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Interesting model

Project seeks one-stop shopping for ADUs

PSU ‘s Institute for Sustainable Solutions using Solarize model to make it easier to add backyard homes

Folks at Portland State University are taking the city’s wildly successful Solarize model and applying it to “granny flats.”The idea is to make it easier and cheaper for Portlanders of various income levels to build the small homes, officially known as Accessory Dwelling Units or ADUs, alongside or behind their houses.

Portlanders took out nearly as many permits to build ADUs last year as regular single-family homes, and all signs point to a continuing boom in new units, which are far cheaper to build than regular homes and enable people to live in closer-in neighborhoods near their friends and families.

The Small Backyard Home Project is being spearheaded by PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, led by former Metro Councilor Robert Liberty.

“If you have a small house you use less stuff,” Liberty says. Small houses also are cheaper to heat and cool, and thus have lower carbon footprints.

They also can help ease the city’s housing shortage and prevent people from being forced out of their neighborhoods, he says.

But taking on a construction project is not for the faint of heart, and many barriers remain. The Small Backyard Home Project, launched last fall, is identifying those and devising ways around them.


The Solarize program, started in 2009 in Southeast Portland, provided a one-stop process making it simpler and cheaper to install rooftop solar panels on homes. Citizens attended workshops where all the steps were explained, and they met one solar panel installer chosen to serve them all. That cut installation costs for the installers, who also obtained bulk discounts on panels and other gear that were shared with participating residents.

The process was replicated in other Portland neighborhoods, resulting in hundreds of new solar installations. The Solarize model ultimately went national.

Now PSU hopes to do the same for ADUs, guiding people through the process, perhaps with a “concierge” to help them, Liberty says. He hopes the project eventually can cut per-unit costs by $20,000 to $40,000.

Plenty of available sites

For starters, PSU created maps showing where more than 70,000 ADUs could be built on residential lots in the city. That’s far more than the potential for regular single-family homes, because ADUs can be added at lots where houses already exist.

Students at PSU’s Center for Public Interest Design, directed by Sergio Palleroni, are creating some model ADU designs, so that residents might be able to pick from among a menu of templates. That would lower construction costs and make it simpler and faster to get city permits, Liberty says.

The goal is to design and build a few prototypes by year’s end.

There’s also discussions about developing kits, so that some units could be assembled on site from prepackaged materials. That could save the most money for kitchens and bathrooms, typically the most expensive parts of homes, Liberty says.

Center for Public Design faculty member Margarette Leite is exploring the idea of re-recycling and reusing building materials for ADUs, Liberty says.

PSU business students are working on financing issues for ADUs. That’s been one of the biggest barriers, because banks have been reluctant to provide construction loans, forcing homeowners to rely on home equity lines of credit — if they have enough equity in their homes. That limits options for lower-income or younger homeowners to add ADUs.

One idea is to provide a package deal including the services of an architect, contractor and building fees.

The Solarize model of buying materials in bulk to get discounts for multiple ADU owners also will be explored.

There also are talks with affordable housing providers who might devise programs to build ADUs on peoples’ properties and rent them out, Liberty says. The nonprofit essentially would take on landlord and managerial duties for the homeowner — and collecting the rent — with the promise that the homeowner would assume full ownership and control of the units after, say, a decade.

Multnomah County is creating a pilot project aimed at putting homeless people in tiny ADUs of roughly 200 square feet on private lots. The homes eventually would revert to ownership by the property owner.

The Institute for Sustainable Solutions wants to build prototypes in at least two parts of town, likely including the Cully neighborhood in Northeast Portland, where serious efforts are under way to prevent gentrification.

An informational meeting was held in Cully recently and about 25 people showed up, Liberty says.

If all goes according to plan, PSU eventually would move into a second phase to seek “a systems approach” to building ADUs, essentially trying to get large numbers built.

After a couple years, the Institute for Sustainable Solutions hopes the project can be self-sustaining, Liberty says. Then he hopes to move on to another project, perhaps encouraging more ADUs built as part of existing homes, such as in basements.

Ripe for development?

PSU has calculated ample opportunities to build Accessory Dwelling Units, or what it’s calling Small Backyard Homes, in Portland.

n There are about 70,863 lots considered prime for ADUs. A large share of these are in outer east neighborhoods where development hasn’t been as brisk.

n 29,363 of those lots are located within 500 feet of a transit stop. One proposal for the city’s infill development is to allow lots close to transit to have two ADUs, one built in the yard and one “internal” ADU built in a remodeled garage, attic or basement.

n 3,860 of those lots are located on alleys, which might allow for a clustering of units. The alley could be refashioned into a thoroughfare, as is done in Vancouver, British Columbia.

To stay abreast of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions’ Small Backyard Homes Project:

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