Small home, big lessons: What I learned from my ADU

by | February 11, 2016 2 Architecture, Ideas
peak of roof against blue sky

If you’re like me and don’t know the difference between a fun hobby and just more hard work, then you might be interested in building yourself what is called an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU). An ADU is essentially a small home in your backyard that is just small enough to seem like a project any architect could do in their free time. Before you know it, you will be waking up at 6 a.m. every Saturday to spend your whole weekend working on something a contractor could probably do in two hours. Nonetheless, building an ADU will reveal some of the most basic lessons about design, construction, and development. And at the same time, you will come to learn that ADU’s have lifestyle, financial, environmental and community benefits that make the whole process very rewarding.

When we bought our first home in SE Portland, the backyard had a small garage engulfed by a large blackberry thicket, which was more of a nuisance (and city code violation) than anything else. We figured that surely we could put this area to a higher use. And thus sprang the idea of building an ADU.

Three years later, our useless backyard has transformed into a two-story ADU that I designed and built with family, friends, and, yes, a general contractor too. With time and hard work, I have learned first-hand some humbling yet gratifying lessons:

before and after photo of the ADU

The under-utilized backyard is now another home, and a small scale solution to relieving Portland’s housing pressures.

Understand your context. I believe one of the most important steps in designing an ADU is understanding the context. The goal is to build something that positively contributes to the neighborhood and your property. Understanding the context can also inform your financial decisions, helping you set boundaries and expectations early on.

Everybody benefits from simple designs. From a design standpoint, I appreciate simplicity. But I never fully understood that a simple design has a profound ripple effect on the schedule and cost of a project. As the project architect, owner and laborer, I was constantly looking for opportunities to make the project less complicated, less costly, and easier to build without compromising quality.

a panorama photo of an unfurnished interior

A simple, open floor plan is a clean design but also keeps costs down and reduces the number of unique details.

Embrace budget restrictions. A limited budget can actually bring clarity to design decisions. We often see budget limits as obstacles to good design, but in some cases they help us simplify and clean up our designs. Example: Knowing that windows cost more than walls, I focused on strategically placing windows to maximize light and cross-ventilation in both directions.

an unfurnished interior space with warm lighting coming from outside

Nearing completion of the interior finishes, this photo shows the ample natural light on a sunny winter day.

Even the small details take a lot of work. Fortunately, we had the foresight to hire a general contractor to coordinate all the “heavy lifting” items, including the drywall. We did all the finish work such as flooring, trim, cabinetry, tile, and paint. Even then, all the work we self-performed took a lot of time and attention-to-detail that we underestimated.

Sometimes the harder way is more rewarding. We found reclaimed gym flooring on Craigslist for only $1/sf. The catch was that every piece had to be hand scraped, the ends cleanly cut, laid in a random pattern, and then sanded down to raw wood. This process took six full weekends but resulted in a great material re-purposing and a high quality wood floor. We finished the floor with a zero-VOC hard-wax oil called Rubio Monocoat.

gym flooring photos during installation and after refinishing

Reclaimed gym flooring; a slow but rewarding process.

Learn by doing, but remember to be patient. I have always been an advocate of learning by doing. If you decide to self-perform work, don’t forget that you will make mistakes, and then spend more time correcting those mistakes. If you think a task will take you one hour to complete, multiply that by three to get the real amount of time it will take. In the end you will have learned a lot and you will be proud of your accomplishments.

We have yet to fully realize all the yields of having an ADU, but one thing is for certain: the process itself has been incredibly fulfilling. Sure, I sweat a lot, bled occasionally, and cried once; but to me that is the perfect method for meaningful learning. I would encourage any ambitious person to build an ADU. But if you ask me for help I might already have plans that day…


  1. Shelby Schroeder says |

    I’ve enjoyed looking at the progress shots over the last few months, Ray, and it’s great to see the final product. Whether it’s an ADU, or any other home project, this is all sage advice!

  2. Very nicely done Ray! It’s great to see the full realization.

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