Around 2020, homeowners started to get serious about accessory dwelling units.Some efforts, for example in Los Angeles under the direction of the city’s chief design officer, Christopher Hawthorne,
it created a program that allows architects to submit plans for pre-approval to cut down the weeks-long permitting process to as a little as a day; potential clients could pick a design off the shelf and get things moving. Add to the mix architects creating custom, compact designs, and prefab builders like Cover, a local company that manages every step of adding an ADU to your property, and things only get easier. The potential for a homeowners’ backyard to become more than just a patch of unused grass or concrete is unlimited. Here, we’ve gathered 16 of our favorite projects to help your imagination run wild.
Joanna and Steve Vernetti have lived in their 1917 bungalow in Hancock Park for over 20 years. As their family increased in size, they needed more space—so they initially thought about adding another floor. After California passed the regulation in 2020, they called up their good friend (and former neighbor) David Thompson. Thompson, a founding principal of Assembledge+, had recently participated in a Los Angeles Magazine project to imagine solutions for those who lack housing in the city. Their notion was for public agencies to subsidize building ADUs in backyards along alleyways, dovetailing with existing alley revitalization initiatives.
That concept, titled Rear Projections, became a jumping-off point for other types of ADUs, and it ultimately informed the design of the Vernetti’s Hancock Park project, which replaced a detached backyard garage and extended the rear of the old house to create a new main bedroom, with French doors that lead out to a new deck. “We decided that the accessory dwelling unit would be modern,” Joanna says, “and we wanted the extension to be pretty much in keeping with the existing house.”
When screenwriter and author Jane Rosenthal acquired her circa-1905 house in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, it came with a backyard created by a Hollywood set designer that included a simple outbuilding set into a fanciful garden. Jane immediately transformed the structure into a writing studio, but it wasn’t long before the problems began. “Between drainage issues and a resident skunk, we simply had to replace it,” she says.
Photo by Olivia Hemaratanatorn
After an initial meeting with an architecture firm failed to produce a solution, an artist friend suggested she look up Chris Skeens, who had recently cofounded Byben and Skeens with Ben Warwas. The duo worked to create a replacement studio that would strike a balance between the necessities of the structure and what Jane refers to as the “kind of Shakespearean magic” of the existing site. For Jane, the presence of the books was a deciding factor. “As a writer, the tactility of books is very important to me—I knew then the relationship was going to be right,” she explains.
Photo by Olivia Hemaratanatorn
When a dynamic couple, both in creative fields, approached Toni Lewis and Marc Schoeplein of Lewis|Schoeplein Architects to add an ADU to their Southern California home, they looked to what was already in front of them to imagine what could be. After they’d briefly considered tearing down a small rear building that was originally a detached garage, they realized that a creative reconfiguration allowed them to maximize lot coverage while keeping the overall construction scope—and cost—in check.
Photo by Ivan Feign & Kat Phillips
In the newly constructed volume, the living room of the ADU would double as an art gallery, connected to—or closed off from—the rest of the residential wing via a pocket door. Separate entrances to the gallery and living/sleeping zones would allow private access for a future renter or caregiver, or the couple’s adult children when they visited. “The list of program functions morphed as we thought about them evolving over time,” says architect Toni Lewis. “Flexibility is the key to longevity.”
Photo by Ivan Feign & Kat Phillips
When a young family approached ORA to design their home in the Los Angeles suburb of Mar Vista, they asked the firm to strike a balance: Inside should harmonize with out, and the needs of the present should be addressed as equally as the possibilities of the future. Instead of building out a box to the lot lines, as is common for new developments in the area, the studio created two separate buildings in tandem with one another: a long, linear home and a bright red ADU with a faceted roof that “references the form of the neighborhood’s one-story gable cottages,” says the firm.
Photo by Eric Staudenmaier
For now, the ADU functions as an art studio, but it can easily become an independent apartment should the owners need it for aging-in-place, or as a space for guests. And as for its unexpected color? “It was inspired by a strawberry bush at the owner’s former home,” says the firm. In such ways, not only did ORA balance indoors and out, and the present with the future, but the firm also created a home that both surprises and comforts.
Photo by Eric Staudenmaier
When Paul and Yuki Gasiorkiewicz bought a nondescript 1930s bungalow in Echo Park, they knew right away that a redesign would be in order. But when they took a closer look at the detached garage in the rear, they discovered a surprisingly stunning view that made them scrap ideas of a renovation in favor of building a brand new accessory dwelling unit.
