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Splurge or Save? Cottage's Head of Design Talks ADU Exteriors & Interiors

From more square feet (sq ft) to higher ceilings to high-end interior finishes, there are many places you could spend your Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) budget. How do you choose? To learn more, we sit down with Cottage's Head of Design and Delivery, Anamika Goyal.

July 1, 2021

In previous posts, we covered the soft costs of planning for your ADU and the hard costs of construction for your custom unit. But once you have determined your budget for your ADU, how do you decide where to splurge on design upgrades—or alternatively, where to save money with budget-friendly decisions?

In the first part of my conversation with Cottage's Head of ADU Design and Delivery Anamika Goyal, we covered where to splurge or save for your ADU's design and space planning. In the second part of our discussion, we cover how to navigate the various exterior and interior space choices you have for your ADU, in-law apartment, granny flat, or tiny home. There are so many types of ADUs, and so many customization options to choose from.

Whether you're creating an attached garage conversion ADU, a basement apartment or attic update, an in-law unit, or a backyard cottage; a detached ADU or an attached ADU; a space to rent for passive income or an extension of your single-family residence; a junior accessory dwelling unit (JADU) or seniors; there is no shortage of flexibility and creativity for your new ADU project.

Anamika has designed ADUs of all shapes and sizes as the head of Cottage's Design Studio. Previously, Anamika has held roles as an Architectural Designer at KieranTimberlake and a Design Manager at WeWork.

Let's dive back in!

ADU Exteriors: Quality, Value, and Longevity

CALEB: Earlier in our conversation, you laid out some great points for the overall ADU floor plan. Since you talked about the roofs a bit, can you share some more about ADU exteriors?

Since that's what most homeowners will be looking at every day from their existing home or walking to their new ADU, I'm curious where there are options to smartly save on the look and feel of the unit without sacrificing quality.

ANAMIKA: Of course, the outside of your ADU is really important—you don't want it to look like a trailer home or a spaceship that got dropped out of the sky into your backyard! The name of the game for exteriors is to match the neighborhood, and this is important for a few reasons.

First, like with our discussion earlier, is resale. There is fundamental value in building an ADU to match the quality and character of the neighborhood so that you are staying within the neighborhood comps with your exterior finishes and not spending money that you wouldn't see back in resale. Furthermore, some cities frown upon second units that look drastically different from the existing home or rest of the neighborhood.

By building a stick-built ADU with a real foundation, you've already gotten most of the way there. However, there won't be much resale value in splurging on a standing seam metal roof if the neighborhood is 99% asphalt shingle. Additionally, similar materials to the main home can keep the yard feeling spacious due to the continuity of texture, such as using the ADU to create the feeling of a stucco courtyard, instead of pairing a stucco home with a vinyl siding prefab ADU, which could feel disjointed and discontinuous.

On the flip side, Some of our homeowners like to add a nice color pop on the exterior walls or front door of the ADU, which I think can be a really cost effective and beautiful personal touch. Putting your own personal touch and feel on your ADU is important, and we take that as a given for your custom ADU.

Finally, outdoor landscaping is an important and powerful way to get the most out of your new ADU. Most homeowners like to increase ADU living space by using simple, low maintenance landscaping materials to build an outdoor patio that sits adjacent to the ADU living or dining areas. By using low-cost outdoor materials such as pavers, crushed granite, and native plantings to complement a well-placed sliding door or front door on the ADU, there is potential to essentially double the living space at a fraction of the cost.

CALEB: Thanks Anamika, that was a great explanation. How about inside the ADU? Since ADUs can range in size and shape, I'm sure homeowners are interested in hearing more about how they can make their second home feel spacious and comfortable too.

ANAMIKA: Absolutely, no ADU is complete until you do the inside! While there are so many options for the inside of your ADU, there's a few things we like to look out for. In particular, there are a handful of cost effective ways to make a smaller square footage look and feel larger.

I always keep an eye out opportunities for lighter finishes to open up the space and bounce light around more effectively, such as:

  • Tall ceilings and doors (if budget allows)
  • Open continuous spaces (e.g. open plan between entry, kitchen, and living)
  • Good storage in the kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms,
  • Minimal hallways in the ADU (ADUs can eat up a lot of square footage without adding usable square footage, as I covered before)

In addition, there is one other powerful architectural trick I keep in mind: placing the front door so you are walking into the "long view" of the ADU unit. I've seen this make a huge difference, especially in a smaller square footage project like an ADU. I highly recommend it for mid to larger-sized ADUs.

