THE small HOUSE CATALOG

Plans, Drafting + Design

Things to Research Before Planning on an ADU

ADU, zoningJamie PurnellComment

Doing Your Homework Saves Headaches Down the Road

People decide to expand their homes in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons. These reasons can really change over time as trends and current realities influence one another and us with some fluidity. A short time ago I offered some ideas about ADU’s and DADU’s (Accessory Dwelling Units and Detached Accessory Dwelling Units). ADU and DADU projects can offer a number of resource options, from providing extra room for family to providing a potential source of rental income.

one bedroom ADU.png

Building a whole new house on the same lot as your home comes with certain restrictions and requirements, and you should familiarize yourself with these things as much as possible before undertaking the project. I thought I’d share some potential areas to explore in advance.

This won’t be an exhaustive list of circumstances to be sure - any number of unique situations can (and do) crop up in a given location but here are some issues that we’ve heard people contend with unexpectedly or that have given them pause for thought.

Fire Safety First

If you are living on a small urban lot or other population dense area it is highly likely that your building code will require you to maintain distance between your primary structure and the new ADU that allows for fire codes to be met and discourages the ability of a house fire to spread easily from house to house. If your setbacks only allow a build in a narrow area of your side yard or backyard, you will want to be certain that the ADU you are designing will not cross those setbacks or, if it does, that you can mitigate for proximity by incorporating fireproof materials into your building in a manner that satisfies the code. This might include nixing windows on one side or using rated fire materials on certain exterior walls of the building. This can be straightforward or complex to achieve - but in my opinion, all problems are easier to troubleshoot ahead of time than half way through the design or permitting process. Some research with your local building departments can be very helpful when it comes to design and feasibility.

Your local fire code may also have things to say regarding parking and emergency crew access to your home(s) so it would be worth finding out if your adding a structure to your property will in any way affect parking, driveway or turnaround requirements with them as well.

Mind The Gap…But Not Too Much!

Another big thing to concern yourself with in terms of adding a structure to your lot is that your proposal be mindful of all required setbacks…these setbacks are sometimes obvious, as in maintaining proper distances from property lines. But you might also want to check in with your local building department to verify whether there are specific rules in terms of allowable distance from the existing house on your property. In our county, for example, ADU’s are required to be within a particular distance (10 feet) from the main home, and there are other potentially restrictive requirements must be met as well before permitting. That’s something else to check out with your local jurisdiction.

It would also be advisable to verify with all utility providers that the proposed structure can be fully serviced and will not interfere with existing service provisions. Knowing which side of the house you’d like the utilities to enter and exit would be helpful to have in mind ahead of time - or finding out if connections need to be made at a standardized location (eg: east wall, front wall or same side as existing dwelling, etc) per your utility’s policies. Calling your water, sewer and electric or gas utilities could potentially save you a headache down the road and help you with your design and layout process.

Stay in the Zone

Some building departments are completely separate from their counterparts in zoning. The rules of both must be satisfied. These hands sometimes don’t shake as seamlessly as you’d expect. Be sure to find out ahead of time if you are meeting local zoning requirements when undertaking a design. For example…a building department might find nothing structurally problematic with your 22 foot high ADU submission, but your local zoning department might only allow a 17 foot high structure in a given neighborhood. That could be the case even if the main dwelling is 25 feet high! This is just an example, but what I mean to say is: Assume nothing. Check with everyone and you will be properly educated about the process and can make your experience much less likely to elicit stress.

So there it is in a non exhaustive nutshell. Most of what you want to determine ahead of time for a backyard cottage, mother in law suite, ADU or DADU overlaps with the footwork you’d need to do to obtain a building permit on an empty lot. But if you’ve never built from scratch, that might be new territory. And what is certainly potentially new territory for any addition to a single lot is that the rules are likely at least a bit different than for a brand new build. Rather than being scared off, take the time to ask questions from the right departments. It can be incredibly helpful.

Is There Any Other Way?

Next week I’ll explore another option (building on an addition) for those wanting to expand their footprint even if it seems preferable or if some local requirements can’t be met in your proposed detached unit.

Dealing with Burnout on the Building Site

Emotional AspectsJamie PurnellComment
 This is how builder’s burnout can feel! But the blue skies are up ahead…

This is how builder’s burnout can feel! But the blue skies are up ahead…

How to Keep Going when the Fire’s Gone Out

I first got the idea for this blog entry three years ago. It took me this long to feel ready to put the idea into words and share it with you. I’m writing about burnout today, and everyone experiences it sometimes. It can be a particular nuisance when you “catch it” on the building site, especially since it often strikes at critical moments. During our San Juan Island build I had a bad case of it as we approached close in. It struck again, oddly, toward the finishing stages of our build when you’d expect excitement to be the foremost feeling. During the first bout, I was able to get through it because there was no choice. We had to get the roof on, and the rains that return to the Northwest every fall are a significant motivator for physical work, even if the heart isn’t fully in it. The second round of burnout was more severe but was whisked away when dear friends (also experienced in building their own home and doing building work by trade) came for a visit and reinvigorated us. Like getting over a cold, but faster and with less sniffling!