The couple spent six months designing their 1,178-square-foot, two-story home. Its compact size was informed by the existing garage’s 20-foot-by-30-foot footprint and L.A.’s ADU size limit of 1,200 square feet. “We had always planned on designing a compact house, however, having a hard limit to its size was definitely a challenge,” explain Paul and Yuki, whose key design goals were to include a small home office, and to ensure a sense of flow within well-proportioned spaces. “It simply meant that we had to work harder on the plan and fine tune it to make it as simple and efficient as possible, which in the end suited us well—we are very happy with it.”
When a Los Angeles–based entrepreneur and writer were seeking creative refuge, they didn’t have to travel far for inspiration. The duo simply looked to their backyard to erect a 245-square-foot guesthouse on their hillside property in the Los Feliz neighborhood. Nestled just behind their main residence, the tranquil space, designed by Jerome Byron, serves as a work/play sanctuary for the couple and their two children.
“I decided on the yellow ladder for two reasons,” says Byron. “I wanted to evoke an image of a fire station ladder with a playful obstacle to climb up and down. But with such a small space and a tall mezzanine level, I wanted to make sure that the ladder was also highly visible.” The hue of the paint is even appropriately named Safety Yellow.
Here’s a phrase you don’t hear much: “What a beautiful garage.” And yet, it’s what anyone would say if they were to pass by this striking slat-and-glass structure in Venice, California. Designed by architect Martin Zünkeler, the two-story building sits behind a white stucco California bungalow. The dwelling is home to Andreas, Brita, and their two kids, and it’s a reminder that any renovation—no matter how functional—is an opportunity for creativity.
Photo by Here and Now Agency
Andreas collaborated deeply with the architect to develop the resulting two-story, 1,120-square-foot unit, which is “much more than a garage,” says Zünkeler. “It’s an extension of the yard.” Glass doors surround the ground floor, creating a seamless visual flow between courtyard and parking space. For even more room to play, the family can move their camper van out of the way to use the light and airy open room as a studio space.
Photo by Here and Now Agency
When Hollywood homeowners sought to build a guesthouse on challenging terrain below their main residence, a conventional build was out of the question. “It just wouldn’t have been viable because of the costs,” says Jemuel Joseph, cofounder of Cover, a company that specializes in backyard prefabs. Instead of paying out of pocket to overcome those site challenges, the homeowners opted for Cover’s turnkey solution.
The resulting svelte, 414-square-foot office/guesthouse is both a creative space for the owners and an accommodation for visiting family. Just paces down concrete steps from the main residence, the guesthouse holds an office, a bedroom with a Murphy bed, custom-milled storage spaces in wood finishes, and a kitchen complete with high-end appliances. Through floor-to-ceiling sliders, a deck extends to provide outdoor space for lounging and taking in views that stretch from downtown L.A. to the Griffith Observatory.
When Bo Sundius and Hisako Ichiki, of Bunch Design and BunchADU, devised an accessory dwelling unit for their aging parents in the yard of their Solano Canyon neighborhood, they imagined a 750-square-foot home that feels intimate and roomy. That effect is best represented by the sculptural, stepped ceiling rendered in Douglas fir that runs the full expanse of the 45-foot-long cottage.
The cottage is simple yet thoughtful in its design. “It looks like a monopoly piece, almost like a kid’s drawing,” Sundius says. “All of the houses in the neighborhood have a stripped-down Craftsman aesthetic with lap wood siding and flashes of colorful trim. We wanted to play off that iconic profile.” Clad with pale green-painted lap wood siding, the home’s appearance is enlivened by a front door and window frames painted a sunshine-yellow tone.
Just off a busy thoroughfare and a stone’s throw from a major freeway, Maria and Louis Gabriel’s street in Los Angeles’s West Adams district is an island of friendly normalcy—the kind of place where neighbors wave and kids ride their bikes and skateboards until the sun goes down. So when the couple outgrew the 1925 two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow they’d bought in 2010, trading up to a big house in the suburbs was off the table. “This community is so vibrant,” says Maria. “We decided to make our home a place we wanted to be in forever.”
Although it’s just 924 square feet, Maria and Louis Gabriel’s Los Angeles back house, designed by Jason Kerwin of OKB, packs in a lot of program, including a family room on the ground floor and an office and a guest suite upstairs. The siding is by Berridge and the stairs are painted in Celluloid by Dunn-Edwards.
The surprisingly lofty, 850-square-foot home that Bo Sundius and Hisako Ichiki of Bunch Design designed for a backyard in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles is a prime example of how small spaces don’t have to feel so small. As such, the design is one of Bunch ADU’s prototypes. “Anyone can purchase the design for a reduced fee, and we can work with them to build it in their own backyard more quickly than they’d be able to build a custom design,” Sundius says. “It’s an off-the-shelf approach with known costs.”
