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Granny flats help out family and friends

October 23, 2009|By CHRISTINE BRUN / Creators Syndicate

I would love to build a modest guest cottage on my 2.89 acres, but it is against the code in my urban neighborhood. My intention would be to use the space as a literal granny flat for my 80-something parents and perhaps a semester or two for my college-age niece. Both of these purposes would financially aid family members. Generally, such amenities are reserved for larger properties in outlying areas of my county and even then there are dozens of restrictions that govern the construction of guest cottages. Take note that recently in Seattle - called the Emerald City for all its lush green terrain - the City Council Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee voted to send to the full city council a proposal to allow backyard cottages in single-family zones throughout the city. The Internet chatter has bloggers freaked out that conservation and the green-friendly skies will be ruined by overcrowding. Opponents of the plan say it will effectively rezone the entire city and threaten neighborhoods of single-family homes. A common fear of planning groups everywhere is that by allowing cottages, the character of single-family neighborhoods might be forever destroyed.

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Detractors worry about loss of sunlight and privacy and an increase in noise. Without requiring off-street parking per unit competition for the curb will increase. Funny, in my neighborhood, each single-family house is attached to multiple cars; everyone has at least two. In fact, my next-door neighbors have three adult children that still live at home. That house claims cars that creep up and down the block, jockeying for position each night on the street. Other families have motor homes that are parked alongside their garages. One has a boat. Another neighbor has a vintage Airstream trailer. I have no way other than to become a grumpy nuisance to make them move their bulk so I have to accept the situation.

At a time like this, with our economy in a tailspin, it seems that the financial advantages of permitting small cottages are significant and could allow many families to care for one another in the most convenient and practical way. In Seattle, the committee did provide some guiding structure: A height limit of 22 feet was set for most cottages. If a lot is more than 50 feet wide or 40 feet wide and adjacent to an alley - units could be 23 feet tall. Units could not exceed 800 square feet or 60 percent of the primary residence, whichever is smaller. The peak of a cottage roof could not be more than 15 feet higher than the peak of the primary structure. That provision is intended to prevent backyard annexes from visually threatening nearby homes in neighborhoods built on a slope.

There was a day when 800 to 900 square feet was considered ample for a primary residence. We still have plenty of existing examples to model. In Los Angeles between 1946 and 1948, a cluster of World War II veterans commissioned a group of homes that were each 908 square feet and known as the Avenel Homes Cooperative. Designed originally by Gregory Ain to have a totally open view from the kitchen to the living room, federal Housing Authority regulations at the time forced him to separate the rooms with a wall. But in recent years, some of the current owners have renovated and removed that wall, returning to the designer's original intent.

Successful use of a small home is very dependent upon shrewd design. Awareness of good design yields attention to detail concerning function, aesthetics and proportion and that extends to the entire structure - including the exterior. Fear is never a good motivator. I would imagine that communities would be better served by offering clinics and assistance to residents who might want to use their lot for a granny flat. Much is written about the fact that architects today have few commissions and there are no jobs anywhere. Wouldn't public clinics offer young architects with a fabulous way to provide community service and an opportunity to gain much needed experience? We are so close to the realities of the Depression now that perhaps we will see a form of the WPA soon in some regions. Good design is within the reach of every budget and our entire urban society might just benefit in dozens of unforeseen ways when families are given the tools to survive together. If it sounds like I am campaigning for separate backyard cottages, I am!

Christine Brun, ASID, is a San Diego-based interior designer and the author of "Small Space Living." Send questions and comments to her by e-mail at christinebrun@sbcglobal.net.

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