Backyard cottages sprouting in Seattle
What was once a pilot program has turned into a citywide push.
Special to The Seattle Times
A few years back, Seattle homeowner Bette Lalley and her adult daughter Darla Rude wanted to build a small house behind Lalley's home so that the two could live nearby one another.
Disappointed that the city didn't allow construction of second homes on single-family lots in their neighborhood at that time, Lalley and Rude watched and waited.
Then, in late 2009, the Seattle City Council adopted legislation allowing smaller second homes, so-called "backyard cottages," to be built citywide.
With a design by architect Craig Anderson and contractor Haack Brothers Construction, Lalley and Rude immediately set about bulldozing the old detached garage behind Lalley's home and building a backyard cottage.
Anderson worked within the law's size restrictions to design a two-bedroom, one-level home with vaulted ceilings that lend a feeling of spaciousness. Rude moved into the cottage last year.
"I love it. I love that I was able to create it myself," Rude said of her home. "It's just a little small."
"It's a beautiful home," said Lalley, of the cottage that sits in back of her original 1934 house, which she's owned for nearly 38 years. The two houses share similar architecture and matching paint colors.
"It just kind of flows," Lalley said of the two homes together. "It doesn't stand out like a sore thumb."
Pilot program takes off
Seeking to promote both affordable housing and a gentle, scarcely visible increase in density in single-family neighborhoods, the City Council in 2006 decided to allow what are officially called "detached accessory dwelling units" in a limited part of the city.
This pilot program in Southeast Seattle allowed backyard cottages only east of Interstate 5 and south of Interstate 90. The program proved satisfactory to the City Council and it made construction of backyard cottages legal throughout the city in December 2009.
"Council hoped to create a new affordable-housing option, but to also give homeowners an opportunity to supplement their income or allow a parent or relative to move back home," said Councilmember Sally Clark, who led the push for the new law.
Now, nearly two years in, she said, "We're clearly meeting those goals."
The city's backyard-cottage legislation includes a number of restrictions: Cottages can be no larger than 800 square feet, including any garage or storage area, and the property owner must live in either the main house or cottage.
The lot must be in a single-family residence zone and be at least 4,000 square feet in size. As is required for all single-family houses in Seattle, the total area of built structures can cover no more than 35 percent of the lot, and at least one off-street parking place must be available to the occupants of the original home, plus at least one more dedicated for the cottage residents.
Basements are allowed, and any area at least 4 feet below grade doesn't count toward the 800-square-foot size limit.
Additional restrictions apply and to assist homeowners in considering construction of a backyard cottage, the city of Seattle, the city's Planning Commission, and the Department of Planning and Development have published a 54-page "Guide to Building a Backyard Cottage." The document is available online at www.seattle.govand search for "Backyard cottages: overview."
Sean McClintock is putting the finishing touches on his cottage in Ballard.
It will be a multiuse facility, serving primarily as a guesthouse for visiting family and friends, but also as office space for McClintock and as a possible vacation rental.
"We don't want a full-time tenant there," said McClintock, a technology project manager, who is married and has a 2-year-old son.
Things can get cramped in the two-bedroom, one-bath, 900-square-foot main house, McClintock said.
"It is nice to have friends and family stay in it (the cottage) and have a good balance of having them close by, but not too close," he said with a laugh.
The 600-square-foot energy-efficient cottage, which includes salvaged material bought from the Second Use store in Seattle, was a stop on the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild Green Home Tour earlier this year. The cottage architect was Studio DEC and the builder was Ncompass Cottage Co., both based in Seattle.
McClintock expects the cottage to cost about $175,000 when finished.
Some homeowners say larger cottages should be allowed. Lalley said the maximum size for backyard cottages of only 800 square feet "is not a whole heck of a lot."
"I think that the square footage should be determined on your lot (size)," she said, pointing out that an additional 100 or 150 square feet on her cottage would have allowed for a third bedroom and yet still not have approached the lot-coverage limit of 35 percent.
Together her 1,000-square-foot main house and the new 800-square-foot backyard cottage cover only around 20 percent of her nearly 10,000-square-foot lot.
While the technical term for a backyard cottage is detached accessory dwelling unit, or DADU, its attached counterpart is widely known as a mother-in-law apartment, and technically called an accessory dwelling unit or ADU.
ADUs have been allowed in Seattle since 1994, and to be legal, they must conform to certain requirements including being attached to or within the main house.
Before current regulations, families and homeowners built mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages for the same reasons the City Council promoted the current backyard-cottage legislation: to allow extended families to stay together and to create affordable housing.
There are illegal units, both attached and detached, in Seattle's neighborhoods of older homes, though land-use planner-supervisor in Seattle's Department of Planning and Development Mike Podowski said, "We do not have any way of estimating how many illegal ADUs there are."
Opponents of the backyard-cottage legislation feared that it would change the character of Seattle's single-family neighborhoods and flood quiet streets with additional residents and their cars.
A letter from the Laurelhurst Community Club sent to the City Council in September 2009 detailed a number of objections to the backyard-cottage legislation as it was proposed and eventually approved, among them the concern over loss of trees and open space in single-family neighborhoods as well as additional street-parking congestion.
When asked recently whether her opinion on the legislation had changed, Laurelhurst Community Club president Jeannie Hale recently said, "The concerns outlined in our letter remain."
During the Southeast Seattle pilot program, the city surveyed a number of property owners with homes near backyard-cottage sites.
The survey results indicated that most neighbors viewed backyard cottages as favorable, and in some cases, unnoticeable additions to their neighborhoods.
In addition, the pace of cottage construction turned out to be fairly slow; only about 20 cottages were built during the pilot program lasting roughly three years. These results, in part, prompted the City Council to move forward with the backyard-cottage legislation citywide.
This April the Department of Planning and Development issued a status report on the legislation, covering backyard-cottage activity for roughly the calendar year 2010.
During that time the city issued or finalized 51 permits for backyard cottages, compared with 81 for attached, so-called mother-in-law units. So far in 2011, an additional 42 backyard-cottage permits have been issued or requested.
The report states that cottage construction has been fairly evenly spread around various city neighborhoods and that just over half have been built by converting an existing structure — mostly detached garages — into a living space. The remaining cottages are newly constructed buildings. Cottage sizes range from 224 to 800 square feet.
The report mentions one requested change to the restrictions on cottage construction. A homeowner who owns a through-lot, which is a lot that abuts a city street on both the front and back sides, wants backyard cottages to be permitted on such lots. Cottages are not currently allowed on through-lots.
Converting a garage
Architect Sheri Newbold owns a home in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood and was an early supporter of the backyard-cottage legislation. She and her boyfriend are in the process of converting a 1950s detached garage into a backyard cottage.
"On a tight budget," Newbold said, explaining that she designed the cottage herself, and that her boyfriend has provided much of the muscle for their ongoing, primarily do-it-yourself project.
"I designed it with accessibility in mind," she said of the cottage, meaning wider doorways and a flat entry, among other features.
"The cottage will be completely open inside," she said, "so someone with limited mobility can move through it easily without barriers."
Newbold can foresee a time when an aging parent might live in the cottage to be close to family.
She also wanted to build a backyard cottage because she believes in creating more population density in the city and because she likes the potential for rental income a cottage provides.
In other words, Newbold's plans for her cottage fall right in line with those the city intended.
Seattle Times desk editor Bill Kossen contributed to this report.