To make the two-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath dwelling look and feel as large as possible, Sundius and Ichiki maintained sightlines from one end to the other. “We didn’t want to disrupt the flow of the stepped ceiling as it runs the length of the building,” Ichiki says. The designers placed the bathroom and the water closet in box-like volumes that are inserted within the house’s overall volume. The bathroom and water closet inserts separate the kitchen and the living area from the bedrooms.
Located on a quiet street in Los Angeles’s El Sereno neighborhood, the Cloud Dream House is a 400-square-foot garage–turned–residence that architectural designer Ben Warwas, founder of local design studio Byben, was commissioned to upgrade by developer William Tong. “We originally found this property for a client, but when they landed up buying something else, our renovation company purchased it,” Tong says. Once the renovation of the existing front house was complete, Tong turned his attention to the garage, tasking Warwas with converting it into an accessory dwelling unit.
Photo by Michael Wells Photography
The layout of the Cloud Dream Home is fairly straightforward, with the primary gathering spaces located toward the front and the private domain at the rear. The bifurcation of the space means that the living area opens up onto the newly added deck, which benefits from “great California weather,” Warwas says. “By adding the external deck, we made the relatively small interior space really functional,” he adds.
Photo by Michael Wells Photography
Max Kuo, the cofounder of AllThatIsSolid, an architectural studio based in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur as well as in L.A., wanted to create a well-designed setting that would accommodate a mix of households sharing a single-family lot. “The project was always concerned with the question: How do you create a living space for different tenants to come together?,” he says.
“It looks like an ordinary home, but there are decisions here that are out of the ordinary,” Kuo says of the multiresidence property, which he worked with his team to renovate via WhatsApp while he was in Boston teaching at Harvard and MIT. The plaza-like area between the front house and the new accessory dwelling unit, for example, is finished with diagonal strips of concrete and decomposed granite—details Kuo says are intended to eliminate boundaries in the communal outdoor space.
When Bo Sundius and Hisako Ichiki of Bunch Design began imagining an ADU to place in the backyard of their friend and former SCI-Arc classmate Laura Cowan Higuchi and her husband, Clifford Higuchi, they found unlikely inspiration in the form of
Stop Making Sense, the beloved 1984 concert movie documenting the Talking Heads’ performance at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre.
The goal was to make the 750-square-foot ADU in Los Angeles’s Atwater Village seem larger than it actually is. “In particular, we pictured that moment when David Byrne walks out in the big suit and starts shimmying across the stage, and the fabric of his suit is completely separate from the frame of his body.” In the same way Byrne’s jumbo suit enlarges his frame, Sundius and Ichiki installed angled clerestory windows that create a sense of detachment between the walls and ceiling of the ADU. “Space inside a home is perceived as the way walls meet other walls, a ceiling, and a floor,” Sundius says. “Blurring the way these elements come together can make something small feel huge.”
Photo by Ye Rin Mok
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For many years, homeowners Reggie Vinokur and Matthew Deters discussed the possibility of adding an ADU to the backyard of their Los Angeles home. By 2017, that goal was complete, thanks to a collaboration with their close friend, architect Hunter Knight of Weather Projects. The 1000-square-foot ADU is two levels with a footprint that allows the owners to retain plenty of outdoor space for their dogs to play. The façade “is a rain screen system, so the heat gain on the Brazilian hardwood is minimized,” said Knight.
At the outset of the design process, says Knight, “The home needed to maximize indoor/outdoor spaces, have low-maintenance materials, preserve open space for their dogs to run, and be cost-effective with an efficient layout.” His solution was a “structurally simple box” that adjoins the existing home. Stacking the larger volume atop the bottom creates protected outdoor spaces that flow easily with the interior, and are accessed by large sliding glass doors, fabricated by Deters.
The oversized shed at the back of this property in Highland Park, Los Angeles, was a bit of a mystery. It had stood for 90 years, filled with tree trunks on one end and interesting antiques on the other. The current homeowners, a television writer and a musician, discovered that plans for the shed had once been filed, yet the city didn’t officially recognize its existence. Despite its state of flux and disrepair, the couple was sure about one thing: It had potential.
Wood salvaged from the shed was reimagined as flooring, custom cabinetry, and a ceiling detail in the common area; the kitchen’s live-edge countertops, cantilevered shelves, and dining table were
crafted from the remnants of a neighboring tree. Even the coffee and side table in the living area were built from a walnut stump found in the yard when the couple first moved in. “We kept the rest of the color palette simple: mostly blues and greens, with pops of orange and yellow,” the owner says. And in keeping with the environmental mindset, high-performance thermal sliding doors and wide eaves over the wraparound deck keep the space naturally comfortable. Photo by Cris Nolasco
This article was originally written by Daisy Zuckerman and appeared