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 6

microhouse - visit our new web page


Looking for inspiration for your own project? Our new microhouse web page has a great photo gallery of recent backyard cottages and other small houses.  

microhouse

Tuesday, November 21

backyard cottages - this is what it is really like to live in your daughter's backyard

ballard backyard cottage featured in country living magazine



photo by microhouse


When Meredith Stannard, 66 retired from her job earlier this year, her soon-to-be-former coworkers couldn't wait to see the backyard cottage she and her partner Elyse Zandonella, 69, had decided to downsize into. "everybody was curious," she says. "I started doing these happy hours where I'd have one or two people over at a time. There's a lot of buzz with people wondering if they could do this too.





photo by Matt Hagen

Last November, the couple moved from a 1,300-square-foot home in west Seattle to a 613-square-foot cottage in the backyard of a house owned by their daughter Drew, 33, and son-in-law Jacob, 37, in the city's Ballard neighborhood. Their mini-house now stands where a dilapidated detached garage, formerly envisioned as a possible writing studio for Drew, once stood. Click to read more about their experience in country living article by Maria Carter.

Thursday, November 16

backyard cottage EIS scoping comments due today November 16th

Backyard cottages are a great addition to our city providing the low hanging fruit for increasing urban density while providing opportunities for families. There are proposed changes to the rules governing backyard cottages that are being studied by the city of Seattle and you get to have a say on their implementation through the EIS process.



To comment:



BCBEB (back yard cottage blog editorial board) ADU EIS cheat sheet guide to the EIS comparison of alternatives.

1. Number of ADU's on a lot: Alternative 1 no action keep one per lot.  DADU's  built under current land-use have an impact to the built environment but one generally in keeping with current development patterns in SFR zones.  Allowing three units especially in combination with the removal of the owner occupancy requirement will lead to SFRs designed and built to be rentals with a much higher combined value. Because the combined rentals will have a higher value than one smaller SFR there will be financial incentive to increase the demolition of naturally occurring affordable SFR housing. In addition, the higher combined value of three units will make their purchase that much less obtainable for a family and more appealing for an out of area investor. It has been well documented in the HALA literature that opportunity gaps exist based on proximity and home ownership.  Ownership is one of the primary means of accumulating and maintaining household wealth. This is true for marginalized communities but also for middle class families. Allowing more than one ADU per lot, and eliminating the owner occupancy requirement, will reduce the amount of affordable housing available to families to own.  

Additional alternatives: Portland and Vancouver give special consideration to alley lots and corner lots. Vancouver only allows DADU's on lots with alleys. These lots can more readily handle increased development with less impact to the urban fabric. The code should be amended to allow these lots to be segregated to create more small scale SFRs that can be sold independently. 

2. Parking: Alternative 2 Remove parking requirement for ADU's. Not a politically palatable but removing the parking requirement will likely not have an environmental impact and will free up yard space for vegetation.

3. Owner Occupancy: Alternative 1- the current proposal to sunset owner occupancy after a period of time is good and should minimize the destruction of naturally occurring affordable housing by speculative developers.  The period of time should be 3 years. Owner occupancy should be required for all properties used short term rentals.  

4. Reduce minimum lot size: Alternative 2 - we already design many cottages on lots less than 4,000 sq. ft in size and the size of the cottage on smaller lots is driven by lot coverage as it should be. 

Additional alternatives: Portland and Vancouver give special consideration to alley lots and corner lots. These lots can more readily handle increased development without disrupting the neighborhood fabric.

5. Increasing the allowable cottage size from 800 to 1,000 sq ft.: Alternative 1 - increasing the allowable size 200 sq. ft. is a great idea and makes it easier to fit in two bedrooms.  However, Alternative 2 excludes the garage and other storage from this calculation potentially allowing 2,000 sq. ft. ADUs.  We frequently design cottages where the garage space is not intended for parking but as part of the cottage.  The city can't and shouldn't mandate that garages are used for parking but not including this space in the allowable square footage will unnecessarily increase the allowable size and bulk of DADUs. And will have a negative impact on the character of neighborhoods, the amount of natural light and vegetation available.  For the large increase in allowable square footage of Alternative 2 to be considered a corresponding reduction in allowable floor area ratio (FAR) should adopted capping the combined size of the two units. This would allow two smaller more equal sized units to be built.

Additional comment: In general the city needs to be more consistent on determining what is included in the allowable gross square footage. Seattle land use code includes all storage areas to the extent that some reviewers for SDCI want to include covered unenclosed exterior space.  The current land use code could be tweaked and specificity added to allow more usable storage area.

