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Call it a casita, in-law unit, rental unit, or guest house—all these types of small out buildings that many people are adding to their properties are classified as Accessory Dwelling Units or ADU’s. Is an ADU in your future? Recently, more of our clients are asking about the possibility of adding an ADU to their backyard landscape for a specific purpose or to give them flexibility for the future. Some are looking for a guest suite or in-law unit for aging parents or grown children. Some desire a pool house with cooking and a gathering space for entertaining—along with other features like bathrooms/showers, fireplaces, a home office and exercise room. Others are interested in a potential rental space. If planned wisely, an ADU can serve many functions over time.

Building an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) became easier as of January 1, 2020 with the recent passages of Assembly Bill 881, Assembly Bill 670, Senate Bill 13, and Assembly Bill 68. A Forbes article in December even called 2020 The Year of the ADU. While these bills helped to expand where ADU’s can be built and to streamline the approval process, there are still many compliance rules and decisions for the homeowner to consider.

Maximize the Return on Your Investment

We encourage clients to think immediate use as well as long term as they begin describing their wish list of desired features for any landscape project including a cabana or ADU. In one case, a client in Pleasanton approached us to develop a landscape complete with a backyard yard pool, bocce court, patio, planting and poolside cabana for their newly constructed home. Working with the homeowners, their architect, and realtor, we discussed their desires for a changing room, gathering space, half bath and pool equipment storage. Their realtor asked, “Why not make this structure habitable?” Our clients realized that increasing the size and functionality of this structure would give them significantly more options in the future. Someday they could foresee a family member moving into the ADU on their property or even renting the unit for income. They could have their pool house and entertainment area now and housing options for the future.

Portland ADU Home

In another case, our San Ramon client decided to enlarge a small casita in their backyard so they could house their elderly parents close by on their own property. We updated the surrounding landscape to make the whole area more functional, beautiful and inviting. We also took the opportunity to make the entire exterior into a more drought tolerant landscape by removing all the front yard lawn, reducing the backyard lawn and adding seasonal climate adapted trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses. They now have a dynamic landscape visited by all sorts of native pollinators and songbirds. In addition, raised vegetable beds and new fruit trees allow everyone in the family to grow and harvest their own healthy produce. Finally, new walkways and ramps enabled safe and easy movement for their elderly parents.

Hall ADU with planting

In yet another case, a client in Danville wanted to completely redo their sizeable backyard to include an ADU for rental income. We worked with them to reconfigure their private main patio to include a built-in hot tub and surrounding decking, reduced the lawn size, added a vegetable garden, renovated the driveway and walkway paving, and updated the planting, irrigation and lighting. And to integrate the ADU into the landscape, we created a shared patio area with an outdoor kitchen and pathways to connect all the areas.

Portland ADU by Rainbow Valley Construction
Portland ADU by Rainbow Valley Construction

The Basics

An ADU needs to be habitable, meaning it must have enclosed sleeping quarters, a kitchen area and a full bath. It differs from a cabana, which is open on at least one side. And, while more expensive to build, an ADU potentially offers a return on investment in terms of rental income and resale.

A landscape architect will help with the siting of your ADU as well as designing the surrounding landscape to include integrated and compatible outdoor features such as patios, pools, walkways, planting and more. An architect works with you to design the specific features of the ADU structure as well as creates the working drawings for construction and submittals. By consulting with a landscape architect, clients can effectively explore their property’s spacial planning options, promote architectural harmony of the existing house, the proposed ADU and the landscape, and make sure connections are aesthetically and functionally designed so exterior spaces flow together beautifully and smoothly.

Where to Start?

  1. If you’re considering an ADU, contact your HOA, city, or county to find out the rules regarding ADU’s for your specific property. You will need to learn things like your building envelope (where you can build on your lot), setbacks (distance from the property line you need to preserve), height restrictions (sightlines from neighbors or the street), permits required, and the submittal process. This upfront research will guide your planning and help prevent unpleasant surprises and future disappointment.
  2. Start talking to family members about how you all would like to use this new space. Make your wish list of features, both short-term and long-term. Look at websites to collect ideas and images that appeal to your taste.
  3. Consult with the right professionals to create your team. Consider talking to a landscape architect early in the process to help you envision how you can create an inviting landscape that provides both privacy and visual connection between the new ADU and the rest of the property. At Susan Friedman Landscape Architecture, we can help walk you through the process and connect you to the right architect/engineer to turn your ideas into a reality. Together we can create a beautiful natural space that meets your needs and reflects your style where you love to spend time with family and friends.


California Housing Department on ADUs

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