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In sprawling North American cities, gently increasing residential density remains at the forefront of urban planning priorities. How can cities expand housing supply without relying on towering buildings and costly developments? One small part of the solution is gradually taking shape in Los Angeles: the widespread construction of new, smaller-scale units on existing, underused property.

The city’s new Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Standard Plan Program offers an accelerated framework for building backyard units, streamlining the complex bureaucracy of the permit process via a range of pre-approved ADU designs. Some 20 designs submitted by architecture firms have already been pre-approved — with additional schemes now pending approval — and receiving a building permit for one of the new plans can now take as little as a day.

An Abodu unit design.

Los Angeles’ ADU Ordinance became effective on December 19, 2019, allowing for the development of attached or detached residential dwelling unit providing independent living facilities on a lot with an existing primary residence. This year, the initiative took a major step forward, with the pre-approved designs poised to accelerate both the approval and construction processes. The program gave preference to local, California-based architecture firms, and as part of a strategy led by L.A Chief Design Officer Christopher Hawthorne, the approved projects offer design-driven homes on a (potentially) mass scale.

Inside Abodu’s two-bedroom ADU.

Design and construction of homes start at $100,000 for garage conversions or $130,000 for new construction. The potential units vary widely in cost and size, with the options ranging from an 18.5-square-metre pied-à-terre to a family-oriented 111-square-metre living space. 

Jennifer Bonner/MALL’s ADU design.

Jennifer Bonner/MALL’s ADU design references the lean-to shed, adapting a hybrid visual language made to fit in with the Los Angeles cityscape. The black rectangular panel, to the side of the home, makes for a private outdoor patio shielded from view.

Connect Homes’ construction allows connection between indoor and outdoor.

Built in a San Bernardino pre-fabrication facility, Connect Homes’ glass and steel units are entirely customizable, including an option to add a deck or outdoor area. Steel frame modules allow clients to introduce glazing almost anywhere in the home, optimizing spatial connection to the outdoors.

A wood-clad Abodu design.

Redwood’s Abodu start-up are self-proclaimed lovers of Scandinavian design. Their ADU models feature natural wood, fiberglass windows, and white quartz countertops. Classic and reliable product brands — from brands such as Kohler and Moen — round out the fixtures. 

SO-IL’s Pebble House is still pending approval from the committee.

New York studio SO-IL’s pre-fab ADU prototype takes on a remarkable flower shape; a central plumbing block provides bathroom and kitchenette, separating the living and bedroom areas on either side.

Welcome Project’s Breadbox unit.

Welcome Project’s ADU design, dubbed Breadbox for its curve-topped walls and vintage flair, deftly repackages the traditionally Californian stucco wall and Spanish revival-style clay tile roof into a compact backyard unit.

Inside First Office’s minimal ADU.

First Office, an LA-based full-service architecture firm, supplies minimalism in form and expression. Taking into account sustainability factors, the ADU build uses Structured Insulated Panels (SIPs) for ease of construction and high environmental performance. A simple rectangular structure allows for a spacious open plan layout, as well as a roof deck option.

Design, Bitches’ ADU design featuring outdoor space.

Meanwhile, Design, Bitches’ ADU project, entitled Midnight Room, is as irreverent as the firm’s name might suggest. Marine grade plywood and an exposed Douglas fir structure highlight the dwelling’s materials, while remaining sturdy enough to resist Californian weather, while the flooring, inspired by Japanese engawa (porch), is raised in a boardwalk style. Recycled tile and LED lighting are included. 

Inside Design, Bitches’ ADU model.

Though many cities have seen a gradual uptick in the construction of laneway or backyard housing, fewer programs are geared to renters in need. The Backyard Homes Project, an initiative led by LA Más — one of the firms boasting a pre-approved design — is a refreshing exception, offering free project management to homeowners on the condition that they rent their ADU to Section 8 voucher holders (a federal housing program geared towards low-income residents). It’s a creative process, and a small step toward providing affordable, beautiful housing for all.

Cost-Effective, Stylish Backyard Housing Lands in Los Angeles

A look at the city’s eye-catching pre-approved ADU designs for streamlined backyard units.

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