vaulted ceilings


The bedroom is located on the second floor and features vaulted ceilings and lots of natural light.  A bathroom is located off of the bedroom at the top of the stairs.



The tongue and groove fir floor is also the ceiling below. 



Two south facing windows overlook the stair and fill both the bedroom and living room with natural light.  There is a view between the other houses on the block all the way to Salmon Bay.






The bathroom features a nice walk in shower, vaulted ceilings and a skylight. There is a walk in closet located off of the bathroom.

Click here to read an interview with Drew and her families experience building a backyard cottage.

Sunday, December 25

happy holidays!


We wish everyone a happy holiday season. Microhouse is closed from December 23rd through January 3rd. Do you have a question about backyard cottages and how one might work for you? If so, send us your address and tell us what you plan to use the cottage for and we will set up a time to talk with you in the new year.

Tuesday, December 13

backyard cottage code expansion blocked

A year ago the City of Seattle announced plans to make code changes to encourage the construction of more backyard cottages. After months of wrangling the Seattle Hearing Examiner has upheld the Queen Anne Community Council appeal of those proposed changes effectively blocking their implementation.

a backyard cottage in the Rainier Valley used as a rental



The proposed code changes are significant.  For the last year, and now for the future, the uncertainty of not knowing what the rules will be has added yet another barrier to backyard cottage development. Hopefully, Council member Mike O'Brien and the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) will show that they do encourage backyard cottages by dropping the more controversial code changes and instead focus on means to reduce the cost of backyard cottages. Most significantly these efforts should include: working to reduce or eliminate the sewer capacity charge, working with lenders to establishing backyard cottage financing tools, and on simplifying the permitting process.

So what went wrong?  Many of the proposed changes are minor tweaks to the existing land use code and make sense. These sorts of minor code updates are made as a matter of course without public outcry or even public input.  However, given the backdrop of a Mayor who seems intent on eliminating single family zoning, those living in Queen Anne and elsewhere, might be forgiven for thinking that some of the proposed changes seem like a means to that end.   

a summary of public input from one of OPCD's public hearings






The most controversial changes are…

The removal of the parking requirement.  Parking is always a contentious issue. There is currently a parking waiver process for ADU or DADU's.  It is true that waiver process could be improved. However, it has been our experience that only one DADU project has been thwarted by the parking requirement.  In that case, it was the removal of required parking for the existing house that caused the problem.

The allowance of a DADU and ADU on the same lot. This is viewed by many as tantamount to allowing triplexes on single family zoned lots.

The removal of the owner occupancy requirement. Currently an owner is required to live on the lot to have a DADU or ADU. You can read more about why we think the owner occupancy requirement is a good idea. owner occupancy 

The increased height bulk and scale of DADU’s under the ordinance. The proposed changes would allow an DADU’s to be built taller with an additional 1,200 sq. ft. of rentable space. It would also allow an increase in lot coverage in the rear yard, currently limited to 40%.

The common sense changes that should be made are much more pedestrian and not controversial at all.

Changes as to what is included in the gross square footage (GSF).  Currently what is included in the gross square footage is poorly defined. Even small under eave spaces are included in the allowable 800 sq. ft.  These areas could be excluded from the allowable GSF without increasing the height or bulk of the structure currently allowed. One of the proposed and controversial changes would have excluded garages from the GSF, effectively adding 1,200 sq. ft. to the size allowed for a DADU.

Including provisions to allow shed dormers to extend above the base height limit and other exceptions to height and setbacks found in the land use code for single family zoned properties but not allowed for DADU’s.

Allowing DADU’s to be placed adjacent to a neighbor’s lot line with the consent of the neighbor. Currently allowed for primary residences but not DADU’s.

Streamlining the permitting process for DADU’s by having a designated reviewer at the city to provide prompt and consistent reviews.


