How Modern Architects Design Their Own ADUs

By Sean Canning

Ever wonder why architects make certain decisions through the design process? This video should help clear that up. In this video I walk you through some of the design decisions I made while designing an ADU which we will be permitting + building ourselves.

This video will appeal to anyone considering building an Accessory Dwelling Unit, Junior ADU, granny flat, companion unit, or casita on their property in San Diego.

ADUs: The What and the Why

An Accessory Dwelling Unit, or ADU, is essentially a secondary housing unit on a single-family residential lot. 

It manifests in various forms - a converted garage, a standalone backyard cottage, or an upper-level addition to the existing structure. The ADU's beauty lies in its versatility, ability to promote sustainability and open up affordable living options.

In our rapidly evolving urban landscapes, the concept of an ADU has become more relevant than ever. From my years of experience in the field, let me highlight a few reasons why:

  • Versatility: ADUs, by their very nature, are designed to be flexible and versatile. They can serve various purposes, from acting as a home office, providing a space for rental income, or accommodating elderly family members in a comfortable, independent living space.
  • Sustainability: ADUs promote a more sustainable model of living. By contributing to denser urban living, they encourage more efficient use of resources, lead to lower carbon footprints, and ultimately contribute to more sustainable cities.
  • Affordability: With the continuous rise of housing costs in San Diego, ADUs offer an increasingly attractive solution. They provide an affordable living option, or for homeowners, a potential source of rental income.

My Journey with ADUs

Being an architect and designing an ADU for personal use was not only a fun experience, but has helped me better put myself in the shoes of clients when we design ADUs for them. 

My wife Margaret and I have self-funded two of our own projects: Casitas Harrison + The Prince House.

It was an opportunity to put into practice our design principles and create a space that directly responds to our personal needs and aspirations.

A Case of ‘Practice What You Preach’

Designing our own ADU was a journey into the heart of sustainability. 

It provided me with the opportunity to put into practice the principles that I discuss with clients daily. 

Every aspect of the project was carefully considered, from the choice of materials to the orientation of the building. 

Prioritizing locally sourced, low-impact materials was crucial to achieving the sustainability goals of the project. 

Moreover, incorporating energy-efficient solutions such as solar panels and a green roof further enhanced the ADU's sustainability quotient.

Connection and Privacy

When it comes to designing an ADU, one must navigate the delicate balance between maintaining a connection with the main house and ensuring privacy. 

Our ADU maintains a visual connection with the main house through large glazed windows and doors. 

Yet, strategic orientation and thoughtful design ensure privacy, creating a space that is both part of and apart from the primary residence.

Flexible Use of Space

To maximize the ADU's potential within a limited footprint, I incorporated elements that allow for convertible spaces. 

For instance, a Murphy bed provides a sleeping area at night, which can be easily stowed away during the day, converting the bedroom into a home office. 

This flexible use of space adds dynamism to the ADU and ensures it can adapt to evolving needs.

Reflecting on the Experience

From the initial sketches to the final construction, creating my own ADU has been a fun and rewarding journey. 

It’s shown me first-hand the opportunities and challenges involved in creating a sustainable, versatile, and affordable living space within a small footprint.

The insights gained from this experience have been invaluable, not just for me personally, but also in my professional practice. I have been able to bring a richer, more nuanced understanding of the design and construction process to my clients, informed by my first-hand experience.

As we look forward, I believe we'll see an exciting evolution of ADUs. More experimentation, innovation, and commitment will arise to create affordable and sustainable homes. The essence of architecture lies in its ability to adapt, innovate, and inspire. Embracing the ADU trend is just another step in that journey.

In the end, ADUs are not just about creating additional living space. They are about reimagining how we live, interact with our environment, and meet our needs in sustainable, efficient, and innovative ways. 

For architects and homeowners alike, ADUs represent an exciting opportunity to reimagine our residential landscapes and create a future that is not just feasible but also sustainable.

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