ADUs, like garage apartments of old, could solve affordable housing shortage

ADUs, like garage apartments of old, could solve affordable housing shortage

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Constanza Peña Nakouzi
Contributed by:
Constanza Peña Nakouzi
Susan Rogers
Contributed by:
Susan Rogers

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The Little Home in Back

As cities across the U.S. face a shortage of affordable housing, new ideas are being tested. The accessible dwelling unit (ADU) is one of these new ideas but has its roots in much older precedents, such as the garage apartment of the 1930s and the guest house of the 1950s.

An ADU is typically a small, free-standing dwelling on the same lot as a larger single-family home. At some point, our love affair with privacy, the big house and large lot — especially in Texas — made these income-earning and extended family units less and less common.

Today, too many families are struggling to find safe, affordable housing. This challenge is coupled with stagnating incomes, particularly for the working and middle classes. In 2017, 1 in 3 families in Houston paid more than 30% of their income on housing.

Far too many families are stretching their budgets for housing. While how we live and who we live with has changed, the traditional house catering to the nuclear family has continued on a trajectory of bigger is better. Since 1950, the average size of a home has more than doubled, increasing from just under 1,000 square feet to over 2,500 square feet today. Over the same period, the average size of households has declined, from 3.5 people per family in 1950 to 2.5 in 2017. ADUs could be one solution to rising housing costs and different types of households and lifestyles. What if a big house is not what a family needs? What if private space to accommodate grandparents, grown children or a caretaker is needed? What if additional income could make the difference between displacement and remaining in a community?

Or what if there was an affordable housing option for rapid recovery from a disaster?

Location: Constitución, Chile
Photo: Elemental

  • Low-income housing
  • Allows for expansions
  • Thinks of a family’s quality of life

Location: Houston, TX
Photos: Rice University

  • Prototype for small, affordable, sustainable housing that could be delivered to a site
  • 520 sq. ft. of conditioned space
  • 700 sq. ft. overall footprint
  • Solar panels and solar hot water system

Rendering: Brett Zamore Design

  • Affordable prefabricated homes
  • Under 500 sq. ft.
  • Sustainable solutions

An ADU can provide needed income for those who own their homes but are struggling to get by. This idea maximizes the use of a typical house lot, builds density, and can, by extension, provide greater economic opportunity in a neighborhood. It also provides an affordable option for renters.

For families who want to live close to one another, an ADU can expand the livable space on a lot and allow family members to share housing costs while also maintaining privacy. By living just steps away, Grandma might contribute to child care, reducing the economic burden on the entire family, or be looked after in advancing age.

Finally, as bcWorkshop has illustrated with its Rapido prototype, ADUs can provide housing after disasters. Used as transitional housing after hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, these units offer a safe place for families to stay while their homes are being rebuilt. They also carry an advantage over temporary FEMA trailers or hotel stays because ADUs can remain in place after the recovery.

Renderings: bcWorkshop

Disaster recovery housing
Temporary to permanent strategy
Easy to build by local contractors
Customizable units
Base core consisting of one-bedroom house
Takes around a week to build

By allowing ADUs to be a part of the fabric of neighborhoods, homeowners and renters alike have more housing choices and help create more resilient communities.


Constanza Peña Nakouzi is a designer at MC2 Architects. // Susan Rogers is associate professor at the University of Houston and director of its Community Design Resource Center.