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Backyard ADUs and What to Know Before You Build

Many of our clients come to us looking for backyard transformations that will help them increase the value of their property, and make the most out of their extra space. For many homeowners, this means building an ADU, or accessory dwelling unit. Building an ADU is inherently more complicated than the average outdoor project. However, what you should know extends well beyond the building process and into the overall design of the backyard itself. Here are a few things to keep in mind before breaking ground on your backyard ADU.


What is an ADU? Why are they so popular?

backyard adu landscape design
Finished space including a backyard ADU, connected to an outdoor kitchen and seating area for maximum functionality.

Before we hop into our thoughts and feelings behind how an ADU impacts the design and function of your outdoor space, let’s take a second to get everyone up to speed. An ADU, or accessory dwelling unit is a small, self-contained living space that is most frequently detached from the main house on a residential property. ADUs go by other names, and are sometimes referred to as in-law suites. Backyard ADUs can vary in size and layout, and the most complete structures provide all typical living accommodations including a private kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom.


ADU’s are intended to provide additional living space on the property. Owners may choose to retain or build the property with the intent of guest housing, a place for multigenerational relatives to live, or home office space. Some clients, however, may intend to rent their ADU out for additional revenue.


Overall, the backyard ADU has increased in popularity for several reasons. For clients who intend to rent them out, not only does the structure increase their property value, but it gives them an opportunity to gain additional passive income. For those who don’t intend to rent, it offers flexible, independent housing, office space, or additional living space for older family members.


Backyard ADU or Backyard Renovation? Both.


backyard adu 2d rendering
2D rendering of a design direction linking the client’s main home (left of the frame), and an ADU (bottom right corner).

Many homeowners with space and a budget look at the empty area in their backyard and assume constructing their own ADU is as simple as clearing an area and getting started. Once clients have their permits in order, they’re eager to dive in headfirst, with a laser focus on the final product. As a result, many people are surprised when they realize what backyard ADU construction means for the whole of their backyard living space.


In reality, building an additional living structure on your property means turning most of the space into a work zone. By extension, this means that much of your backyard will be unsettled by the construction. In this way, building a backyard ADU is usually a natural catalyst for a full backyard renovation. It makes sense, when you think about it.


Even in your yard’s current form, how attractive and practical is it for you to maintain the rest of your outdoor space as-is, and simply add an ADU? Not only will the structure feel unintentional and disjointed from the space design-wise, but failing to renovate the remainder of your backyard is also a missed opportunity to enhance practicality and overall function.


Before you begin planning your structure, think about how it will impact the remainder of your space. Will it disrupt current landscaping? Will guests or renters feel like they have any sense of outdoor privacy? Will the aesthetic result be a building that sticks out among an unfinished, outdated space? If you answer yes to any of the above, treating the addition of a backyard ADU as a catalyst for a holistic backyard redesign makes the most sense.


Designing a Backyard with an ADU


backyard adu before landscape design.
In the project above, the clients had built an ADU before finishing their space. The result was a structure that was improperly graded, and was built at an improper elevation. This is a risk of building an ADU before addressing the rest of your outdoor space.

So, what does an redesign of an outdoor living space look like with the inclusion of an ADU, and what are the benefits of addressing the whole space at once? Well, there are many. When you redesign the entirety of your outdoor living space at once, you are able to achieve a sense of design cohesion that is not achievable in a piecemeal approach. This is because the designer is able to consider the needs of both the main homeowner and of those in the ADU structure at the same time. Instead of trying to modify the space later, they are able to build the design around the footprint of the new build.


Consider this scenario: You are building an ADU. Down the line, you know you will eventually want a pool, or an outdoor kitchen, or even covered living space. By doing all of these renovations at once, you can optimize the functionality and aesthetic of the design. The patio can be situated to best serve both the homeowner and the ADU. You can include a private auxiliary patio for guests, or a separate garden space.


You may even realize during this process that the original location for your backyard ADU is not the best choice, and that moving it to a different location in your yard creates a new opportunity for elevated design. All in all, doing the entire space at once is the best way to ensure that your final result looks intentional, modern, and serves everybody to the best of their ability.


Questions? Check Out Our Blog

Thinking about beginning your own backyard renovation journey? We want to help. Reach out for a consultation, or get more professional advice on the Water and Earth blog. For design inspiration, or to keep up with our latest projects, follow us on Instagram!

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