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.

Wednesday, December 18

a backyard cottage with a view

A lake washington cabin is the perfect retreat for a grandmother

location: Seattle, Seward Park
house size: 650 sq. ft.
design: Bruce Parker/Microhouse

When Lisa and her family were looking for a new house they chose one with a great view and a plan, for her mother to relocate from North Dakota.  Their new house has a great view and a yard perfect for a backyard cottage where her mother, Sylvia, now lives.

backyard cottage, microhouse, dadu

Lisa and Sylvia worked with microhouse to design the cottage. Now that it is complete, Sylvia enjoys being a more prominent part of her family’s and particularly her granddaughter’s life.  Classical music and opera are her passions. Being in Seattle she can now regularly attend performances with her daughter. Her new cottage features a loft for her music studio and for her granddaughter to play in.  She is happy to be walking distance to the grocery store, and nearby Seward Park.

The design itself was dictated by the site as much as by the program.  The project was a multi-faceted puzzle rich with potential. From the beginning we were working with the site to create a vibrant living space that captures both the views and natural light.  We were fortunate that the primary views are to the south, the same direction as our fickle winter sun.

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The living room features a vaulted ceiling that opens up to the south taking advantage of both the views and winter sun.  The vaulted ceiling and generous but selective use of windows make the house feel larger than it's 650 sq. ft.



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The view from the loft stair into the living room showing the summer sun shining deep into the house.  The landing doubles as a bench.



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To save space the bedroom was designed to be just large enough for a bed and circulation.  

The cottage has been designed to be accessible for Sylvia as she ages.  Even though the site is steeply sloping, a gently path connects the cottage to her daughter’s house.  Inside, grab bars and surfaces will enable one with impaired mobility to navigate throughout the cottage with a degree of comfort.  In general we took the approach of making things smaller rather than larger so that grab bars and supporting surfaces are always within easy reach. 

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Using a pantry wall allowed us to create efficient storage, made the kitchen seem larger and  left more room for windows.  A beautiful quartz countertop highlights the blue glass tile backsplash.

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We used open ceilings in the kitchen and bedroom to make the space to add warmth and texture while making the ceiling higher.  The ceilings in these areas is 7"0" high to keep the overall height of the cottage low.  The kitchen table doubles a a work surface and can readily be switched out if a lower accessible table is ever required.

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The view from the bedroom through the kitchen.

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A gas fireplace is the primary heat source.  The landing for the loft stair doubles as a bench.  The bench to the right of the fireplace features a hinged cover and provides extra storage.




The bathroom is on the main floor off of the bedroom. It features in floor radiant heat. The walls have plywood backing to enable the addition of grab bars in the future.


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A view through the kitchen into the bedroom.



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Now that her cottage is complete, Sylvia enjoys being a more prominent part of her family’s and particularly her granddaughter’s life. Classical music and opera are her passions. Being in Seattle she can now regularly attend performances with her daughter. Her new cottage features a loft for her music studio and for her granddaughter to play in. She is happy to be walking distance to the grocery store, and nearby Seward Park.The first floor t&g fir ceiling is also the finish floor in the loft.






Thursday, November 7

Backyard Cottage Open Houses and Workshops - Fall


Lake Washington Cabin - Sunday December 15th 1:00-4:00 pm




Deciding to build a backyard cottage is a big decision for most families and the holiday season when families are together is a great time to start the discussion. Our open houses are a great chance to learn more about backyard cottages and meet others thinking about building backyard cottages.  Walking through a completed backyard cottage can give you an idea of how generous a small house can feel.  Microhouse staff will be on hand along with the contractor to answer questions.


5200 55th Ave S -Lake Washington Cabin:   Sunday December 15, 1:00-4:00 pm.  The shape and form of this backyard cottage were carefully crafted to capture southern light and expansive views of Lake Washington and Mount Rainier.  Vaulted ceilings and exposed joists make the cottage feel larger than its 650 sq. ft. size. The house features a one bedroom, bath, kitchen and living room on the main floor and a granddaughter loft. 650 Sq.Ft. 1 Bedroom, 1 Bath.



