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.
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.
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.
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.
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; firstname.lastname@example.org.