Additional Alternative: Consider going to a combination of floor area ratio (FAR) and lot coverage restriction to encourage the creation of two more equally sized family friendly units. 


6. Additional Height: Alternative 1 - while almost all of the cottages we design are built to the allowable height limit the current height limit is adequate for a two story structure.  Additional height can reduce the amount of sunlight reaching neighbors yards.  The multi-family code has provisions that allow additional height with a consideration for the impact of shading on neighboring properties.  Something similar can and should be adopted for DADUs.


7. Lot coverage Limit: Maintain.  Yards do have a value both for families raising children and as green spaces and as a way to reduce stormwater runoff. 

In the world in which we live, small children have almost no opportunity for unsupervised outdoor play.  Urban parks that require that children be constantly monitored by a caregiver cannot fill the void. Back yards provide a safe place for children to play, create, and be outside.  The alternative is often additional screen time with the corresponding negative health effects.

Increasing lot coverage will decrease green space and tree canopy available for habitat for wildlife.  Interconnected vegetated corridors can provide valuable habitat for pollinators and other wildlife even within an urban environment. 

Increasing lot coverage will increase stormwater runoff. As we witnessed, when the west point waste treatment plant went down, we are at capacity for dealing with urban stormwater runoff. The best alternative is to allow stormwater to enter the ground where it can be filtered and recharge streams and lakes.  The rainwise program recognizes the value of groundwater infiltration but also importantly that it is less expensive to provide point source treatment than to create new treatment capacity.  While it is true that the new stormwater code does require increased on site stormwater management, most backyard cottages are below the size threshold to trigger these requirements.


8. Rear yard coverage: Alternative 2 Recognizing that yards do have a value both for families raising children and as green spaces and as a way to reduce stormwater runoff. 


9. Location of entry: Alternative 2. Allow entries 5 ft from nearest lot line with written consent of the neighbor. 

Additional Alternative: Allow the use of side yard easements and or the ability of zero lot line development for DADUs.  This will make it easier to build cottages and allow for a more efficient use of limited yard space.

10. Rooftop features: Alternative 2 -allowing rooftop features, namely shed dormers to extend above the base ("eave height") will not increase the bulk of DADUs allowed under the current land use code and therefore have no negative environmental impact. 

11. Household Size: See comment for number 1.

12. Mandatory Affordable Housing (MHA):  Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) does not apply to creation of ADUs in Single Family zones.   

13. Maintain. Property owners renting one or more units, including in Single Family zones, must register for inspections to ensure housing is safe and meets basic maintenance requirements. 




Tuesday, October 31

ADU / DADU EIS comment period extended to November 16th

As required by the hearing examiner's ruling last year the city has begun the environmental impact  EIS process reviewing proposed land use code changes involving backyard cottages (DADUs) and attached accessory dwelling units (ADUs). 

The stated goal of the city is to increase the number of backyard cottages being built. The purpose of the EIS process is to assess the potential impacts of those changes to the natural and built environment. The first part of this process is the scoping phase. The scoping phase comment period has been extended 15 days to November 16th. 


What is scoping?Before we begin the environmental analysis, the scoping phase is a chance to hear your ideas for the alternatives and types of impacts we should focus on. Scoping is not when we consider whether to implement certain policy changes — that occurs after we’ve completed the EIS process, and you’ll have opportunities to weigh in on the proposal then.

To read more:  ADU EIS link to seattle.gov site

To comment:

Sunday, October 29

backyard cottage tour today

Join us for a unique opportunity to tour backyard cottages (dadus) in Fremont, Greenwood, and Ballard. Starting with an open house at 4134 1st Ave NW from 10:00 - 11:00 am.  Following the open house will be a tour of other nearby cottages. Sign up for our open house invite list for more information.





fremont backyard cottage

The comment period for the scoping phase of the proposed land use changes affecting backyard cottages (DADU EIS) ends on November 1st.  

Read More





Thursday, October 26

encouraging backyard cottages (DADUs) - tonight



As required by the hearing examiner's ruling last year the city has begun the environmental impact  EIS process reviewing proposed land use code changes involving accessory dwelling units also known as ADUs, DADUs and backyard cottages. The stated goal of the city is to increase the number of backyard cottages being built. The purpose of the EIS process is to assess the potential impacts of those changes to the natural and built environment. The first part of this process is the scoping phase.