I don’t know why burnout happens or suddenly lifts. It can feel like a bad mood settling on you. A combination of stress, worry, financial strain, physical and mental exhaustion, the mere reality that you’ve got too much to do…all of those things might play greater or lesser roles in burnout. It can show up at odd times. Why, for example, would you hit a wall when you’re down to the last month or so of work on a project? I recall a couple we met while living in Maine. They were finishing a massive renovation project on their mother’s home and were literally weeks from completion. One of the team had hit his limit. He was burned out. He had several pretty important things to do and not too long to do it, and found he was so unmotivated that he’d get dressed and ready to work but would instead sit down and just watch TV. All day. This was causing both he and his fiance some serious concern, but finally he seemed to get over it and finished his part of the work. Who knows, maybe our visit provided some of that needed boost, a couple of listening ears and recognition/confirmation that “it just happens” can be incredibly helpful, as I’ve learned!

How to Process Burnout

So what do you do with burnout if you catch it? Here’s my take.

First, I think it’s helpful to realize it’s pretty normal. Doing a random search online will reveal the sensation is experienced by just about everyone - regardless of profession. Everyone from social workers to Olympic athletes experiences the sensation.

Second, sometimes work is really hard. I think that fact should be acknowledged. Some of the things we confront are not simple, might be physically or mentally or financially challenging, and perhaps offer no straightforward resolution. The unfortunate reality is that plowing ahead, whether you’re excited or not, is often the only way to solve the problem. Sometimes, the mind isn’t ready to accept that and burnout ensues. Remind yourself that this is going on. You can overcome the sensation by sheer willpower if needed. Burnout, in my opinion, gets worse the longer you stall. For me, moving ahead in whatever capacity is the way to move beyond it ultimately.

That leads me to my third tip for dealing with burnout. Don’t stop working, not for long, at least, but give yourself a day to physically recuperate if need be. Even if it’s a day of rest that allows you to complete other chores that are different than building related chores. Give yourself that. Get caught up on laundry or clean the house up or make some phone calls you’ve needed to. But don’t take too much time off. A little break can reset your clock but too long of one can be like a deep comfy chair, too hard to get out of!

Lastly, be realistic with yourself and your situation. Maybe you need some assistance to get through a particular phase of the build. Is the roof work too much? Would hiring some assistance for finishing work, framing, drywall or what have you make your job manageable again? Sometimes you’ve got to get out of the weeds, and once you do, the sense of being caught up can rekindle your fire for the project, or at least help you feel like you can face it again. Even if this aspect is financially difficult or unplanned for, it could be worth it.

Another tip…if you don’t have the financial resources to get assistance, be realistic about that too. You may have to take a long time to get the work done. Acknowledging that can help. In Maine, we ran out of finances right around the time the drywall needed to go in. The recession had just hit and there was no way any additional loan money could be procured. We needed very little to finish the work, but that didn’t matter to any bank. We realized in short order that we were just going to have to do the drywall (for three and a half floors) ourselves. It was a job we could handle in small sections. Drywall is cheap…and since it took us forever to do it ourselves the payment could be made out of our income over time. No loan required. But it did take us over a year to complete. Realizing we’d be living in the midst of all that dust took an adjustment period. But there you go. Acceptance. The final aspect of dealing with burnout. Sometimes, you just have to acknowledge that you’re most certainly burned out but that in time, it will resolve. You might feel cruddy for a long time, but eventually it will get better.

Learning From Burnout

Those are my tips. They aren’t exhaustive and perhaps aren’t even particularly helpful. There’s no magic wand. I was surprised by burnout. For the most part, I love everything about the building process…the intellect and problem solving involved, the independence of the work, the excitement of learning new things and being in new places, the physical aspects…Recognizing what I was feeling and not being too hard on myself was a useful approach. Being stubborn and knowing that I had to move ahead no matter what kind of mood I was in was also helpful. Friends giving us encouragement gave me oomph when I thought oomph was excised from my existence. Believing that if I just kept at it, it would get better also helped. Having had a case of burnout, I hope that even reading about it will make anyone suffering from it feel a little better.

You’ll make it through!!

PS, Just because you get burnout once, by the way, doesn’t mean you’ll experience it again. We rolled right into another building project and it was actually FUN. We planned it carefully so that it wouldn’t be too expensive or physically demanding, and it was a good experience. So don’t let a bad experience one place make you think you’d never do it again. Just let it make you wiser!