Backyard Cottages and ADU's; stay-at-home strategies for seniors   March 12, from 7:00 to 9:00pm, Brick Building Room 6, Phinney Neighborhood Center 6532 Phinney Avenue North

Microhouse and Ncompass Cottage Company
$20 PNA member, $25 Public


Backyard cottages provide opportunities for seniors and their families. Join us to learn more about stay-at-home strategies for seniors including the design, construction and use of backyard cottages.  Bring your ideas, this is a great opportunity to meet others thinking about how a backyard cottage may fit into their long term plans.



Tuesday, August 13

backyard cottages seeking homes

Do you have a large lot that would be suitable for subdividing but are worried that if you sell you may end up living next to a McMansion?  We are frequently approached by people looking for lots for small homes, backyard cottages and even cottage housing developments. We would love to show the development community that well designed small homes create vibrant neighborhoods, are great places to live, and are a viable development prototype.

Given the scarcity of vacant lots in and around Seattle, finding a small lot is a seemingly impossible proposition.  When small lots are developed it is most often to the maximum extent allowable by the code.  Given the provisions in the Seattle zoning code, these houses can be huge ugly boxes way out of scale with their surroundings. No shortage of these houses have been built in Seattle over the last few years.  Enough to finally prompt amendments to the land use code. The Seattle Weekly recently did an article about the reaction to one local developer who's excesses led to these amendments.

crowded houses

Beyond a much needed overhaul to the Seattle Municipal Code, the most effective way to reverse this trend is to demonstrate viable alternatives. To this end we are currently looking for small lots on Mercer Island, North Seattle, and for a backyard cottage site on or around Queen Anne.  If you think that your lot may qualify or are otherwise interested please give us a call or shoot us an email. 

Tuesday, July 9

tiny home seeks a home



A tiny home demonstration project by students at Emily Carr University of Art and Design underscores the challenges of providing shelter for at risk groups and the homeless.  

To read more about this unique project. vancouver sun article 




Our own experience working with a Vancouver land owner to come up with provide services for at risk youth has run into some similar challenges.


Located on the outskirts of Vancouver the zoning of this site allows for a multi-story high rise development.  However, the local rental market cannot support the cost of development. Microhouse and the land owner have teamed up to for this innovative affordable housing solution.  The 30 units will house at risk youth and social workers. The units are based around a series of overlapping courtyards that will facilitate small group interactions and provide support for the residents.

The local municipality views our proposal as an under utilization of the site and has proposed utility hookup costs of $450,000 equivalent to that for 30 apartment buildings. Effectively keeping the project in limbo for now.
The owner plans to start a demonstration project by building the first unit, as a backyard cottage. Thank you to Studio 216 for the beautiful rendering.









Friday, June 14

microhouse - contemporary cottage housing


A unique take on cottage housing this new development on Seattle's Beacon Hill by microhouse uses an elevated walkway to connect these four houses.  



Pervious paving and the grated walkway help reduce the amount of impervious site surfaces.


The elevated walkway provides a unique opportunity to have public circulation on one level passing over private yards below, resolves a difficult sloping site, and reduces the apparent scale of the houses. 


The footprint of the Northern two houses (on the left) is a mere 16ft x 24ft. These houses feature 3 bedrooms and 2 baths. A real challenge but the end result is a home that feels airy and much bigger than its actual square footage.



 Replacing cabinet uppers with pantry storage areas is super efficient and allows for windows over the counter area.



Affordable bamboo flooring provides added warmth and a nice contract to the contemporary finishes.












Saturday, June 1

Enjoy this beautiful day and learn more about rain gardens.  Come and participate in the self guided Higland Park Improvement Club rain garden tour.