So what is next?  When the legislation was made public the Seattle OPCD issued a determination that the legislation would not have significant adverse environmental impacts. The Queen Anne Community Council Challenged that assertion which was upheld by the Seattle Hearing Examiner. The Hearing Examiner found the evidence shows that the indirect impacts of the legislation would adversely affect housing and cause displacement of populations.  Also, that the OPCD failed to adequately study the impacts of increased bulk and scale particularly on smaller lots, parking, or infrastructure. That means before the proposed changes can take affect the OPCD will need to study just what the impacts of the code changes might be the by completing a full environmental impact assessment with an unknown time of implementation. Otherwise, they can proposed more modest changes to the land use code.

Full Ruling

Saturday, November 12

Ballard Backyard Cottage Completes an Intergenerational Family Home

Last year Ballard residents Drew and Jacob decided to tear down their "scary little garage" and build a backyard cottage. Fast forward to this week and they are now living in an intergenerational family compound, sharing their property with Drew’s parents. We chatted with Drew to find out about creating a backyard cottage for “one big family living in the heart of Seattle.”


Drew's cottage nearing completion


Microhouse: What first got you thinking about building the backyard cottage?

Drew: There wasn’t really one ‘a-ha’ moment. A couple of years ago, when my husband and I were looking for a house, my parents suggested that it would be great to find a place where we could have a backyard cottage for them to live in after they retired. We ended up buying a house that had a scary little garage out back and the backyard cottage idea kept brewing. 

A little over a year ago, my husband and I took a couple of days to really think about moving forward, then we had an open dialogue about it with my parents. Friends would ask, “Why would you want to live so close to your family?” We are a very close family and get along well. Once the plan seemed doable to everyone, we went full speed ahead. 

What were the most surprising parts of the process ?

One fun surprise was uncovered during the excavation process. We found other people’s garbage from the 1930’s. I got swept into the history of Ballard, and how Seattle managed its waste. [Read more about these discoveries on Drew’s blog]. Not as much fun was the 100-plus-year-old sewer system. None of the work done on the system over the years had been permitted, so there were no records to provide information about it. Fortunately, we were able to hire and learn from a lot of talented people who knew what they were doing.

How did you balance work and life with this project going on?

We really didn’t have to do very much. Joe from Viking Construction was responsible and hired a great crew. He was on site almost every day. Since the cottage was separate from our house, we didn’t have interruptions in our daily routines like we would have had with a typical home remodel. 

What would you tell someone considering building a backyard cottage?

It's a great way to provide support for family. I think backyard cottages are definitely something more families will be pursuing as an option. During our building process, which was mostly during warm months, we'd have our windows open and could hear people walking by commenting on the cottage. Most of the comments were that they liked it! Other things I'd say: budgeting is a huge part of the process, and you need to be realistic that the building process will take time and effort.

What were the most enjoyable part of the building experience?

I think most enjoyable were the moments when the project began to feel real. For example, I was amazed at how excited we were when the sewer hole was dug! Even getting the Porta Potty delivered was a big deal (not as fun was when it blew over late one night during the October wind storm). Then there are the finishing touches—like a beautiful sink backsplash and light fixtures—that give the house soul.

Learn more about Drew and her family's experience! Check out her blog, A BACKYARD COTTAGEBUILDING OUR INTERGENERATIONAL HOME IN SEATTLE


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Wednesday, October 5

madison valley backyard cottage

Q & A with Patti, who weighs in on what it’s like to create—and live in—a backyard cottage.



For outdoor adventurers and cooking enthusiasts Patti and Austin, designing their dream home with Microhouse led them to the essence of what they value most. Located in the backyard of Austin's longtime Madison Valley residence, the couple’s backyard cottage offers a connection with nature as well as the space to indulge in relaxing downtime and gourmet meals. Living in their new space means the couple can rent out the house on their property and live rent and mortgage free in Seattle.

The home's open floor plan, with a second-floor master suite and office, allows for a well-appointed kitchen on the first floor. A rooftop deck overlooking the treetops creates a connection to the outdoors--where Patti and Austin can often be found biking, skiing or kayaking when they’re not enjoying their backyard cottage. 



Microhouse: What first got you thinking about building the backyard cottage? 

