Sunday, May 26, 2024

News and Ideas Worth Sharing


Living together, apart. An Accessory Dwelling Unit, or ADU, can offer many benefits to both the property owner and the community at large. The author shows several beautiful examples.


Over the course of the past 2 1/2 years, much has changed in the building profession.  The arrival of the COVID pandemic sent people running for the hills, literally.  At first, we saw extended families crowding into their summer homes, then extending their stays, often now living here full-time.  The request for renovations and additions blew up and suddenly, making space for three generations to be living and working together under one roof became commonplace.

When it was apparent that COVID wasn’t just another flu, we saw a huge boom in real estate sales in the Berkshires (and many other less dense areas around the country).   Prices soared and, as the global impact of the pandemic depleted stockpiles of the most basic building materials, supply chains for labor and materials slowed, sometimes stopped, and expectations of what a project might entail just three years ago is now out the window.  And that is if you can even get windows!

And though the public perception of COVID’s deadly nature may be subsiding a bit, the long-term impact on the housing market here is going to take a lot longer to settle down.  Demand for homes is still high, supply is low, and affordable housing options are more rare than steak tartare.

As I take a moment to reflect on how the pandemic has impacted my design business, I find myself trying to decipher what trends may pass and which ones are here to stay.   Although it’s been interesting to work on 10,000+ square-foot renovations for 12 – 15-member multi-generational families coming together, I think the most positive and long lasting resurgence that has true staying power will be the ADU

An Accessory Dwelling Unit, or ADU, is defined as a secondary housing unit on a single-family residential lot.  They have had many names over the years, like in-law apartments, granny flats, guest cottages, attic apartments, etc., but the term ADU basically covers them all. They are smaller, independent and self-sufficient.  And they could be the answer to many of our housing woes.

Plan for adding a modern ADU of 300 sf
A new home currently on the boards includes a main house with a smaller footprint while providing extra space with a smart, modern ADU of only 300 s.f.

ADUs are certainly not a new idea, and according to and 12 academic and funded national surveys of informal ADUs, it is estimated that there may be over 13 million of them in the United States alone (making up 10 – 20 percent of the overall housing stock).   They have had a huge resurgence in popularity of late, not just because of the pandemic, but also because the American family lifestyle has changed.  According to a recent Pew Research Center study referenced on NPR this week, nearly 25 percent of “young adults” (between the ages of 25 – 34) live with their parents, grandparents, siblings or roommates; this number has tripled since 1971.  The greatest reasons given for this shift are either economic or caregiving.  Multi-generational households are on the rise, and ADUs can help alleviate some of the inherent stress that comes from… a little too much closeness.

In the Berkshires, ADUs are regulated on a town-by-town basis in your zoning by-laws.  For instance, one ADU is permitted on every building lot in New Marlborough, but it must be under 1,200 square feet and the owners of the property must occupy the main structure.  One apartment is also permitted, perhaps over a garage, in an attic, etc, but must be less than 40 percent of the size of the main residence.  One feature that surprised me when researching ADUs was the requirement that it have a kitchen, although this may be impacted by local codes and definitions.  Be sure to check your town’s by-laws to see your regulations

An ADU need not be unsightly!  There are two approaches to siting an ADU on your property that can actually add to the overall beauty of your home.   One is to nestle it away, like this renovated cottage.  Through landscaping and discrete terracing, this cottage is a surprise on the overall property and becomes a clandestine destination for guests.


ADU’s are inherently small, but that doesn’t mean they need to be short on style or comfort.

This very stylish cottage (see exterior above) was derelict when the homeowners purchased the property and our first task was to renovate it into a place they could stay while the main house was being built. It now functions as a chic guest getaway nestled in the trees and just far enough away.


The second approach is to treat it as an object in the landscape.  This “yurt” style cottage (above) was placed on an axis with one of the main walkways from the central garden.  Accentuated by a long double row of evergreens, it serves as a garden folly as well as a lovely retreat.

Although technically not an ADU because it does not house a kitchen, this example of providing extra guest space illustrates how a building can also add visual interest to a landscape. The yurt provides a terminus to an evergreen allée and provides a romantic getaway without leaving the garden.

