There were probably many small concerns, but for Emi Robinson, a large one had to do with sewing. A retired seamstress and early riser...

Share story

There were probably many small concerns, but for Emi Robinson, a large one had to do with sewing.

A retired seamstress and early riser, Robinson liked to get her sewing machine humming as early as 6 a.m. But living as she was in a bedroom of her daughter and son-in-law’s Eastside home, Robinson was afraid the sound would disturb them.

And for Lori and Jon Friedman, the concerns were noise and isolation.

Was their television disturbing Robinson’s sleep? Did she feel bad when they wanted privacy for their own family, which sent her to her bedroom with the door closed?

The solutions to these intergenerational dilemmas, Jon Friedman realized, were within his ability to solve. As a homebuilder and the owner of Friedman Homes, he could build his extended family a house with a mother-in-law unit.

Also called an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, this type of housing is catching on, particularly in East King County, where the county and 15 cities have created an organization called A Regional Coalition for Housing, or ARCH. It’s spearheading an effort to increase affordable housing by showing homeowners how they can make the homes-within-homes work for them.

A leader in this movement is Mercer Island, where Friedman recently built his family home. It’s one of about 70 island homes built or remodeled in the past four years to include an ADU.

In all, some 1,800 legally permitted ADUs are thought to exist on the Eastside and in Seattle.

A careful plan

From the outside, no one would guess that the Friedmans’ two-story Craftsman-inspired house includes a self-contained one-bedroom apartment — with its own sewing alcove where Robinson can happily stitch away. Nor from the inside would any one guess that the apartment is just to the left of the spacious entry.

All that is very much by design, Jon Friedman said.

“One of the most important parts of doing an ADU is working through the floor plan,” he said. “We didn’t want to lose anything from the house by adding an ADU.”

Emi Robinson lived in Spokane for many years before being widowed and coming to live with her daughter and son-in-law seven years ago. That was before the couple had Ryan, 5, and Kayla, 2.

Their house then included a bedroom for Robinson. But it was upstairs, and the strain of carrying baby Ryan up and down those stairs was hard on her knees. So they learned a lesson there: Mother-in-law apartments should be on the ground floor.

A second house delivered other lessons, and by the time Friedman was ready to build their Mercer Island abode, he’d honed in on the extended family’s needs:

• The ADU had to be part of the house, but have a separate feel so Robinson had a sense that she had her own home.

• It had to be accessible from inside the house so the kids didn’t have to go outside or through the garage to visit grandma.

• Robinson needed to be able to get from her parking spot in the garage directly into her apartment.

• She also needed a washer and dryer in her unit so she didn’t have to climb stairs to the family’s second-floor laundry room.

• Storage space was a priority, too.

“A family member who’s been in her own home and is downsizing has a lot of sentimental valuables,” Lori Friedman said.

• Finally, so as not to bother her, Jon Friedman didn’t want a bathroom or bonus room located atop his mother-in-law’s apartment. He bought a set of house plans, then modified them to get the spaces he wanted. He pegs the cost of the apartment unit at around $120 a square foot.

“It’s a good thing we lived in two other homes before,” said Jon Friedman. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have thought of these things.”

Robinson’s 550-square-foot apartment seems more spacious than it is because of 9-foot ceilings and an open floor plan. The living room, dining area and full kitchen (complete with regular-size appliances, including a dishwasher) open onto a private patio.

That door is her official front door, and because it’s on the home’s side, two front doors don’t face the street. Thus, the house does not look like a duplex, another of Friedman’s requirements.

The bedroom has an alcove for Robinson’s sewing machine. A full bath with washer and dryer is adjacent. A big storage closet is tucked under a set of stairs.

“It’s wonderful,” said Robinson, who now can cook her favorite Japanese dishes anytime she wants.

But much more important, she’s there to watch her grandchildren grow and to help when needed with child care. Kayla, an early riser, often joins “Nana” for 6 a.m. breakfasts, and Ryan likes to pack his bag and “go to Nana’s house” for sleepovers.