Patti: My boyfriend Austin and I were looking at possible living arrangements. I owned my own home in Bellevue and he owned a house in Seattle. He had heard of the DADU (detached accessory dwelling unit) 'movement' through his stepbrother in Portland. We decided to build on Austin’s lot in Seattle. The 'old' house was only 650 square feet, but with an 'under code height' basement with a separate entrance so we knew we could use that as storage for all our sports gear [and rent out the rest of the house]. We would actually be up-sizing our living space in the DADU!  We knew that by renting out the 'main' house when we were done we could live essentially mortgage/rent free in Seattle.

Did you have hesitations about embarking on the project?  

The entire process of permitting, inspections, decisions. We knew we wanted to do it but really were newbies with the whole building scene in Seattle.

How were the hesitations overcome?

We had a great architect and really top-notch contractor to work with through the process. It made all the difference.  

What were the most surprising parts of the process?  

It is not cheap to build.  Per square foot can be expensive. We also built in a liquefaction zone requiring expensive foundation prep, and had other fees including the sewer capacity charge. The best surprise has been how well built our new house is. We virtually spend cents a day for heating in the winter. The whole house can almost be heated when we cook!

What features of your home make it unique to you and Austin?  

We built an outdoor bike storage/tool storage area into the plans. The kitchen is pro level, as Austin is a trained chef and loves cooking.  We brought as much light in as possible as we both really love the outdoors. This winter we are adding a retractable awning to our big upstairs outdoor deck to give us winter outside space!

What is a key piece of advice you'd give to someone thinking about a backyard cottage?  

Work with a good architect, someone that understands the rules and can make maximum use of small space, and a good contractor!  Really think about how you move in your day and what is important to you.  

Any other thoughts you'd like to share about building and living in a backyard cottage?  

We love our home. We also love telling people the story. We can live extremely well and comfortably, small. And because of these decisions can rent out the main house and live for free in the city.  I really couldn't want more space to live in than we have.

Take a peek into Patti and Austin's backyard cottage:





madison valley backyard cottage

a dream home in their own backyard



For outdoor adventurers and cooking enthusiasts Patti and Austin, designing their dream home with Microhouse led them to the essence of what they value most. Located in the backyard of Austin's longtime Madison Valley residence, the couple’s backyard cottage offers a connection with nature as well as the space to indulge in relaxing downtime and gourmet meals. Living in their new space means the couple can rent out the house on their property and live rent and mortgage free in Seattle. 

The home's open floor plan, with a second-floor master suite and office, allows for a well-appointed kitchen on the first floor. A rooftop deck overlooking the treetops creates a connection to the outdoors--where Patti and Austin can often be found biking, skiing or kayaking when they’re not enjoying their backyard cottage. 



A formal entry is difficult to squeeze into an 800 sq. ft. backyard cottage but here the entry vestibule also serves the powder/mechanical/mud room. The mud room has an additional exterior entrance.



Car decking serves as both a ceiling and a 2nd floor and provides the perception of additional height in the living room.




The generous kitchen features an adjacent daybed and opens out onto the yard. A wall of cabinets in the living room provide extra storage.




The open stair provides space underneath for a writing desk. A beautiful stained concrete floor provides a sense of warmth while the white walls and abundant windows make the space feel larger than it is.




Fir treads are used for an open stair that feels both solid and open.





The 2nd floor bedroom opens out onto a private roof top deck with territorial views.  A dormer to the north provides space for a home office. His and hers closets are located at either end of the study.





The roof top deck provides ample natural light but also privacy.




The fir car decking used for the ceiling in the living room is the finished floor material for the master bedroom adding warmth and texture.



The bathroom is simple yet well appointed. Natural wood finishes pair well with the clean lines and white walls.





The bathroom tile complements the natural wood accents. The shower stall looks out over the treetops.





Bike storage is located towards the back of the cottage off of the alley.  The covered area has a removable screen floor and serves as a mud room suitable for bike commuters. The bike storage opens into the laundry/mechanical room.











Varied stone creates discrete spaces for entertaining. A low stone wall creates outside seating just off of the kitchen . The fence separating the backyard cottage from the primary residence is a scale rendition of the profile of the Stuart Range.




An exterior view of the backyard cottage shows the roof top deck with the kitchen below.