At the start of the EIS process, we invite the public to comment on what we should study during a specific scoping period. The scoping period alerts us to areas of concern early in the process. During this period, the public helps us identify topics that need the most thorough review and the range of issues we should study.

To read more and comment ADU EIS

To participate and learn about the EIS process and proposed land use code changes you can also attend one of two public meetings.

October 26, 2017, 6:00-7:30 p.m.
Hale's Ales (in the Palladium)
4301 Leary Way NW

To tour nearby backyard cottages and see what all of the fuss is about sign up for our open house invite list.

Thursday, October 19

backyard cottage tour October 29th

Join us for a unique opportunity to tour backyard cottages (dadus) in Fremont, Greenwood, and Ballard. Starting with an open house at 4134 1st Ave NW from 10:00 - 11:00 am.  Following the open house will be a tour of other nearby cottages. Sign up for our open house invite list for more information.





fremont backyard cottage

The cottage features treetop views of downtown, vaulted ceilings, two green roofs and a small deck.  The owner acted as the general contractor for the project and did most of the construction work himself, including the hand stenciled paper mache floors.






The garage set up for a movie screening in honor of parking day

This cottage has the distinction of being built over, not a garage, but a room for table tennis. The logic being that once that was built why not build a cottage on top. Fast forward to today and the owner's are living in their new backyard cottage and renting out their larger primary residence.

Please note that the cottage is not readily visible from the street. Outside of open house hours please be respectful of the privacy of the owner's, their tenants and neighbors.

Friday, October 13

columbia city farmhouse

This small cottage was designed using the same principals we use for our backyard cottages but is a little bit bigger.  The house is designed for the owner's family of four and contains three bedrooms and two bathrooms.  The total area of the cottage is 1,100 sq. ft. The house sits on a newly segregated 3,000 sq. ft. lot. It is placed back against the alley to preserve a number of mature trees located in the front yard. Because the lot is under 3,200 sq. ft. in size the cottage went through administrative design review which required posting of the project and a public comment period.  The comments received praised the design reflecting the character and scale of the neighborhood. 


The cottage owner, from Seattle but currently living in Brooklyn, understands small spaces and we were on the same page when we set out to design a new house for him and his family in columbia city.  


The traditional front porch features reclaimed lath as an accent which is continued on throughout the house.



A compact kitchen is located in the center of the main floor and features an island and a window bench seat. We used a built in but open book shelf to segregate the study from the rest of the open 1st floor.  In the near term this allows separation without making the rooms feel too small. It also allows for this area to be converted into a bedroom if having a bedroom on the ground floor becomes a necessity. A full bath and back door are located off of the study.  






Exposed fir t&g ceilings with fir beams and custom joist hangers. Shiplap clad walls.





Changes in ceiling finish were used to create rooms within rooms with exposed t&g fir car decking and exposed joists as the ceiling in the living room and study and a soffitted ceiling over the kitchen.  


The stairs lead up from the entry.  A back door is located under the stair and adjacent to the ground floor bathroom.


Upstairs the cottage features three bedrooms and bathroom. The flooring throughout is fir t&g which is also the ceiling viewed from the main floor.


The bedrooms are compact. The largest two measuring 12 ft. x 12 ft. but feature vaulted ceilings and rustic finishes including the car decking floor and t&g walls and ceiling.



Tuesday, October 3

backyard cottage EIS comment period starts

The comment period runs through November 1st, 2017




the rainier valley cottage - currently used as a short term rental

As required by the hearing examiner's ruling last year the city has begun the environmental impact  EIS process reviewing proposed land use code changes involving backyard cottages. The stated goal of the city is to increase the number of backyard cottages being built. The purpose of the EIS process is to assess the potential impacts of those changes to the natural and built environment. The first part of this process is the scoping phase.

At the start of the EIS process, we invite the public to comment on what we should study during a specific scoping period. The scoping period alerts us to areas of concern early in the process. During this period, the public helps us identify topics that need the most thorough review and the range of issues we should study.

To read more and comment ADU EIS

To participate and learn about the EIS process and proposed land use code changes you can also attend one of two public meetings.


