Even when she bought her 1,100-square-foot Willow Glen home two decades ago, Joyce Higashi knew she wanted to add living space in its big backyard.
Over the years, she researched building a so-called granny flat—formally known as an accessory dwelling unit—talking with contractors, Realtors, and many friends. For a good long while, she explored adding to an existing small office she had in the yard. She eventually decided against that for multiple reasons—plumbing was a particular issue. Despite her study, she still felt so intimidated to undertake the construction of an ADU that she remodeled her kitchen instead. Building an accessory unit, she said, “seemed very expensive.”
She also dreaded the detailed, time-consuming and taxing decisions of selecting wall colors, cabinet types, building materials and the like. In remodeling the kitchen, she’d found it hard to conceptualize the outcome based on the small flooring and countertop samples she’d had to work with. “It was very difficult,” she said, “but I knew I needed the income.”
Supply has finally met her demand.
On the coattails of new state and city of San José legislation aimed at increasing the affordable housing stock in Silicon Valley and across California, Joyce has connected with the first regional home builder that has created an accessory dwelling unit pre-approved for construction by the City of San José. In exchange for relinquishing control over such considerations as the dimensions of her new ADU and the placement of its windows and doors, Joyce and homeowners like her can have a professionally designed, partially customized home installed in a matter of weeks.
“ADUs are the most repeatable form of housing and the most quickly employable that the state (of California) has approved in the past decade or so,” said John Geary, a 26-year-old industrial engineer with Silicon Valley home-building ties.
John is the co-founder of Abodu, an ADU building company, along with Eric McInerney, a University of Michigan business school graduate with a professional background in manufacturing. John and Eric, also 26, both worked in Chicago as management consultants for Bain & Co. for nearly four years before they moved to the Bay Area in April 2018 to build their company. Joyce is buying her ADU from Abodu. Her plan is to use it to generate income and to house visiting family.
Accessory dwelling units hold true potential to grow San José’s housing supply. City staff estimate that about two-thirds of the city’s single-family homes—about 120,000 properties—are large enough for an ADU. According to the U.S. Census, adding all of those ADUs would increase the city’s total housing units by a third.
With more than a million residents, San José accounts for half of Silicon Valley’s population. Abodu’s business approach springs from months of research, interviewing and surveying California and Bay Area homeowners and would be ADU owners. Joyce’s decision-fatigue and foreboding about learning and undertaking a complex, financially important and unfamiliar process—based on a one-time need—kept others from progressing too.
“We saw a lot of pain-points and friction, so we started by figuring out how to address those and worked backwards from there to come up with a product and a service model,” Eric said. “Homeowners were being forced to go through the same taxing, cumbersome process of building a 5,000 square-foot custom home but for a 500 square-foot backyard unit.”
Working with city engineers in the Department of Planning, Building, and Code Enforcement, the company developed a home that meets the state’s and the city’s building requirements on practically all San José sites, regardless of location-specific qualities such as soil conditions or a lot’s orientation. When the engineering and design expenses are amortized over many units rather than a single one, the economies of scale reduce the cost of each unit, not only in the actual construction but during city building permitting.
Abodu quotes a $199,000 price for its 495-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath home, which is suitable for one or two persons. That’s slightly more than $400 a foot and includes a building foundation as well as Abodu’s management of utility connections and city permitting.
The Bay Area’s PrefabADU also offers city-approved ADUs for sale, and additional ADU building companies are in the process of gaining city approval for their master plans too, said James Son, deputy director of the city’s Building Division. Using a master-plan like Abodu’s, where the city and the state have pre-approved the construction methods and materials, “You should be able to get a (city building) permit in 90 minutes or so using a streamlined process with the lowest cost for providing city services,” he said.
The 35-foot by 14-foot Abodu home cuts a modernistic profile with asymmetric roof gables. The asymmetry reappears in the outlines of the windows and permits cathedral ceilings that reach above ten feet in the living room and in the bedroom. “We thought the ceilings were an interesting feature to distinguish ourselves,” Eric said. A galley kitchen connects the two living spaces and backs up to the bath. A large glass door in the living room admits copious light and opens accordion-style to join a small outside deck seamlessly with the indoors. Within that structural framework, homeowners can customize by specifying particular cabinet colors and flooring, for example, or roof materials, building siding, and exterior paint color or wood-stain to complement their existing home.
Held back by common prejudice toward “manufactured” or off-site-built homes, Joyce said that she initially ignored a friend’s suggestion that she research the Abodu ADU. But when a second friend mentioned the company shortly thereafter, she took a chance. Her preconceptions melted away. “I couldn’t believe how great it looked, so I called them right away and went to see their model in Redwood City. I brought 10 friends, and they all said, ‘This is you.’”
Fired with enthusiasm from her encouraging financial planner, Joyce finally found her match. “I did it,” she said, “and I haven’t had any regrets at all.”
By: Sharon Simonson. March 25, 2020.
Photo Credit: John Geary