Building ADUs by the book: a review of In-laws, Outlaws and Granny Flats by Michael Litchfield


When people see the granny cottage I built, a lot of them ask, “I’ve been thinking of doing something like that on my property – how do I get started?”

There haven’t been many good sources I can refer to, and though I try to be friendly I haven’t been that encouraging. Developing that cottage was actually quite a struggle, even in the supposed progressive city of Portland. When you create a second dwelling in or around your house, like this one photographed by radworld

photo by flickr user radworld, licensed under Creative Commons,

… you are essentially becoming a mini real estate developer, where you take on a lot of risks and responsibilities before you get—you hope—to the rewards.

A solid one-stop source of good information was sorely needed about how to develop a second dwelling on your property, whether you call it an in-law unit, a basement apartment, a backyard cottage, a garden suite, a secondary unit, or (to use the term favored by planners) an “accessory dwelling unit” or ADU.

Of course architects and contractors will offer to walk you through an orientation, but at the very beginning of the project I feel this has risks. Not all architects and contractors will really understand what you are asking for. I remember vividly the contractor who simply could not comprehend that I did not want to enlarge my primary house and connect it to the new unit. It wouldn’t change the budget much… Wasn’t bigger better?

Another possibility is trolling the blogs of adventurous homeowners and mini-developers like myself or Kol, who will take you through their process in a lot of detail, for free. I particularly recommend Kol’s blog for its thoroughness. But you might need to read a lot of those blogs to find an example that really suits your situation.

It’s helpful for the greenhorn mini-developer (that would be you) to begin talks with those professionals with some idea of the general set of possibilities, and some inspiring examples to help define the goals.

Enter the first book about ADUs: In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: your guide to turning one house into two homes by Michael Litchfield. It’s a volume that was sorely needed, and indeed it’s a truly excellent resource in many ways… almost too good in some ways, as I will explain. I’d say it is required reading for anybody thinking about creating a second unit, and a great thing to read before talking with professionals. At the same time, this book will not tell you anything about costs, which is a major omission.

Litchfield starts with a nice introduction to the rationale for creating an ADU—it is a flexible, independent additional space that can be used for family, friends, or rental income as the homeowner’s situation demands. I particularly like the author’s emphasis on making human relationships—instead of aesthetics, environmental footprint, or any other goal—central to project planning and design. He also gets it right, IMHO, when he encourages would-be ADU developers to get permits and work with a professional on the design. Unless you know a lot (and probably don’t need Litchfield’s book) this kind of project involves just too much risk to finances and lifestyle to go it on your own.

His explication of the basic forms of ADUs (cottages, basement conversions, attic conversions, additions, etc) and their various pros and cons is clear, and gives structure to the rest of the book, where he follows up with several dozen case studies representing all those different forms. Each of the case studies is well illustrated with floor plans and photographs. The personal stories of the owner-developers describe the context for the projects, and then Litchfield gets to expound on how those goals are expressed with design and construction details.

And that’s where the book really excels. Litchfield connects design goals to tips and tricks of thoughtful construction, so much that I think architects and contractors need to read this book as much as dreaming homeowners. He’s an advocate of “wet” bathrooms, a classy way of making small bathrooms luxurious, which have mostly been ignored by developers of ADUs; he also gives good tips for the all-important art of soundproofing. Nothing ruins one’s sense of privacy and independence more than hearing someone flush the toilet on the other side of the wall.

In short, the book emphasizes that ADUs can and should be high-quality dwellings, despite—or perhaps because of—their diminutive size. And I say Amen!

The book’s abundant and fetching photos reinforce this point forcefully. In fact they are so fetching, so artfully lit, shot, and cropped that they make some rather small spaces feel gigantic. Of course the architectural designs are meant to do this; the photographer has taken advantage of good design. But when I compare the floor plans to the photographs, it’s clear that in a lot of cases the camera has been posted in an extreme corner of the room, or some other place where no set of human eyes will ever be. (Unless they’re crawling up to open some high corner cabinet. Which is not impossible if there are cookies.) So there is a bit of deception going on in the photos.

I suppose it would be undignified and cheap of me to complain about the second kind of white lie contained in the photographs, because it’s something that is in practically every design book and magazine. It’s not the author’s fault.

But what the heck! This is a blog!

In short, the photos are gorgeous, but show no sign of life. The spaces are vacant, without a spot of dust, a dropped sweater, a coffee cup, or any evidence that anyone is living there. While it’s part of the “design” genre, that style is particularly wrong for a book about small dwellings, because as anyone who has actually lived in one knows, they get messy quickly. (They also clean up quickly.)

For an antidote to this kind of picture, see Little House On A Small Planet by Shay Salomon, photos by Nigel Valdez. I reviewed the first edition and I trust the current one isn’t too different. Valdez, who can take pictures as pretty as anybody’s, also allows us to see the gritty, undesigned aspects of living in these dwellings, even including the sense of crowding one may occasionally experience if there are too many people there.

Little House On A Small Planet is an interesting contrast for another reason as well. Author Salomon includes expenses for most of the projects. Meanwhile In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats studiously and systematically avoids the subject of money. No budgets are given for any of the projects, as far as I can tell, and many of them look quite pricey, given the degree of craft and some unusual systems.

Now as an editor I understand the argument against including budgets. Costs date the book. They change from time to time and place to place, and besides, every reader’s own project will be unique.

But that decision makes the book less useful to readers. As the author so correctly notes near the beginning of the book, the opportunity for income from rent is one of the main reasons to develop an ADU. Anyone who cares about making a little extra money from rent is going to care about how much the project costs. Running down the budgets for, say, half a dozen projects, would have done a fair amount to give readers a sense of where the expenses come from.

Despite all these complaints, In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats is quite a valuable orientation and “wish book”. Buy this and Little House On A Small Planet together, and you’ll have a really rich set of examples to draw from.

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