A number of cities, including Portland and Seattle, have revised their zoning laws to allow for backyard cottages, cabins, bungalows, and studios.
Such mini-dwellings are becoming more commonplace these days. They may be intended to provide aging relatives or grown children a place to live, or homeowners may plan to earn income by renting them to others. Still others may be interested in creating a separate office or workspace for an at-home business or creative hobby.
Many architects and urban planners view the microhouse trend as a positive way to encourage more sustainable and vertical urban growth, since these small backyard structures tend to be both energy- and space-efficient as well as affordable. Microhouses are also considered to be long-term investments that can add value to properties.
In 2009, Seattle amended its zoning laws to accommodate independent “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) on residential lots that meet the minimum requirement of 4,000 square feet. The city of Portland revised its code in 2010. ADUs are now permitted in any residential area in the City of Roses, as long as they do not exceed 75 percent of the main house’s living area or 800 square feet (whichever is less) and 18 feet in height. There are, of course, other stipulations as well. If you’re thinking about constructing an ADU, one of the first steps you should take is finding out what requirements your city specifies that you meet.
It’s worth mentioning that in some cases, a permit may not be needed—it depends on the ambition and scope of the building project. An ADU’s size and need for plumbing and electricity are factors that can determine whether a permit is needed. If there’s no kitchen or bathroom, for example, then no paperwork may be necessary.
Architect Bruce Parker, founder of Microhouse, teaches classes in backyard cottage design and construction. He says that the vast majority of his students are interested in building a backyard dwelling where their elderly parents can live. “Rather than paying thousands of dollars a month for assisted living, you can have your parents with you and they can help with the kids — but everyone gets their own space,” he says.
However, you don’t have to be an expert builder with time on your hands. Prefabricated options are available for those who don’t want to design and build their own backyard cabin.
Interest is growing in modest, ecologically friendly tiny houses, and this trend seems likely to continue.