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.

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.

Tuesday, October 4

backyard cottage workshop thursday

Wondering how the machinations of the Seattle City Council and the Queen Anne Community Council will impact your backyard cottage plans? Well frankly, so are we. Join us for a discussion on October 6th at the Phinney Neighborhood Association. 




Bruce Parker, Microhouse and; Stefan Hansmire, Ncompass Construction
Thursday, Oct 67-9pm
PC Blue Building, Room 3
$15 PNA member, $25 Public
 Register or 206.783.2244

Friday, September 9

backyard cottage open house

Come see what all the fuss is about at this upcoming backyard cottage open house, Wednesday September 21st, 4:30-7:00 pm. 6011 33rd Ave NE




This newly built cottage is 800 sq. ft. and includes a garage and 2nd floor 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, carriage apartment.  This cottage will be available for rent starting the end of September. 

Friday, September 2

backyard cottage proposed changes appeal continues

After two days, the hearing concerning proposed expansion of land use code provisions allowing for accessory dwelling units, HE 16-004, is adjourned and will recommence on September 30th at 9:00 am.

Wednesday, August 31

backyard cottage proposed changes appeal today and tomorrow

The hearing will take place today, Wednesday and into Thursday if required by the Hearing Examiner. It will take place on the 40th floor of the Municipal Tower (700 5th Ave 98104) within the offices of the Hearing Examiner, room 4009, and begin promptly at 9:00 am. The hearing is public and open to everyone so please attend if you wish. The hearing room has limited seating so consider arriving early


The Office of Planning and Community Development released proposed code revisions to encourage the development of more backyard cottages on May 19th.  At that time, the Office of Planning and Community Development for the City of Seattle issued a determination that the legislation would not have significant adverse environmental impacts (DNS). The Queen Anne Community Council is challenging that determination and will appeal to the Hearing Examiner.  

If the appeal is successful, then the city must complete a full environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed changes. The EIS document is a collection of professional and expert studies and analysis, city department review and input, citizen review and input, multiple open and transparent public hearings, multiple drafts, and final approvals after public engagement.  

If the appeal is not successful, then the legislation is anticipated to come to the Council’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee before the end of the year for discussion.

Wednesday, August 24

backyard cottage code changes




Wondering how the machinations of the Seattle City Council and the Queen Anne Community Council will impact your backyard cottage plans? Well frankly, so are we. Join us for a discussion on October 6th at the Phinney Neighborhood Association. 




Bruce Parker, Microhouse and; Stefan Hansmire, Ncompass Construction
Thursday, Oct 67-9pm
PC Blue Building, Room 3
$15 PNA member, $25 Public
 Register or 206.783.2244

Sunday, August 21

10,000+ on houzz

The Houzz community has saved photos of our backyard cottage projects to their idea books 10,000 or more times! 



Wednesday, August 10

backyard cottage proposed changes appeal - august 31st

The Office of Planning and Community Development released proposed code revisions to encourage the development of more backyard cottages on May 19th At that time, the Office of Planning and Community Development for the City of Seattle issued a determination that the legislation would not have significant adverse environmental impacts (DNS). The Queen Anne Community Council is challenging that determination and will appeal to the Hearing Examiner. The hearing date is now scheduled for August 30th.  

If the appeal is successful, then the city must complete a full environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed changes. The EIS document is a collection of professional and expert studies and analysis, city department review and input, citizen review and input, multiple open and transparent public hearings, multiple drafts, and final approvals after public engagement.  

If the appeal is not successful, then the legislation is anticipated to come to the Council’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee before the end of the year for discussion.

Tuesday, July 26

backyard cottage recording studio


Jon and Rita wanted to build a recording studio that would also serve as a guest cottage for friends and family.  We worked with them and an acoustical engineer to create a simple yet elegant backyard cottage. The cottage contains the recording studio, a kitchen, bath and a loft like bedroom.






For the most part windows were kept high in difference to acoustical considerations but the cottage opens up towards the house with a cafe style table facing the windows.  During recording, acoustical panels cover these windows and movable panels are positioned on the floor and fixed panels are positioned on the ceiling.  




The kitchen window faces the house and an outdoor patio (still under construction). Exposed car decking opens up the kitchen ceiling and serves as the floor to the bedroom above.









A narrow stair serves the kids bedroom. A murphy bed on the ground floor accommodates their adults.






Thursday, July 21

tangletown backyard cottage embraces natural light

Natural light was a driving factor in the design of this small cottage in Seattle's tangletown neighborhood. 





Now that their children are grown, the cottage owners wanted to downsize from their beautiful but too large house but they didn't want to leave their neighborhood and friends. So they contacted Bruce Parker of microhouse to assist in the design of their new small dream home behind their current house.  The lot is small, less than 4,000 sq ft and the cottage had to take advantage of every available square inch, of the allowable 800 sq. ft., and work with limited opportunities for light and views. 





The stair is located on the south wall adjacent to the neighbors garage. High windows were used to let in natural light from up high above the garage. The kitchen is on the east wall facing the primary residence so no windows were placed on that wall the outside of which is now much needed storage for bikes, and garden tools. 




The kitchen is dead simple and takes advantage of an adjacent pantry.




A combination of wood soffit and exposed floor joists add richness and a feeling of openness to the living and dining rooms.  These areas open directly onto the alley and parking pad so frosted glazing was used to provide privacy while allowing in the maximum amount of light.  The primary heat source is radiant heat in the concrete floor. 






