Last week The Washington Post ran an intriguing article on the concept of “granny pods.” These prefab structures, just big enough for one person — usually an aging parent or grandparent — can be placed on a family’s property, providing the grandparent with his or her own space while allowing the family to check in on them with relative ease.

The structures are referred to as auxiliary dwelling units (ADU) by the building industry. The specific pod in The Post story is a MedCottage designed and manufactured by N2Care, in Blacksburg, Va., with assistance from Virginia Tech.

For a client to get one of these structures, a physician must sign off on the medical need, according to N2Care’s director of marketing Molly Armistead. “The doctor has to state that the individual would benefit from having [an ADU],” she says. “And it must be removed from the property once it is no longer needed — whether it’s the end of a physical therapy regimen or, in some cases, the death of the client.”

These structures are hitting the market just as Baby Boomers are hitting retirement age. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 72 million Americans will be 65 and older during the next 20 years. And options are needed for this aging population, many of whom will have medical needs that prohibit them from living alone.

N2Care is not alone in creating ADUs. Other companies include: FabCab, in Seattle; Practical Assisted Living Solutions, in Meriden, Conn.; and The Home Store, in Whatley, Mass.

The interior of one of the auxiliary dwelling units (ADUs) manufactured by N2Care. More than simply a temporary hospital room, the “granny pod” has a host of universal and accessible design features. Shown in this example are levered door handles, wide doorways, and even baseboard lighting.
N2Care The interior of one of the auxiliary dwelling units (ADUs) manufactured by N2Care. More than simply a temporary hospital room, the “granny pod” has a host of universal and accessible design features. Shown in this example are levered door handles, wide doorways, and even baseboard lighting.


A Substitute for Universal Design Projects?

Just like any other construction project, ADUs need to meet various local building codes and ordinances. In Virginia, they are recognized as strictly temporary and for medical use only. In other words, clients can’t just have a guest cottage built to spec, then dropped into their backyard; there must be an overriding medical need for it in order to meet local ordinances.

The ADU in The Post cost the clients $125,000. It was outfitted with top-of-the-line medical equipment and monitoring systems, universal design features, as well as landscaping and decking. However, Armistead notes, the base price for ADUs is much lower: between $55,000 and $85,000, depending on the medical technology package that is included. The landscaping and decking are what drove the price of this particular unit much higher than usual.

But the question has come up: Could these structures be an alternative to remodeling a home with universal design features? “Definitely,” Armistead says. “So many homes are bi-level that it would make sense to simply get one of these units rather than going through the expense of remodeling the entire house” for someone who might not need it for very long. Armistead adds that pods can be sold back to the distributor after they are no longer needed by the homeowner, so that it’s possible to “recoup half your money.”

Russell Glickman, owner of Glickman Design Build, in North Potomac, Md., agrees with Armistead — to a degree. “[ADUs] could be a viable alternative to a remodeling job, provided the client doesn’t need access to any part of the main house,” he says. “The main areas of the home should at least be modified in order to be ‘visitable’ [by the elderly relative].”

Glickman adds that to be largely acceptable in the Washington, D.C., area, there would need to be design options that would allow the ADUs to more closely resemble the architecture of the home near which it will be located.

No Silver Bullet

Gregory Buitrago Jr., co-owner of Hammer Contractors Design & Build, in Olney, Md., says that The Washington Post coverage has sparked interest among his clients as well as among his staff. “At the end of the day, I believe it comes down to where that specific family and client puts value,” he says. “Even with money, there are different subsets that will influence a client, such as the cost of the pod option versus remodeling, or an attached in-law suite addition ... as well as how it will affect property values.”

When Mindy Mitchell, a certified aging-in-place design consultant with Sun Designs, in Burke, Va., meets with clients who are ready to age-in-place, there are many variables discussed. “[Will they opt for] interior remodeling to suit aging needs versus an actual addition to accomplish those same goals?” she says, adding that “it is difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution.”

This is certainly coming down the pike as more folks want to age-at-home with their extended families, Mitchell says, but “the cost of extended-care living is high. Any new solutions that provide financial and emotional solutions are going to be huge in how we continue to live and age in this country.”

Still, Buitrago is not 100% convinced — and not just because the aging relative is relegated to a structure outside the home, away from the family’s activities. “As with all remodeling, there are standards that have been developed to help the average consumer, but each project — as any good builder will tell you — must be geared toward that family and their needs,” he says.

The units are designed to be placed adjacent to the main house where the clientís relatives live. This MedCottage is in the yard of a home in northern Virginia and has the appearance of a small guest house, blending in with its surroundings.
N2Care The units are designed to be placed adjacent to the main house where the clientís relatives live. This MedCottage is in the yard of a home in northern Virginia and has the appearance of a small guest house, blending in with its surroundings.


While these new structures might be great for one family but not another, the same is true for a universal design upgrade. “Because each medical condition and situation brings its own personal needs and circumstances to the table, there is not a single silver bullet or fix-all,” Buitrago says. “Rather, clients need builders who are educated on the various options and solutions and have the expertise to craft a design and implementation that fits the family’s and the loved one’s very specific needs.”

—Mark A. Newman, senior editor, REMODELING.

Related articles:

Lifelong Design: Universal design is just that: universal. So it’s for all ages, not just for grandma and grandpa

7 Tenets of Universal Design

Deeper Insight: Working with a registered nurse on aging-in-place projects