  • October 17, 2017, 6:00-7:30 p.m. 
    Location: High Point Community Center, 6920 34th Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98126
  • October 26, 2017, 6:00-7:30 p.m. 
    Location: Hale’s Ales (in the Palladium), 4301 Leary Way NW, Seattle, WA 98107

Monday, September 25

backyard cottages top $100,000 views and walkability as most desirable amenity

Everyone knows that a home’s price is affected by such things as its size and condition and the quality of nearby schools. There’s also the $50,000 cup of coffee, the $100,000 view and the $200,000 backyard cottage.




broadview cottage - rental and personal use


Like in Seattle, backyard cottages are being built in Berkley in increasing numbers. In a recent berkleyside article bay area real estate agents discussed the relative merits of various home amenities. Pricewise, an in-law unit or a tiny home can boost a home’s value more than any other element, agents said. “People love it when the house has a little separate cottage or in-law unit so they can accommodate friends and family who are visiting from out of state,” said Victoria Lynn Curtis, an agent with Better Homes and Gardens, workers who telecommute can use such quarters as offices, and artists can use them as studios; double-income professionals can use them to house nannies or au-pairs. Or homeowners can rent them out, generating a tidy income".


However real estate appraisers struggle with how to value backyard cottages and other ADU's primarily because there are simply not enough comparable sales to serve as a guide. Bruce Parker from microhouse and Stefan Hansmire from Ncompas were recently invited to participate in a panel discussion about backyard cottages during the Appraisers Coalition of Washington State conference. One topic of discussion was the use of backyard cottages as rentals.  This trend has only increased in recent years as more people have become aware of and begun to use their cottages as short term rentals.  Short term rentals provide a relatively high rate of return and cottage owners would like the rental income to be considered in the appraised value of their homes when seeking financing. However, most municipalities have owner occupancy requirements.  In these cases, a lender or underwriter must asses the value of the home without income from an ADU because in the case of foreclosure the ADU must be removed before the house could be rented by the loan holder. That takes us back to the use of comparable sales to establish an appraised value.  The contribution of an ADU to these valuations tend to be less than the cost of construction. This in turn makes construction loans harder to obtain for DADU construction.  As a result, most home owners use cash or home equity to finance construction.
Value vs Cost

The cost of construction varies depending on a number of market factors including the cost of materials and labor. The cost of building a backyard cottage has been increasing since the recession.  Assessing the value of a cottage for those planning to build one, involves consideration of the many possible uses of a cottage over the long term.  As discussed, many people use cottages as rentals.  In this case,  a careful consideration of the rents in your area and anticipated costs and expected rate of return can help you establish a working budget.  





 magnolia cottage - short term rental/long term family occupied



Even when cottages are used as rentals that is often only one of many planned uses.  Ben and January's cottage in Magnolia is one example. They originally rented their cottage on AirBNB.  Now that the cottage has been paid off, January's recently retired father has moved in and is enjoying being closer to his grandchildren and urban amenities. 

While it may be hard to put a value to how a well designed home makes you feel or the value of having a family member living nearby, some qualities are easier to asses.  If that family member is an aging parent who would otherwise be living in an assisted living facility it is relatively easy to look at the costs of local facilities.  For others building a new cottage may be less expensive than remodeling their existing house to more closely meet their needs. For example, new cottages can incorporate universal design components to assist those with mobility impairments. Having established a realistic budget based on your needs and values will guide the many decisions that make up design process.



Monday, July 24

HALA comment period on extended until August 7th

Have you heard of HALA? MHA? What about DEIS? If these acronyms are not familiar to you, they should be! All will affect your life and your city's future.

What can you do? We're asking our community to review the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) policy and submit your comments to the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) by MHA public comment .The DEIS evaluates MHA implementation in urban villages, proposed urban village expansion areas, and all other multifamily and commercial areas throughout the city.


After a review of the environmental impact statement for mandatory housing affordability (MHA), we support Alternative 1 - No Action.   MHA has too great a reliance on new development and increased density to lower costs of living.  Based on census data, there is a strong correlation between increased density and size of a city to increased cost of living both as a total cost and as percentage of household income.  Alternative 2 and 3 rely on both up-zoning and MHA to increase allowable density beyond that allocated for under current comprehensive plan and will disproportionately impact those earning less than AMI.  Up-zoning increases land values and ownership costs for existing naturally occurring affordable housing.  For investment properties, this ultimately results in increased rent or when the property can no longer remain profitable, redevelopment and displacement for the tenants.  This is true for residential tenants but also for small business located in older buildings which are more likely to be locally owned and to hire lower income workers.  

New rental housing produced at market prices, results in market rate rentals with pro formas that require a higher rate of rental income to offset financing, taxes and other expenses. Fully depreciated older properties can operate much less expensively.  Using MHA to offset the higher cost of new construction may reduce costs for those that ultimately receive subsidized housing. However, the funds from MHA will increasing the cost of development and thereby increase the costs for the tenants who are not subsidized by an equal amount. The city data suggests that the economic group earning between 30% and 80% of AMI have been and will be most affected by the increase in housing costs.  This group, who consists of workers with modest incomes, have increasingly been forced out of Seattle.