The limited allowable height meant that we had to use vaulted ceilings with low perimeter walls which was done to dramatic effect.



The stairwell while not counting towards the allowable square footage provides natural light to the fist floor.

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The light filled study with its tree top views and large skylight is their favorite room in the house. A fold out sofa provides a place for guests to sleep.



Now that the cottage is complete the owner's are moving in and will rent out their lager primary residence.



Bike and garden storage is located to the back of the cottage facing the garden.

Monday, July 18

backyard cottage workshop postponed

Due to the delay in the Seattle City Council timing to debate the proposed land use code changes affecting backyard cottages we are going to postpone the workshop scheduled for September 22nd until October 6th. 

In the mean time, to find out how these changes might impact your specific plans feel free to contact us. We look forward to hearing how you plan to use our cottage. 

Monday, June 20

read about one families backyard cottage adventure



Drew, Jacob, Meredith and Elyse are building a backyard cottage and a muli-generational household. You can follow their progress at the following link.

the beginning

Friday, June 10

backyard cottage legislation update



The legislation encouraging more backyard cottages has been delayed due to an appeal filed by Marty Kaplan of the Queen Anne Community Council. http://web6.seattle.gov/Examiner/case/W-16-004 Seattle City council is now hoping to vote on the legislation by the end of the year.  

When the legislation was made public, the Office of Planning and Community Development for the City of Seattle issued a determination that the legislation would not have significant adverse environmental impacts. The Queen Anne Community Council is challenging that determination and will appeal to the Hearing Examiner. The process of being heard by the Hearing Examiner can take anywhere from 3 to 6 months. More information about the timeline will be available after the hearing date is scheduled.  

Council member Mike O'Brien will continue his work in the interim focusing on means to reduce the cost of backyard cottage construction. Most significantly working to reduce or eliminate the sewer capacity charge for backyard cottages. He will also work with lenders to establishing backyard cottage financing tools.

Those considering building a backyard cottage will for a time be left in limbo.  While the proposed legislation was not likely to alter the decision to build a backyard cottage, the changes are significant enough to drastically impact their design.  Unfortunately, this will make the planing process that much more complicated and add yet another barrier to their construction.

Tuesday, May 31

backyard cottage code changes workshop

how might the proposed code revisions impact your plans?  

The city council is set to review the recommendations for easing land use restrictions on building backyard cottages.  These recommendations will go to city council for approval with anticipated action in July.  Join us for a workshop July 21st to dissect the recommendations after city council has had a chance to weigh in.  We will have an additional workshop in September following the anticipated adoption of the revised land-use code.

backyard cottages code updates  Thursday, July 21st,  from 7:00 to 9:00 pm, West Seattle Office Junction 6040, Suite B, California Ave SW, 98136

To find out how these changes might impact your specific plans feel free to contact us. We look forward to hearing how you plan to use our cottage. 

info@microhousenw.com





Thursday, May 19

backyard cottage proposed code changes





The seattle department of construction and inspection (SDCI) has released it's recommendations for easing land use restrictions on building backyard cottages.  These recommendations will go to city council for approval with anticipated action in July and possible adoption in August.

The recommendations look a lot like the ideas to encourage the construction of backyard cottages previously presented in public meetings.  As a mater of fact all of the policy suggestions presented in the meetings are being proposed with some additional details.

The most significant changes are an increase in allowable size for detached accessory dwelling units from 800 sq. ft. to 1,000 sq. ft. and decoupling the garage area from the allowable size.  An increase in height limit will also make a big difference in some situations. Under the proposal owner occupancy would be required for only one year, rather than being abandoned altogether, in an attempt to limit speculative development interests. There are also a host of common sense code updates that are likely to improve the design of cottages whether or not they actually encourage more people to build them. 

For a complete summary of the proposed changes 

proposed code revisions

The public can comment on the proposed revisions through June 2nd by emailing Nick Welch at nicolas.welch@seattle.gov

For a list of self guided backyard cottage tours please sign up for our backyard cottage invite list.  

Monday, May 16

tour de backyard cottages

Thank you to all of the cottage owner's who participated in the tour of cottages. It was a fun ride and great to see such a diverse collection of cottages.  

So what do cottage owner's talk about when they get together? The number one topic of conversation, after Donald Trump, was the $10,000 King County sewer capacity fee assessed to backyard cottages. Recently king county has begun charging the sewer capacity fee for backyard cottages as if they were new single family residences. Conversely, a much larger attached accessory dwelling unit or renovation of an existing residence does not pay the sewer capacity fee. It sounds like we will find out Wednesday if Seattle city council has been able to exert any pressure on King County for a more equitable assessment for backyard cottages. 

encouraging backyard cottages timeline updates



After a series of public meetings, reviewing public comments, and interviewing backyard cottage owners the Seattle city council  and Office of Planning and Community Development are poised to release a draft proposal of measures to encourage the construction of backyard cottages. 

This Thursday, May 19th, the Office of Planning and Community Development will publish a draft proposal reflecting many of these comments, for purposes of environmental review according to the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Councilmember O’Brien intends to share the highlights of the proposal publicly on Wednesday.

The legislation is then scheduled to come to the Council’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee in July, with a potential vote in August.

Please note that the legislation that is published this week may not entirely reflect the legislation that ultimately gets introduced at Council in July, as there could be changes to the policy that do not implicate the environmental review. We continue to welcome your comments during this time. There will be at least two City Council meetings between July and August as well, at which time there will be further opportunities to comment upon and shape the legislation.