Building an ADU above a new or existing garage (see two examples below) is another great way to maximize space without crowding your site.  In this first example, I added a full apartment (third picture below), complete with a king-size bedroom, full bath, kitchenette, dining/work banquette and living area within the space of a two-car garage.   Clean and modern, this example also had the bonus of gorgeous views.




As you can see in the three pictures above, originally this home had a one-story free-standing garage. For this project, we added a second floor to the garage and connected it to the house with a see-through corridor. The third photo shows the interior of this new ADU above the garage

Another example of an ADU in the master planning process is this new build that includs a full apartment with a private entrance above a three-car garage. Although a standard two-car garage can provide ample space for a comfortable one-bedroom unit, this supersized garage allowed for a two-bedroom with living area, full bath, kitchenette, dining and living areas.

A private staircase provides access from an entry door in the mud link between the garage and main residence.

ADUs can provide much needed affordable housing in a tight rental market, caretaker housing near an aging person, or simply rental income to help offset the cost of living and maintaining a home.  Again, be sure to check your local zoning regulations for rentability before you count on that extra income.

I have designed ADUs that have doubled as boat houses, pool houses, music and artist studios, home offices and crash-pads for teenagers.

This pool house, currently in design, has a modernist vibe that is fully tucked into a hillside so as not to obstruct the amazing views from the main house. A flat roof-top garden will provide extra entertainment space, gardens and a place for stargazing.

A free-standing pool house in Monterey (see pictures immediately below) doubles as a one-bedroom guest house replete with full bath, half-bath, laundry, office space and this light-filled hang-out room with custom kitchenette and soaring ceilings.



Many of our local ADUs were built before current zoning codes might have limited them in some way, and are now grandfathered and may continue to legally exist.  This is particularly true at older homes, farms and small-town settings.

Slightly larger than a modern ADU, but grandfathered as it existed since the 1940’s, our Southfield carriage house sits about 100 feet from the main house but provides a bounty of extra living and work space, including a full breakfast kitchen, full bath, king-sized tree-house style bedroom and two-person living/work area. There’s also plenty of space for my art studio.


This picture and the one above show the interior of our Southfield carriage house.

An unexpected bonus to an ADU is having a “place to go” in times of mechanical or environmental issues in a home.  On our property in Southfield, should the furnace at the main house break down or a tree take out a power line, we can retreat to the carriage house which has its own heating system and separate communications hubs.  Here in the Berkshires, that can be a real lifesaver.

ADUs provide many benefits to both the homeowner and the community, including potential rental income, inherent social distancing, privacy within the family unit. They can serve multiple purposes and, by their nature, are smaller than a main dwelling, thus being more cost-effective and a lighter drain on natural and community resources.

And, according to, ADUs are known as sort of a “grey area” in the housing market here in the U.S.  Although millions exist, not that many have actually been “permitted”.  And, as there is no national regulation about their build-ability, it’s up to every municipality to craft its own by-laws.  But the benefits of the ADU seem to warrant encouragement, particularly in our current housing crunch.    Some of those benefits are:


  • ADUs provide flexible dwelling options in a central city neighborhoods, utilize existing governmental infrastructure (eg. roads, sewers, schools), and reduce the demand for expanding infrastructure into far-lying reaches of a developed metropolitan area.


  • ADUs provide housing with a relatively small environmental footprint. New, detached ADUs provide rental housing that is 44 percent smaller per capita than standard, new single family rental units. And new ADUs overall provide housing that is 33 percent smaller per capita than standard, new single-family units. In a building lifecycle, smaller residential spaces use less energy in construction, deconstruction, and habitation.


  • ADUs provide more affordable housing options in residential neighborhoods without dramatically changing a neighborhood’s character as much as other new housing forms might.

I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said “guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days”.  So, whether you need a bit more space for those 20-somethings who just can’t leave the nest yet, or for a relative who is going to help around the house, or you would like a way to make some extra money to offset the rising costs of home ownership, or you just want to stay connected to those you love without sharing every whiff of anchovy, consider an ADU as a way to live together, separately.  A little distance really can make the heart grow fonder.

Another cozy nook wears an eclectic warmth and doubles as a winter greenhouse for the owner’s succulent collection. A little bit of heaven only steps away.

All projects and photographs by the author.  All designs shown are protected under copyright law.  Please feel free to reach out to Ritch Holben at for more information


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