The city, and one would hope with the consent of the people who own the land, dictate land-use and can increase the value of the land by easing restrictions placed on it.  Up-zoning properties as proposed under Alternatives 2 and 3 gives away this value and is a mistake.  Incentive zoning is better and can be expanded. It creates funding for affordable housing without necessarily increasing the underlying value of the land.  Thus, preserving naturally occurring affordable housing and commercial properties.

Our neighborhood single family zones contribute the character and vitality of our city and should be supported. In single family zones, particularly in those areas with proximity to access to good schools and amenities, residences are being demolished and replaced with larger homes, often times by speculative developers.  These new houses sell for approximately three times the value of the existing older home.  This trend is driven by lending practices and the market and ultimately makes it harder for those even earning AMI to own a home.  Under Alternative 2 and 3 the city proposes increased in development in single family zones. This will accelerate this trend unless measures are taken to insure development occurs at a smaller scale and in a way that protects more modest homes from redevelopment.  Backyard cottages and ADU’s are part of this solution. 

Cottage housing is another tested method that remains largely unrealized. A Seattle demonstration project for cottage housing in single family zones was ultimately discontinued.  However, the housing built under the project shows that it can provide attractive affordable housing in a scale with single family neighborhoods.  As a building type, it provides shared open space which is a real amenity for those with young children and also seniors. These two groups are under increasing economic pressure to leave the city. Currently, cottage housing is allowed in multi-family zones but because it is competing with other forms of multi-family housing with higher allowable floor area ratios (FAR)s cottage housing is seldom if ever built. The land-use code should be modified to limit the size of houses built by adding FAR limits in single family zones but also to allow for the division of lots given the increased limitations on size.  Smaller lots and smaller houses will result in more family friendly affordable housing in areas with amenities for families while preserving and enhancing the character of neighborhoods.



Friday, July 14

city of seattle - no more building permits


How crazy is the Seattle construction market? One indicator is the date on which the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) will accept new building permit submittals, the intake date. SDCI uses the intake dates to regulate their work flow. The busier they are the further out the earliest available intake date. This year intake dates have been available about three months out. Which is a considerable amount of time. However, we typically use this time to gather preliminaries, work on design and prepare construction documents so it doesn't slow us down much.  As of yesterday the November intake dates were all taken and SDCI has stopped issuing intake dates altogether. This is for any construction project not just backyard cottages. It is safe to assume that new intake dates will be added for the year.  It does highlight the unprecedented level of construction activity and increasing complexity of the land use, drainage, and energy codes that are affecting all aspects of the industry.

Thursday, July 13

crown hill backyard cottage

The maple tree was and is an integral part of this backyard cottage from it's inception.  The tree wraps the cottage providing a leafy screen from the street during the summer and in the winter rain drops collect on it's branches. The cottage ground floor is art studio that opens up to yard shaded by the tree. The 2nd floor apartment opens up into the leafy canopy.


The ground floor art studio features concrete floors, a small 3/4 bath, and a utility sink. Garage doors open up to the street allow a car to park on the ground floor if ever desired. 




The second floor apartment features an almost 1 bedroom with space for a queen sized bed placed over the stair.  Vaulted ceilings, skylights and abundant windows fill the cottage with natural light.


A juliet balcony off of the living room opens up into the tree canopy.



The bathroom also features bright colors and  a vaulted ceiling.


The cottage has been the home of the owner's son who is off to law school. While he is away it will be used as an executive rental.



Thursday, March 30

backyard cottage open house - fremont

Join us for a unique opportunity to tour a backyard cottage in Fremont. Tuesday April 18th from 5:00 - 7:00 pm.  4134 1st Ave NW.




This cottage has the distinction of being built over, not a garage, but a room for table tennis. The logic being that once that was built why not build a cottage on top. Fast forward to today and the owner's are living in their new house and renting out their larger primary residence.

The cottage features treetop views of downtown, vaulted ceilings, two green roofs and a small deck.  The owner acted as the general contractor for the project and did most of the construction work himself, including the hand stenciled paper mache floors.



the living room floor being installed. Material cost less than $50.



The finished product complete with a hand stenciled border.

Please note that the cottage is not readily visible from the street. Outside of open house hours please be respectful of the privacy of the owner's, their tenants and neighbors.

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.