PLAN A remodels the existing two-car garage into a small suite off the kitchen. This is all right if you like your mother-in-law as much as you like your car, and if she likes to cook. ASPECTS: Inexpensive; alcove entry good; groceries go through the front door; looks like converted garage.
Plans by Dick Kawalek PLAN A remodels the existing two-car garage into a small suite off the kitchen. This is all right if you like your mother-in-law as much as you like your car, and if she likes to cook. ASPECTS: Inexpensive; alcove entry good; groceries go through the front door; looks like converted garage.

One of the most popular remodeling projects is the creation of a separate living suite within or attached to the main house. It can be used for a mother-in-law suite, nanny’s quarters, a guest room, or as the best place for that returning college student. Though they may be wonderful assets for a home, there are some important considerations in terms of privacy, layout, and code requirements when it comes to these spaces.

PRIVACY

An attached suite is not the same as a guest house or cottage. A guest house imparts a different sense of privacy and connection to the family; it could be located remotely on the property and be totally self-sufficient, whereas an attached suite shares some space and relationship to the people in the home. For example, Louis XV had the “Petit Trianon” for his mistress, but his mother-in-law surely stayed at the main palace in Versailles. A “mother-in-law” suite preserves privacy without alienation and can prevent discord among related parties, one would hope.

Maintaining the proper degree of privacy is crucial in determining how the suite will physically be attached to the house. By ensuring the right overlap of traffic flow, you can give each party the sense of being on their own, except when they choose to interact with one another.

Access to the new suite should be through some common area and located where it would not cause the inhabitants to continually bump into one another or overhear private conversations. It’s best to attach at circulation areas such as hallways, entry foyers, or back door areas. When this is not possible, other semi-private areas such as the kitchen, living room, or dining room may have to suffice. A few examples will make it easy to see the relative merits of various access points.

LAYOUT

PLAN B adds on to the rear of the home with access from the dining area. This can be flexible in layout and size. ASPECTS: Allows more freedom of design; hopefuly does not ruin backyard; not much visual buffer to bedroom.
Richard Kawalek PLAN B adds on to the rear of the home with access from the dining area. This can be flexible in layout and size. ASPECTS: Allows more freedom of design; hopefuly does not ruin backyard; not much visual buffer to bedroom.

Budget is usually the biggest consideration when it comes to layout, and it tends to limit the possible size and comfort of the living area, as well as the relative privacy created by distance. Fundamentally, the suite needs to contain a separate sleeping area, private bathroom facilities, and storage space. Entrance to the space would ideally not be directly into a bedroom, but hopefully into some buffering hallway, foyer, or alcove.

To be a truly independent living area, there needs to be an area for sitting and relaxing, beyond the bed itself. It’s great to have a defined sitting room, but even providing extra room for a couch or easy chair makes TV watching, conversation, or reading possible without entering the rest of the house. Similarly, space for a kitchenette, dining table, or desk goes a long way toward establishing the degree of privacy and comfort one can feel in a separate suite. A luxury feeling can be created with amenities such as vaulted ceilings, fireplaces, or whirlpool tubs.

PLAN C shows an addition adjoining the living room. The layout uses the hall between the dressing room and bathroom to create a privacy buffer to the bedroom. ASPECTS: Good privacy; bay window creates extra living space; bathroom could double as a powder room.
Richard Kawalek PLAN C shows an addition adjoining the living room. The layout uses the hall between the dressing room and bathroom to create a privacy buffer to the bedroom. ASPECTS: Good privacy; bay window creates extra living space; bathroom could double as a powder room.

CODES AND COMMON SENSE

Most zoning codes prohibit more than one dwelling on a single conforming lot, but a mother-in-law suite is not a separate dwelling if it is structurally attached to the main house. Also, many municipalities do not allow duplex houses or rental units within their zoning districts. Usually the line is drawn whereby an attached suite is not considered part of a duplex or a rentable unit unless it has its own cooking facilities such as a stove and refrigerator. However, many new homes have snack bars or kitchenettes in recreation areas and master suites, so it is not uncommon to expect them in a suite.

Popular vacation destinations often allow a guest cabana that is actually a completely separate dwelling — but this is rare. It’s always best to check with the local zoning or building inspector to see how this is interpreted in your district. Generally, the design and character of the new suite should be such that it does not appear to be a rental or second home and that it is clearly subservient to the main use of the house.

PLAN D shows a more expensive alternative but provides the most privacy and amenity. It can have its own entrance and access to the garage in a plausible spot. ASPECTS: Breezeway hall creates excellent buffer; includes sitting room; has its own kitchenette and dining area.
Dick Kawalek PLAN D shows a more expensive alternative but provides the most privacy and amenity. It can have its own entrance and access to the garage in a plausible spot. ASPECTS: Breezeway hall creates excellent buffer; includes sitting room; has its own kitchenette and dining area.

A separate living area is a desirable and sought-after improvement that can be made to a home for better resale and livability. However, it should never be allowed to overwhelm the existing house or detract from the style and quality of the home. A slavish addition may ruin the backyard access or the visual balance of the street façade or create an uncomfortable situation for the occupants. If properly designed, it can be a wonderful getaway, real estate asset, or just a better way to get to know one’s mother-in-law. — Dick Kawalek, a registered architect for more than 30 years, is founder of Kawalek Architects, in Cleveland; rck@rktekt.com.