Green Living: The Case for Garage and Basement Apartments


More and more cities are helping both people and the environment by promoting less typical housing units

accessory units facing an alley in Highlands' Garden Village, Denver (courtesy of Perry Rose)

One of the best ways to accommodate growth (as we must) without either exacerbating sprawl or disturbing the character of existing communities is by using so-called "accessory units" - secondary dwellings attached to a main home, such as garage and basement apartments. Sometimes these are called "granny flats" or "in-law suites" because of their usefulness to house extended family members while giving them the privacy that comes with having their own, separate entrances and homes.

a basement apartment in Alexandria, VA (by: Ellen Kabellen, creative commons license)

For the primary homeowner, it can also be an excellent source of income to help pay for the mortgage or other needs. For the neighborhood, it brings in a mixture of housing types and price points, adding variety and affordability while preserving architectural character. It also helps people "age in place" as their housing needs shrink without having to leave their neighborhoods.

Municipal planners are taking note: Vancouver, for example, promotes "laneway housing" facing alleys as part of its "EcoDensity" program; Seattle encourages "backyard cottages." Writing in USA Today, Wendy Koch reports an "accelerating trend" toward adding these smaller homes:

These tidy units -- known as in-law suites, granny flats, sidekicks, backyard cottages or, in Australia, "kangaroo apartments" -- serve multiple purposes at a time retiring Baby Boomers are trying to stay in their homes despite shrinking stock portfolios, adult children can't find jobs and aging parents need help...

Cities see them as a way to expand affordable housing options while promoting smart growth. More are passing rules to make it easier to build second units, also called accessory dwelling units or ADUs.

basement apartments line this street in Savannah (courtesy of Payton Chung)

In addition to Seattle, Koch cites Santa Cruz, California, and Arlington and Fairfax Counties in Virginia as getting on the bandwagon. The Santa Cruz ordinance, she writes, was advocated by the AARP and has become a model for cities elsewhere.

contemporary laneway housing in Vancouver (by: Joe Wolf, creative commons license)

There is also a new book, In-Laws, Outlaws and Granny Flats, by author and home renovator Michael Litchfield. He told Koch that the growing awareness of smart growth and the environmental benefits of density are among the reasons underlying the trend, which in some places remains illegal because of outmoded zoning laws. (Litchfield has an interesting blog covering smaller homes, called CozyDigz.)

Koch's story includes interviews from several happy owners and residents of accessory units, along with commentary from real estate analyst extraordinaire Chris Nelson and a representative of the American Institute of Architects.

Read it in full here.

This post also appears on NRDC's Switchboard.
Images: Perry Rose, Ellen Kabellen, Payton Chung, and Joe Wolf

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Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.
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