As the days of suburban sprawl give way to those of urban density in U.S. metros--"smart growth," most call it--providing sufficient housing remains a challenge.

Decades of planning regulations and highway patterns support single-family homes built far outside a city center. Even in areas where big residential towers make sense, developing them takes a long time and costs a lot of money.

Planning scholar Jake Wegmann, who's in the process of moving from Berkeley to the University of Texas at Austin, believes there's another way: backyard cottages.

Individual micro-units on single-family properties don't require much time or money to build, and they don't need much space to sit on.

They're affordable almost by definition and are well-suited to the modern family--from the recent college grad living at home to the grandparent who wants to age in place.

In other words, backyard cottages may not scream Manhattanization or even necessarily smart growth, but implemented over a wide swatch of a metro area they might achieve a similar end.

Their potential seems even greater in places trying to reduce their reliance on cars and promote access to shops by walking or public transit.

At the very least, Wegmann believes, cottages should be part of the broader conversation about the changing shape of American cities.

East Bay-based New Avenue specializes in helping single-family homeowners develop backyard cottages or "accessory dwellings."

The view of backyard cottages as a family safety net raises the question of whether they'll truly inspire homeowners to drop the isolated mindset that challenges urban density in the first place. Zoning and local politics might prove bigger hurdles.

Wegmann remains hopeful that backyard cottages can at least augment, though certainly not replace, the conventional infill strategy of big apartment buildings.

The Next Big Thing In Urban Planning? Backyard Cottages

Hear us out.

As the days of suburban sprawl give way to those of urban density in U.S. metros--"smart growth," most call it--providing sufficient housing remains a challenge. Decades of planning regulations and highway patterns support single-family homes built far outside a city center. Even in areas where big residential towers make sense, developing them takes a long time and costs a lot of money. Manhattan wasn't built in a day.

Planning scholar Jake Wegmann, who's in the process of moving from Berkeley to the University of Texas at Austin, believes there's another way: backyard cottages. Hear him out. Individual micro-units on single-family properties don't require much time or money to build. They don't need much space to sit on. They're affordable almost by definition and are well-suited to the modern family--from the recent college grad living at home to the grandparent who wants to age in place.

In other words, backyard cottages may not scream Manhattanization or even necessarily smart growth, but implemented over a wide swatch of a metro area they might achieve a similar end. Their potential seems even greater in places trying to reduce their reliance on cars and promote access to shops by walking or public transit. At the very least, Wegmann believes, cottages should be part of the broader conversation about the changing shape of American cities.

"The premise that single-family house neighborhoods are, or should be, frozen in amber is increasingly being questioned," he tells Co.Design.

One place ripe for such development in Wegmman's mind is the East Bay, an area just across the water from San Francisco that includes parts of Berkeley, Oakland, and El Cerrito. Housing demand is enormous in the Bay Area, but the city itself has become largely unaffordable. Still, the East Bay has strong transit access and clear walkable districts and enough density--at 11,700 people per square mile--to facilitate a more urbanized growth pattern.

Recently, Wegmann and Berkeley colleague Karen Chapple evaluated what life in the East Bay might look like in two different growth scenarios. The first, based on a conventional infill strategy of buildings with five or more units located around transit hubs, had the potential to add roughly 7,900 housing units to the area. They estimate that, given the recent pace of area development, building that much housing would take anywhere from 18 to 43 years.

Next they looked at backyard cottages. Assuming a slight relaxation of zoning regulations from the present--a shift in keeping with California's broader sustainability goals--the East Bay could accommodate nearly 8,700 cottages, Wegmann and Chapple report in the Journal of Urbanism. That's not only more than the conventional infill estimate but roughly 60% of the area's total housing goal by 2040.

The concept goes well beyond the theoretical realm of academia. East Bay-based New Avenue specializes in helping single-family homeowners develop backyard cottages or "accessory dwellings." (The company--billing itself as Uber for contractors--connects clients with architects and developers in an online forum while vetting project costs and timelines.) Founder Kevin Casey says zoning laws that once prevented this type of development are quickly changing to encourage it.

"Anywhere there's a growing economy and expensive housing, it makes sense," Casey tells Co.Design. "The Bay Area is the most expensive real estate in the market, so it's by default the most logical place to do this." (Wegmann and Casey knew one another at Berkeley and remain acquainted, but Wegmann claims no financial interest in the company.)

