This mother-in-law suite was created by Aurora Custom Remodeling to accommodate the clientís aging parent and is part of a larger addition.
courtesy Aurora Custom Remodeling This mother-in-law suite was created by Aurora Custom Remodeling to accommodate the clientís aging parent and is part of a larger addition.

Two things motivated Michael Litchfield to write the book In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: downsizing and moving into an outbuilding on a renovated farm compound in California and increasingly hearing from his remodeler contacts about the requests they were getting for in-law suites.

Litchfield points to several trends driving the increase he has seen in accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Baby boomers are retiring and are thinking about how they can stay in their homes as they age. Many of them are also caring for their aging parents. “This intersects with another trend: soaring health care costs, which continue to rise in good times and bad,” Litchfield says.

Some baby boomers view ADUs as an income opportunity as they retire and downsize — choosing to live in an in-law suite and rent out the main house. For others, “boomerang” adult children are, due to economic stresses, returning to live with their parents.

courtesy Aurora Custom Remodeling

Many immigrants also want ADUs for extended family. “New arrivals from Asia and Latin America favor multigenerational living,” Litchfield says. And, he adds, the U.S. has the highest percentage of single-parent households among industrial nations. “We need a more flexible housing setup to accommodate all of these shifting households and cultures.”

Things in Common

Jeff Brecko, vice president of Aurora Custom Remodeling, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., has seen in-law suite inquiries increase. “In some cases there is a specific need,” he says. “In others, there might be a desire to add a second master suite or a guest wing. Although they are driven by different impulses, they end up being similar in design and the elements they want to incorporate,” Brecko says.

These elements include a living/family room, a first-floor bed/bath, and separate access, and some type of kitchen or morning bar. “It’s more a case of how flexible they want the space to be,” he says, noting that the core solution is creating an adjacent space that still feels separate — like on-site lodging.

Litchfield says the projects range from basement or attic renovations to garage conversions to additions or outbuildings.

The least intrusive project completed by Aurora Custom Remodeling involved converting a garage to accommodate visiting guests. A more extensive project involved a home­owner whose daughter and her family moved into the main house, and the remodeler built an in-law suite that connected to the house through the existing master bedroom.

Aurora has also converted master bedrooms into guest suites and then added a full suite to the main house for the homeowner. “Shouldn’t the full-time resident be living in a new, fantastic area?” Brecko asks.

—Nina Patel, senior editor, REMODELING.

Consider This

  • Privacy: Before starting the project, interview all the residents together and separately to ensure everyone has fully considered the dynamics of the new living situation. Then address issues such as: Will the unit be connected to the main house? Will it have a separate entrance? Is sound-abatement an issue? For accessibility, do doors and hallways need to be wider? Does there need to be space for guests to stay in the unit?
  • Compact kitchen: Though some homeowners want a full-size kitchen, most ADU projects have a more modest kitchen with compact or drawer appliances.
  • Use of space: ADUs usually have multi-use furniture or open living areas. Make the most of these spaces: Use visual cues, such as different flooring, to define spaces within the living area; use a counter with a raised back to hide the kitchen work space; combine details, e.g., create a bookshelf out of the back of a kitchen counter where it faces the living room.
  • Universal design: Ask the client whether they want universal design features such as low thresholds, curbless showers, higher door stops, blocking for grab bars, rocker switches, and lever door handles. Lighting is also important. “It would have never occurred to me to bring in an occupational therapist. But now if I’m designing for an elderly person I would invite an occupational therapist as a consultant," remodeler Jeff Brecko says, "even though the client does not have specific needs. There are personal, private questions that a health-care professional can get more frank answers to because the client is more comfortable with them.”

—Nina Patel

Home Within a Home

In her book, More Not So Big Solutions for Your Home (The Taunton Press, 2010), architect Sarah Susanka describes how her friends Bob and Ellen designed an addition to help integrate Ellen’s mother, Maggie, into their lives.

For a few months prior to the renovation, Maggie had been living with the couple and their three small children. It had become clear that just giving Maggie her own bedroom and bathroom wasn’t going to work. A local architect designed a 20-foot-by-24-foot addition and, though not large, it gave Maggie her own ground-level entrance off a small garden with a single door from her space into the main house. Although she was right next door, the addition was designed to create a sense of separation and privacy. The solution was part spatial, part psychological, which is usually the way it goes with multigenerational design.

copyright 2010 Sarah Susanka