Interior ADU Finishes: Picking for Value

CALEB: Thanks for the tip! I love hearing the inside scoop on how to design the best ADU. Any tips for homeowners deciding whether to upgrade that sink or level up on the flooring or pass on the extra fixtures?

ANAMIKA: Sure! Many homeowners who come to Cottage ask us which finishes to splurge on—and which to take off-the-shelf.

I think here again, it is wise not to go way above and beyond the general finish level of your main home, as you won't see that value back in a resale or even in a rental situation if it is overbuilt compared to neighborhood comps. That being said, there are a few places where it makes sense to save or splurge:

  • *Cabinets:* Stick to box cabinets that are real wood if possible. Box cabinets have come a long way in the material, joinery, and finish options. Furthermore, the Cottage studio has configured all of its kitchen design components to work optimally with box cabinet sizes. Most providers provide off-the-shelf cabinets to size at 3" increments, so it ends up being pretty customized anyway!
  • *Lighting:* Say yes to recessed lighting in your kitchen, living room, and main bedroom if you plan to put a desk or seating in. I think recessed lighting is an upgrade for just a few thousand of dollars that totally elevates the feeling and comfort of the ADU once it's finished and provides more than enough return on investment.
  • Countertops: Pick a fairly neutral color without a ton of variation, and it'll maximize the feeling of a big continuous surface that will provide high utility and visual continuity for the space to feel bigger. If you like darker countertops, pair them with lighter cabinets so the overall palette of the kitchen isn't too dark and heavy.
  • Bathroom: Find storage where you can. If your ADU floor plan doesn't leave room for a proper linen closet, you can sneak in a few places for storage with under sink storage, a medicine cabinet, and a niche in the shower for shampoo bottles. Little moves like this can go a long way in terms of comfort and usability.
  • Flooring: I suggest engineered hardwood flooring or luxury vinyl plank (LVP) 100% of the time. These products have made considerable gains in the past few years to look and feel nearly as good as real hardwood. Real hardwood, however, is a lot more expensive, more finicky to install, and harder to take care of. In personal use ADUs, engineered hardwood is a fantastic option. If you have a rental unit ADU that will see a lot of moving furniture, or an ADU that doubles a pool house, LVP is the best bet for longevity as a highly-durable, waterproof flooring option. As with some of the other finishes, a natural-tone, lighter wood finish floor will help open up the space considerably and remain timeless for years to come.
  • Speciality patio doors: Recently, the rage has been speciality glass patio doors that span full walls. However, in my experience, the best value comes from installing two high quality french patio doors instead of one 10-12 foot speciality patio door or glass wall. First off, it requires some maneuvering of the door features to meet egress code if this is your main entry, and can be cumbersome to open and close. Next, these speciality doors are pricey: first there's the five-figure cost door, then the speciality structural beam above the door that costs thousands more, and then the maintenance and repairs. My suggestion: put that money into a higher-end double swing patio door with a full glass panel or install two double swing patio doors for the full indoor/outdoor feel and easy daily access without the hassle.

CALEB: That was quite comprehensive, and really helpful details. Thanks for all your help, and hope to bring you back soon to answer more homeowner questions!

ANAMIKA: My pleasure, happy to help.

Cottages for Every Use Case and Need

ADU projects present many opportunities for clever design and value engineering throughout the process. However, that requires an architect or design team with considerable ADU experience from both a design and construction perspective. Not only do you need to get the proper building permit for your granny flats or carriage houses, think about ADU ordinances, and learn about zoning regulations and fees, but property owners want quality and value from their construction and design team when altering their primary residence.

From Portland, Oregon to the shores of California, ADUs are always a welcome addition to any single-family home or duplex, whether you're looking to build a guest house for short-term family member visits, expand the square footage of your main house, create affordable housing in your neighborhood, or build a tiny house that renters can stay in long-term—and boost your rental income while you're at it. There's no question why ADUs keep gaining in popularity in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and beyond, so why wait to build yours?

Contact Cottage today using the link below for a Free, No-obligation Consultation & Estimate for your ADU vision with one of our ADU experts!