Casey says a backyard cottage takes about six months to build after permitting (which can take anywhere from no time to a year). The costs vary but generally fall within a range of $80,000 to $250,000. Casey estimates that 82% of his clients have family members in mind for the dwelling; some see the cottages as a good starter home for when their children move back to the area, or a good retirement home for themselves down the line, or maybe both.

The view of backyard cottages as a family safety net raises the question of whether they'll truly inspire homeowners to drop the isolated mindset that challenges urban density in the first place. Zoning and local politics might prove bigger hurdles. Smart growth has vehement opponents, and NIMBYs who see cottages as a threat to single-family neighborhoods might do their best to block new regulations, too. Financing problems also linger, especially since cottages don't receive mortgage advantages given to income-based developments.

Wegmann remains hopeful that backyard cottages can at least augment, though certainly not replace, the conventional infill strategy of big apartment buildings.

"My prediction is that we will continue to have structures that we today call 'single-family houses' for centuries to come, but that increasing numbers of them won't be occupied by single families, and eventually the law will evolve to reflect changing attitudes," he says. "Some of them will sprout cottages in their backyards. Of course, these changes won't happen overnight."

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11 Comments

  • hmose

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  • From a practitioner’s perspective, I've seen many non-traditional methods of construction proposed. The ability to successfully obtain building permits is limited as current building codes and/or zoning regulations won't permit such construction (particularly California). The concept isn't new. Unfortunately, it will remain academic until the practitioner's address municipality specific concerns.

  • A few years back Amerisus came up with a line of cottages ranging from 320 to 1200 square feet with the thinking being that many demographics didn't need all that much space and the concept of having a stand-alone home with a garden for half the cost of an apartment would indeed be attractive. As it turned out the biggest area of success has been in an asset class they created called BLAT's which stands for Build, Lease, After Teardown. They have managed growth in the purchase of older homes that have useable backyard space. The end product becomes two new units a cottage house in the rear and a brand new home street-side. One could argue for saving and restoring the original home but in most instances they have been 1950-60's type homes with no character and all the pieces worn out. Torn down, the materials are not scraped but sent to a variety of reuse situations. The new homes are eco-homes having considerably smaller energy footprints.

  • Erik Schmitt

    One place Wegmann says is ripe for such development, Berkeley, is already filled with back yard units like this. I've lived in a few of them and they can be wonderful. Often tucked away from the road within gardens. Just peer into backyards walking the cities neighborhoods and you'll see them everywhere. At this point many are done without permits so he's right to suggest that municipalities should make it easier for homeowners to construct these legally. Density without more verticality can be a good thing.

  • R John Anderson

    I'm glad Mr. Wegmann brought this to your attention, but Fast Company is rather late to this particular party. ADU's, grannie flats, in-law units, laneway houses, etc. have been part of the planning tool kit for a long time. They have been very common in projects designed and built by New Urbanist firms over the last 20+ years. There are many municipalities that allow for ADU's as of right.

  • Eli Spevak

    It's true that ADUs have been part of the 'planning toolkit' for quite some time - and were even more prevalent before zoning codes swept across the nation in the first place. But unfortunately, many jurisdictions never adopted regulations allowing ADUs and many that did wrote the codes with so many restrictions that few ever got built. I hope that with this renewed wave of interest in ADUs, more jurisdictions will create legal pathways for ADUs and jurisdictions that already have codes on the books will update them to make them more accessible.

  • Seattle and other cities have ordinances which permit backyard cottages...however Seattle's and others are tied to additional required onsite parking, which often existing SF conditions do not permit.

    Seattle needs to improve it's many undeveloped alleyways and embrace Vancouver's approach to 'laneway' housing...which has resulted in hundreds of new backyard cottages in the last several years. http://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/laneway-houses-and-secondary-suites.aspx

    More at: www.cottagecompany.com

  • I think the key here, as mentioned, is that it would only work for family units. It's not really urban planning IMO. It's just a rehash of the apartment above the garage or the MIL unit. More weirdly, it could turn into a design-y version of the maid's quarters or a sharecropping shack. Imagine someone renting some small cottage in your backyard. That's a weird class landlord/tenant relationship. I like the idea of cottages as affordable housing solutions in urban places but it actually takes over green space by not advantaging the vertical. Why give up your backyard to a building (unless you have a massive one)? How about you write about affordable housing as the next big urban planning thing?