Designing your ADU: What are your options?

Designing your ADU: What are your options?

Should you hire a designer, consultant, or design your own ADU? Here we’ll give you an overview of your options so you can decide what’s right for your goals.

At Consolidated Living, we’re big fans of personalization. The smaller the space you inhabit, the more important it is to have a customized floor plan that enables your specific day-to-day life––especially if you work from home, have kids, pets, or plan on aging in place. But hiring a designer to customize your ADU floor plan isn’t the only design option available, and depending on how you plan on inhabiting your ADU (or not), you may find a different design route more suitable to your situation. 

The ADU design process you’ll want to take depends on the end goal for your ADU (whether you plan on living in it or renting it out), and the type of ADU you want to build (detached, attached, or conversion). 

When it comes to designing your ADU, your options boil down to the following three options:  

  1. Hire an ADU designer
  2. Hire an ADU consultant (and do most of the design by yourself)
  3. Hire no one (and do it all yourself) 

However you choose to go about designing your new ADU, we’re here to help. Let’s take a look at your options and what they mean for your process. 

Before you start

Understand that no matter how you choose to design your ADU, you’ll need to think about things like:

  • What’s legal to build on your property 
  • Financing your ADU project 
  • Hiring contractors (builders, electricians, plumbers)
  • Permitting your house plan
  • Selecting materials and appliances

Note: If you hire an ADU designer or consultant, they can help you with the items above. If you want to DIY the project, you may have to spend some more time researching and reflecting before you get to work. 

Not sure where to start? Schedule a consultation with us and we’ll help you find your feet in the process.

1. Hire an ADU designer 

Choosing to build an ADU is about more than simply reducing your square footage––it’s about making the most of the square footage you have. 

If you’re planning on inhabiting an ADU long-term, it’s important to make sure the house plan is tailored to your lifestyle. With less square footage to disperse your steps around, your movements are more concentrated along the same lines. That doesn’t just mean certain areas wear down faster than they would in larger spaces. More irritatingly, if any part of your space is just a little bit off (e.g. ceiling height, window placement, or the location of your sink), you’re going to notice it all the time. At best, it’s distracting. At worst, it can make you regret your decision to live smaller at all. 

That’s why it’s so important to get your design right the first time––plus remodeling small spaces later can be a tricky and expensive endeavor. 

What to expect when you hire an ADU designer

To create a custom space, your ADU designer will consider how and where you spend your time in your current living situation, your hobbies, your habits, your likes, dislikes, and future plans to best allocate square footage and arrange the layout to fit your needs. This personalized design strategy makes a small space feel roomier than it is, and disperses your movements more evenly across the space to minimize wear and tear.

If you’re looking to hire a designer, here are some things to consider:

  • Do you like the look and feel of the things they’ve designed in the past? Browse their portfolio to get a sense of their style 
  • Are they good listeners? Schedule a consultation to get a sense of their communication skills; as they say, “half of good design is good listening” 
  • Does your designer help with permitting? If so, this will make the notoriously drawn-out permitting process go much, much faster

At the end of the day, your designer will be instrumental in creating the space you’re going to be living in. It’s important you trust them to be receptive to your needs and wants so you can get the most out of your new space. 

2. Hire an ADU consultant 

Legally, anyone can design their own ADU, so long as you know the rules. The city of Portland will even accept hand-drawn plans! 

That said, if you don’t know the rules, or don’t have the time or desire to do the exhaustive research you need to design your whole space yourself, you may consider hiring an ADU design consultant to help you with the process. (Yes, we do that too.)

You can hire a consultant at any stage of the ADU decision-making process, whether you need: 

  • A sounding board at the beginning of your project 
  • Help getting unstuck on a design you’re working on yourself
  • Answers to questions about zoning laws and building codes
  • Advice on design considerations or the feasibility of your ideas 
  • Help with the permitting process

A consultant can help with all of the above, and support you as you bring your unique idea to life. What’s more, collaborating with a consultant sets your project up for success from the get-go, and could save you time, energy, and money down the road rather than going it alone. 

3. Hire no one (DIY) 

You may be the kind of person who wants to take the reins and DIY the project top-to-bottom––and we support you! (That’s why we became designers, after all – it’s satisfying and fun.) 

That said, if you elect to go the DIY route, you have to spend a lot more time researching zoning laws and building codes before you put pen to paper. The last thing you want to do is spend weeks or months perfecting a house plan that doesn’t stand a chance at getting permitted. 

We recommend this route for anyone who gets excited about what a massive learning process the designing of your own home can be. DIY home design works best for those looking to embark on a long-term passion project––not those looking to save some money on a designer. 

Now, there are tons of community resources that can help you learn everything you need to know to do it yourself successfully. Portland Community College offers architecture and building programs, and there are online courses and lessons aplenty that can help as well. 

Things to consider if you decide to DIY your ADU design:

  • Research, research, research: get to know the zoning laws and building codes that apply to your property 
  • You may need to spend money on education or training for certain aspects of your project
  • You have the option of going through a company like FasterPermits to permit your construction documents 
  • If you want to DIY build your house (in addition to designing), you still need to hire licensed electricians and plumbers (unless you’re licensed yourself) 
  • During the permitting process, if you have to do more than 2 rounds of revisions, you may need to pay some fees
  • Take advantage of the free 15-minute consultations with the City of Portland if you get stuck or have questions 

A note about stock ADU plans

There are countless websites that offer cookie-cutter stock plans for ADUs, often for as little as a few hundred dollars. 

While this option isn’t ideal for those who plan on living in their ADU long-term, it may be a perfect place to start for folks who plan on simply using their ADU as a short-term rental investment. 

That said, if you do plan on inhabiting your ADU, stock plans can be a great place to start gathering ideas. But even if you find a stock plan that you love, it still needs to be calibrated to fit the site and comply with building regulations in your area (orientation, window placement, entry, driveway, etc.). 

Some of our clients like to begin the design process by bringing us stock plans as a starting point, talking us through what they like, what they don’t like, and what they want to change, then we can go in and modify it to fit their unique lifestyle needs. 

Key takeaways 

No matter how you decide to design your ADU, understand that it’s a long process from start to move-in. You’ll take a step, talk to the city, take another step, talk to your designer, take another step, make revisions to your plans, talk to the city again, and so on. You might even have to make modifications after you start building, depending on the inspection process and the feedback you get from your municipality. 

As a parting thought from our consultant Leisa, “When you’re picking somebody to work with, make sure you have a good feeling about them. Just because it’s an industry you may not be familiar with and you’ve maybe never hired this type of professional before, don’t forget your designer is just another person. Make sure you get along well and feel like you can work closely together.” 

No matter what route you choose, we’re here to help empower you and help you along the way. 

Let’s Talk About Your Project

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