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How to Choose The Best ADU Designer and Architect

Choosing the best ADU architect and designer best equipped for your needs can be challenging. Learn what you need to look out for in your ADU design team!

June 18, 2021

As you embark on your ADU journey, one of the first steps you will encounter is choosing the right designer for your Accessory Dwelling Unit. Regardless of whether you are looking for a no-frills rental income ADU or a luxurious retirement palace for your ADU, having a dependable and excellent designer is one of the most important decisions you will make for your ADU project.

But with dozens, if not many more design firms and independent architects to choose from, how do you know who is right for your ADU project? We'll break things down for you in this article.

At Cottage, our in-house team designs custom, stick-built ADUs in a cost-effective and smart way to give you the best bang for your buck while matching your needs, budget, and use cases. Already know what you're looking for in your ADU design? Click the "Get Started" button on the top right hand corner to get a Free Consultation and Estimate with a Cottage ADU expert.

What to Look For In Your ADU Architect

When it comes to choosing the right designer for your ADU, there are a few key considerations to keep in mind. Make sure to ask yourself the following questions for any potential candidate you are considering:

  • Does the Designer specialize in ADU design and layouts?
  • Does the Designer know the cost-benefit tradeoffs for each of the design choices they are making or offering to me?
  • Does the Designer know my city or county's updated ADU regulations?
  • Does the Designer understand my property's specific features and constraints for the ADU?
  • Does the Designer understand my needs and goals for my ADU?

Let's dig a bit deeper into each of these areas to cover what to look out for.

Specializes in ADU Design and Layout

There are many talented residential designers and architects out there, as well as different ADU providers. However, very few designers and architects specialize in custom ADUs.

As a homeowner looking into a custom ADU, you should always ask how many ADUs your designer has worked on in the past year. Also key is asking how many of their ADUs have been built rather than left on paper alone. Often, many ADU designs never go beyond ink and paper for reasons such as affordability, feasibility, property fit, and timeline.

Furthermore, it's important to work with a team that specifically knows ADUs in and out to avoid the pitfalls of space design, city permitting requirements, and construction sequencing that could end up costing a lot of time and money to fix if they are not addressed proactively.

Specifically for your ADU design, there are a number of features that might work well in a full-sized house that would be proportionally awkward or a poor use of square footage in an Accessory Dwelling Unit, whether it is a detached ADU, attached ADU, backyard cottage, basement conversion, or garage conversion ADU. One great example is window sizing—many windows that are perfect in a full-size home would not work well in an ADU because they would be proportionally out of place or take away needed usable wall space from the interior.

Another example is hallways. While hallways are almost always necessary in single-family homes, they are an unfortunate waste of valuable square footage in most ADU floor plans. It also comes down to personal preference for how you want to use your living space. Do you prefer a dining or living room? How many bathrooms do you really need? Will the tenet require extra storage, or a home office? Do you want a deck to spend time outdoors, or will counter space make-or-break your design?

This is another reason you'll want to work with a designer like Cottage that's not only designed but also built multiple ADUs. Accordingly, you need an architect or designer that can be clever when designing your ADU because they've learned what works best from firsthand experience!

Understands the Cost-Benefit Tradeoffs for Every Design Decision

Few designers or architects work closely enough with licensed general contractors to understand the direct costs associated with their designs. However, this communication between designer and contractor is the backbone of the start-to-finish ADU process at Cottage.

In our experience, reputable independent designers and contractors have little-to-no understanding of how to control an ADU budget with their design choices. As a result, the Cottage Design Studio has worked with a number of homeowners that started their ADU journey by hiring a reputable independent architect, only to come to us for help learning that their ADU design is way out of budget...after paying the full architect's fee and permitting cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

At Cottage, we have a team dedicated to GC partnerships and a proprietary data set of project cost estimates and actual project costs that unlocks our ability to transparently share calculations for the cost of building a new unit to homeowners up front. Using this data, the Cottage team is also able to ensure that design features(s) we propose for your ADU are within your budget.

A designer using real-time cost data is better equipped to meet your budget and expectations. On the flip side, most architects and designers are left to guess at the cost implications of their designs without any feedback, regardless of how many ADUs they have designed to date.

Knows My Area's New ADU Regulations

Did you know that when you hire an architect, you are also hiring them to navigate and manage the entire city or county permitting process too?

Navigating this system of chutes and ladders takes just as much time and nuance as the design work and requires additional attention to detail that is a very different skillset to that of producing a beautiful design. Needless to say, it can be challenging to find an architect who is great at both—and that's where Cottage can help.

The Cottage approach: our internal Design Studio exclusively focuses on the architecture and design for your custom ADU, while our separate dedicated Project Management team specializes smoothly permitting our projects to meet every deadline on your schedule. Your project will require more than just a smart design; you need a team that knows the ins and outs of your specific city or county's building permit requirements and process inside and out. This approach saves you headache, money, and time, letting you focus on the fun parts of building your start-to-finish, permitted ADU.

Understands My Property's Constraints on the ADU Location and Design

Even more than single family homes or even home additions and remodels, ADU projects require a keen eye for detail to maximize the space for the unit in relation to your specific site conditions and property layout. At the same time, it's rare to find designers that are both able and flexible enough to design around your property's specific constraints.

In contrast, the Cottage team's breadth of experience in visiting hundreds of backyards and garages means that we understand all the different possible design constraints and how to maximize the value of your new ADU.

Without visiting the site conditions firsthand or having members of the team see your yard, there is a high risk of the designer delivering an ADU design that does not best fit your needs, use case, or property.

Understands The Goals for My Specific ADU

Well-designed, stick-built ADUs can serve many different use cases—oftentimes stretching beyond the originally intended purpose. This is especially true because stick-built ADUs are built with a solid foundation, wood-framed walls, and real building materials the same way as your existing single family home to last decades, even a century or longer. As a result, your ADU design can and should prioritize versatility to meet all of your needs during the ADU's lifetime in your backyard.

Here's a real-life example: a homeowner that worked with the Cottage team wanted a 1 bedroom and den space ADU because they knew the den would only be used as a daytime office and didn't need to fit a bed. However, down the road this same ADU might be useful as a 2 bedroom rental or even a 2 bedroom in-law unit or granny flat for their future—but only if it was designed for that option up front.

In this particular situation and others, the Cottage design team proactively designed the den to be smaller than the main bedroom, but large enough to meet building code requirements and egress requirements of a second bedroom to maintain flexibility for the future.

So Who Do I Choose to Design and Build My ADU?

In this article, we covered the different areas to be looking out for when choosing your ADU design partner, providing just a few examples of why choosing the right ADU partner is important for your project. Our team has worked with many homeowners who had started the process with a different architect or design firm before contacting us, and we are happy to pick things up wherever you are at in your ADU plans.

While there are many different areas to be considering as described in the points above, Cottage is here to help walk you through the ADU eligibility, architectural design, permitting, and the new construction process from start-to-finish, whether you're in San Francisco, LA, Portland, or beyond. Contact us today using the link below for a Free, No-obligation Consultation & Estimate for your ADU vision with one of our ADU experts!