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adu accessory dwelling units

Accessory Dwelling Units: The Appeal of Living Small

By Frank JossiRise Writer
Nov 29, 2018

On a quiet street next to an alley in South Minneapolis a small two-story square gray modernist home and eye-popping orange window trim represent a new style of housing that has emerged in dense urban neighborhoods.

What is an ADU?

Legally called an “accessory dwelling unit,” or ADU, the home is a third the size of a typical new home in the city. ADUs – often called “second suites” -- are generally a few hundred square feet and built as an addition to a home or a separate standalone structure. Homeowners can cordon off a section of their existing homes to create ADUs, too, with city approval.

adu exterior red siding
Photo Credit: Alyssa Lee Photography

Chris Iverson, the home’s owner, understood his role as a groundbreaker for ADUs in his neighborhood and went with a sleek design, so out-of-the-ordinary dog walkers, bikers, and drives often stop and have a look.

“The architecture gets a lot of interest from people,” said Iverson, who works out of his home in the information technology field. “I’ve had people stop by and take photos and say, ‘we love your house.’”

adu exterior night
Photo Credit: Alyssa Lee Photography

On a home tour earlier, this year the 650-square-foot ADU attracted more than 1,200 visitors who discovered what living small looks like in the Longfellow neighborhood of the city. Many expressed an interest in building one on their property and asked him plenty of questions, he said.

The idea of having a separate residence within a home or on city property is hardly new. They went by many other names in the “old” days, among them laneway houses, granny flats, in-law units, and secondary units. Today planners dub them ADUs, and they have become prevalent in Portland, Los Angeles, Seattle, Austin, and other growing cities.

adu open patio doors
Photo Credit: Alyssa Lee Photography

Driving the trend now, as in past decades, was a desire to live in the city, to offer an affordable option to young couples who might not otherwise be able to buy a home, and to allow parents to age in place near family members who can provide support, companionship, and love. Others want ADUs to lease them as Airbnbs or longer-term rentals.

“There is a more urban mentality to ADUs,” said Christopher Strom, the architect of Iverson’s home. “It’s more about proximity to amenities than amenities you would have in the home. It’s for people who heavily weigh the location of where they’re living than having a large house.”

adu longfellow kitchen cabinets
Photo Credit: Alyssa Lee Photography

City ordinances differ, but in general, homeowners can only build ADUs on their property, and they must retain ownership of them. If they sell their existing home, the ADU will be part of the sale.

According to statistics provided by the city, Minneapolis embraced ADUs with an ordinance in 2014, approving 130 as of August 2018. Some of those ADUs existed and were grandfathered in under the new ordinance. The city reports 112 ADUs have been completed or under construction, with the following breakdown—10 attached, 49 detached, and 71 internal.

adu kitchen faucet sink
Photo Credit: Alyssa Lee Photography

St. Paul, on the other hand, first permitted ADUs in just one neighborhood and saw just one built. After a long debate among neighborhoods, the city council in October 2018 expanded ADUs to the entire city.

Iverson knows something about zoning problems. After the city rejected his initial plan, he spent more than $3,000 on paperwork to get the ADU approved. No neighbors have ever complained, he said, and now, any of them could build their own ADUs without the expensive paperwork.

Key to making the ADU a reality is the required ownership of the main property. Iverson owns and rents the 1922 duplex on the street in front of the ADU. Part of the issue with the city, he said, was zoning issues involving the duplex, the only one on his block.

adu bathroom shower
Photo Credit: Alyssa Lee Photography

While Iverson concedes his new home has forced him to learn to live a new way it has many nice features. After all, he came from a 2,700 square foot home in St. Louis Park, with more than enough room for his lifestyle. Living in a quarter of that space has meant getting rid of a few things and learning to live with a bit less.

His home has a simple yet compelling design. The first floor consists of a two-car garage. The living area on the second floor, basically a studio apartment, is reached by a walkway next to the garage that leads underneath a large overhead deck to a door at the back corner.

adu bathroom vanity
Photo Credit: Alyssa Lee Photography

The door leads to a staircase to the second, wide-open area serving as the main living area. It has a kitchen against a wall, a kitchen table, and a living room section with a couch. It’s enough room for Iverson, who is single, to entertain a few guests.

Outside the living area, a sliding door opens to a large deck built of ipe lumber. The deck in the warm weather months acts as a second room for lounging, parties, and grilling. On top, the deck offers a bird’s eye view of the neighborhood and the yard, while underneath, it serves as a trellis.

adu bedroom and lounge
Photo Credit: Alyssa Lee Photography

Back inside, yellow pocket doors with clouded window glass separate the living room/kitchen with the ADU’s 11’ by 11’ bedroom. Surprisingly, the bedroom is large enough to boast a walk-in closet on one side, a bathroom, and a washer/dryer on the other.

Iverson sought quality in the home’s materials, opting for solid wood pocket doors, a dark brown Marmoleum floor, radiant floor heat, and an air exchanger.

Iverson compiled with the ADU ordinance requiring separate electric and gas connections. He managed to hook into the existing water piping that serves the duplex, with no water pressure issues reported by his tenants or experienced by him.

adu deck party
Photo Credit: Alyssa Lee Photography

Strom, the owner of Christopher Strom Architects, said on average, he receives three calls a week from homeowners interested in building ADUs, though few follow through because of cost. The high price of materials and housing in Minneapolis contributes to an average ADU price generally north of $200,000.  

His firm has built half a dozen ADUs for various functions – an Airbnb, a home for parents, a second room. He touts ADUs can be a good option for many people but concedes the cost will be too prohibitive for everyone.

adu longfellow garage exterior
Photo Credit: Alyssa Lee Photography

“I would say the biggest barrier is the price,” he said. “People have it in their mind they’re getting a tricked-out garage, and it’s a small, second home, with all the same traits and complexities that come with building any home.”

Yet the market is strong enough for Strom to have developed a special website for clients interested in a second suite. The site suggests a rough “guesstimate” of $175,000 to $300,000 for a second suite and a completion range of between six and 12 months.

adu longfellow open living room kitchen
Photo Credit: Alyssa Lee Photography

The lifecycle of a home with a second suite is outlined in an intriguing way. An ADU begins as more space for a growing family. Years later it is rented or used by a son or daughter attending college, followed by a young adult needing a space to live.

Grandparents eventually move in and when the initial owner's age, they migrate to the second suite, and the main house becomes occupied by one or more of their family members.

adu longfellow open bedroom doors
Photo Credit: Alyssa Lee Photography

For Iverson being avatar was satisfactory enough for Iverson. He figures he achieved his desire to promote high density living in an eco-friendly environment.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2023-11-10T12:50:29+0000
Frank Jossi

Article by:

Frank Jossi

Based in St. Paul, Frank Jossi is a journalist, editor and content strategist. He covers clean energy in Minnesota for Midwest Energy News and writes frequently for Finance & Commerce. His work has appeared in more than 70 local, national and international publications.