Saturday, April 20

microhouse new office bike


We have a new office bike.  While not all office vehicle uses are suitable for a bike, our last office bike was retired with over 10,000 miles.  We encourage all design firms to make a bike available to their employees.

Microhouse is a 100% bike, walk or work from home design collaborative.

Tuesday, March 26

backyard cottage open house - garage conversion

Sunday April 7th from 1-4 pm
6335 Wilson Ave S, Seattle, WA 98118
(Entrance from Blair Terrace S.)



Have you been thinking about converting your garage into a backyard cottage? Join microhouse and Ncompass Cottage Company for an open house on April 7th from 1-4 pm  to view this recently constructed backyard cottage.



Mark and Alice converted their existing garage in to a backyard cottage to add more room for their growing family.  The family placed a high priority on sustainability.  To this end, we worked to maintain as much of the existing structure as possible.  The result is a 440 sq. ft. one bedroom 1 bath  cottage suitable for someone with poor mobility.

Garage conversions have their own unique benefits and challenges.  To be used as a backyard cottage a garage must be brought up to the standards of the current building code.  When evaluating whether a conversion is cost effective, rather than starting with new construction, our first consideration is the condition of the foundation.  Many garages are built with minimal foundations that do not meet current design standards.  If the existing foundation is in good condition, as it was for Mark and Alice, we can focus on other important considerations like updating systems and insulation.  

One benefit of converting an existing garage in Seattle is that special considerations are given in the zoning code for these existing structures.  These considerations can be departures from standards including lot size and setbacks.  Contact us to find out more about the permitting process and these departures.

Monday, March 25

a retirement cabin on Lake Washington

A retirement cabin complete with a granddaughter loft by Seattle design collaborative microhouse.  The design takes advantage of sweeping views lake Washington and Mt. Rainier. Location - the backyard of the owner's daughter.




A project that we are currently working on that is quite exciting.  The design features a nice living room and open kitchen with views south to Mount Rainier and east to Lake Washington.  One bedroom and bath are located on the main floor and a granddaughter loft is located above.  The deck faces south and is sheltered by a large roof overhang. The overhang will allow winter sunlight deep into the house while shading the windows during summer months.  The primary heat source will be a gas fire place.  The cabin will have a rain feature and cistern to celebrate and store rain water.





One of our first challenges is working within an environmentally critical area (ECA).  The City of Seattle determines which areas are environmentally sensitive based on a number of criteria including the presence of a steep slope, liquifaction prone soils and others.  In this case we have a site adjacent to a steep slope with poor fill soils deposited during the construction of the primary residence. Fortunately our team members have a strong background in Civil Engineering and perhaps because of this a large percentage of our projects are located in ECA areas.  We are working with landscape architect, Anri Rapelje, on a landscape and planting plan that will enhance the natural function of the site as well as providing native edible plants.

Construction is scheduled to begin in June 2013.






Thursday, March 14


learn about backyard cottages and meet other backyard cottage enthusiasts

We design homes that are easy to live in.  Cottages that allow their occupants to live at home close to family even if their mobility becomes impaired.   Come and learn about how we approach designing for a lifetime and what ideas make for great homes.    This is a great opportunity to talk with experts in the design and construction of backyard cottages and also learn about options for in home care.  


Matt Long from Husky Senior Care will be joining us to discuss in home care and the needs of seniors and their caregivers.



backyard cottages and stay-at-home strategies for seniors   

March 20th, from 7:00 to 9:00pm, Blue Building Room #3 
Phinney Neighborhood Center 6532 Phinney Avenue North

Microhouse, Ncompass Cottage Company, Husky Senior Care
$20 PNA member, $25 Public
To register call 206.783.2244


Thursday, January 3

happy new year



Here is a look back on some of our 2012 small house projects.  It has been fun year and we are looking forward to more great projects in 2013.  If you would like more information about any of these give us a call or shoot us an email. A full resolution copy of this poster will be available for download soon.