ADUs are flexible

Keeping families together is one of the main reasons for adding an ADU, but it’s certainly not the only one, says Max Bigby, the housing planner for ARCH and an associate planner for the city of Bellevue.

From a government standpoint, ADUs are a way for communities to meet a requirement imposed upon them by the state’s Growth Management Act: to increase the supply of affordable housing. Simply put, they must increase the amount of such housing. The question is where.

Because most of the best building sites are occupied “and the ones left tend to be more expensive to build on,” Bigby said, “people started to ask if there was a resource out there that’s being underused.”

“There is,” Bigby said. “That resource is the single-family home, which is in great abundance. That’s where the ADU initiative was born.”

Whether incorporated into a new house or remodeled into an existing one, an ADU “is not just affordable housing — it’s also flexible,” Bigby said.

“It might be used as an office, as housing for kids who want to ‘go away to college’ but stay close to home, as guest housing, as housing for a relative or maybe as a retirement place,” Bigby said. “Homeowners can rent out their primary house, then move into the ADU and make a bit of income. It’s really adaptable space that can change over time.”

Others have specifically bought a home with an ADU because its rental income helps cover their house payments.

Mercer Island homeowners Neal and Brenda Thompson are in the final stages of permitting a daylight basement into a 900-square-foot unit. It includes a bedroom, a bath and a half, and private parking.

Their motivation is extra income, so they’re researching how to become landlords.

“It was a real simple decision,” Neal Thompson said. “Our kids grew up and moved out, and we have a large house for the two of us. So there was no reason not to.”

Shelley Bolser, Mercer Island’s associate planner, said that whatever the homeowners’ motivation, the city is glad to get the extra housing.

“Given the property values here and the lack of affordable land, we don’t have a lot of opportunity to create affordable housing,” Bolser said. “This is one way we can get at that goal.”

What little public criticism there has been has come from neighbors concerned with parking issues or the effects of the extra housing units on single-family neighborhoods.

Mercer Island has dealt with some of the criticism by restricting the size of such units, Bolser said. An extra dwelling unit must be no more than 40 percent of the size of the entire the house and no more than 900 square feet.

As for parking, each single-family home on the island must have three off-street spots, two of them covered, and the homeowner must set one aside for those who live in the extra unit.

City promotes units

Kirkland promotes ADUs and sees them as a way to add housing without greatly affecting the quality or the character of the neighborhoods, Kirkland planning supervisor Dawn Nelson said.

“One reason we hear relatively few complaints is that we require one of the units to be owner-occupied,” Nelson said. “The owners are already affected by the fact that someone else is living on the property, so they’re not going to allow something unruly to occur.”

If there is a problem with creating more units, Bigby said, it’s one of education. Homeowners may not realize they can add an ADU to their home, remodel existing space into one or build a new house that includes one.

Nor do they know where to start.

“It’s an overwhelming notion,” Bigby said. “How long is it going to take? How much is it going to cost? It’s not like painting a room, where you know the process.”

To overcome that problem, ARCH has created an extensive Web site that answers the basic questions, such as whether the unit must conform to local zoning requirements (yes), whether a building permit is required (yes, if the work is beyond simple cosmetics), how to get financing (some public money may be available), or what size the units can be.

The answer to that last one depends on the city, which is why ARCH suggests homeowners contact their local government for specifics.

Bigby praised Mercer Island for making the process relatively easy.

“They had the vision to say that to make this successful, they needed fairly simple regulations so it doesn’t take a physics degree to understand them,” Bigby said. “They also wanted a low-cost application, and perhaps most important, they wanted fast turn-around time so getting a permit doesn’t drag out for years.”

Jon Friedman found dealing with the city easy because the planners were “very, very accommodating.”

But more than that, he and his family like the results. His wife “has peace of mind that her mom is taken care of,” he said.

“It makes for a happier person knowing where our loved ones are and that they’re being taken care of,” Jon Friedman said.

Elizabeth Rhodes: