Granny flats of the future

Pre-fab or handcrafted, 'accessory dwelling' movement gains steam

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

In 2017, Oak Park trustees amended the village's zoning code to allow coach houses or "accessory dwelling units" built above detached garages to include both plumbing and kitchens, paving the way for homeowners to turn their garages into rental units or extra living space. 

Under its recently adopted affordable housing plan, the village of River Forest is also considering amending its zoning ordinance to accommodate accessory dwelling units – ADU for short -- in the R1 and R2 single-family zoning districts, which comprise most of the village. 

The issue might be decided sooner rather than later with the furtherance of Illinois House Bill 4869, which would prohibit local governments from blocking the construction or usage of ADUs. As of June 23, that bill had been re-referred to the Rules Committee, but many are expecting it to pass. 

One of those looking forward to the state bill's passage is real estate developer David Schwartz, who recently founded a company called Chicago Granny Flats. Building off the colloquial name for an ADU, where the living space above a garage might be occupied by a beloved relative, Schwartz says he has been following the ADU movement which has been gaining steam on the West Coast. 

He notes that a real estate columnist for Forbes has declared 2020 the Year of the ADU. For Schwartz, the ADU is an obvious solution to housing woes. 

"It's a way to organically add affordable housing," he said.

He notes that villages like Oak Park and Evanston, which already allow construction of ADUs seem ready-made for the accessory dwellings.

"Oak Park is perfect for this, because it has a lot of alleys," Schwartz said.

Along with his partner, Schwartz's business focuses only on building coach houses and aims to make the process as simple as possible. The firm pre-fabricates units and currently has three models available, with names like Nanna, Abuela and Bubbe. 

The models vary in design and accommodate two, three, or four car garages on the ground level with a one to two-bedroom apartment unit above.

Schwartz says that limiting the designs and going with pre-fabricated elements like siding will allow Chicago Granny Flats to build an ADU in about three to four weeks. 

"They're put together like Legos," Schwartz said. "There's not as much hammering and banging. You could go on vacation, and come home to have it already finished."

With the pandemic, Schwartz says that he expects demand for the ADU to grow locally, noting that the spaces make great home office or workout rooms for people who can't go to the office or the gym. 

"The actual granny flat use does apply," Schwartz said. "They are great for multi-generational housing and are also great for boomerang kids."

Another key is that an ADU allows families to gain more space without the headache of doing an addition.

"It fits in with the context of the neighborhood since they're not visible from the street," Schwartz said.

For Scott Stack, a partner with Von Dreele Freerksen in Oak Park, coach houses are nothing new -- the firm has built many throughout Oak Park and River Forest. The firm's clients hire them to add space while visually tying that detached dwelling to their historic homes. 

Of a recently completed coach house on Kenilworth Avenue in Oak Park, Stack says he and his design team took great pains to make sure the coach house references the main home.

"We matched the gable, the roof pitch and the colors," Stack said. "We coordinated the windows and matched the silhouette. We tried to keep the same lines."

Stack says he often tries to capture the essence of the main house when constructing a coach house, but he doesn't go for an exact match. Outdoor light fixtures will be similar to those on the house, and the panel details on the garage door might echo some details on the house. He calls the end result "simplified somewhat, but coordinating with the house."

Now that Oak Park allows coach houses as living spaces, Stack says a lot of clients want to include a bathroom and a kitchenette in the spaces. He says that good space planning and innovations in construction help these small spaces live large. 

Gables are good places to be strategic he says, noting they are good places to nest a stairwell. New heating and cooling systems for the small spaces don't require ductwork.

Stack notes that on the whole, a coach house can be a bit more expensive than doing a home addition because you are adding all new systems and have to add and insulate all four walls.

On the other hand, a new coach house comes with the added bonus of a new garage -- something homeowners with larger cars might appreciate. At the end of the day, costs are dependent on finishes and proportions. Schwartz says that his firm's granny flats will start at about $150,000 with prices going up for large sizes.

Like Schwartz, Stack thinks that coach houses blend in well in historic neighborhoods, saying 

"Historically, we've been a community with coach houses," Stack said. "We've not been a community with mega-additions. It's much more appropriate here to do a coach house."

Stack says that he's seen clients use their renovated coach houses in a variety of ways. One turned the space into a yoga studio and, with the onset of COVID, he says he is seeing more home offices as well as quarters for grandparents. Many families also use the spaces for kids, whether it's a play room or a space for band practice. 

"That's the best thing about a coach house," Stack said. "It's everything. It's an in-law suite, a studio, a home office."

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Reader Comments

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Denis Roarty  

Posted: November 7th, 2020 7:26 AM

There wasn't a single comment about how two story garages change the neighborhood. While we love our neighbors, there was a bit of tension in years past when a couple two-story garages (non ADUs) went up. It simply changes the character of everyone's backyard space when neighboring garages are two stories. It is not just about how it looks from the street. There should be some discussion of this so neighbors have a say in density changes.

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