Brit Builds an ADU: the First $2,500

A white envelope about to enter a USPS collection box.

A check heading out to our new architect.

Today, a little past Thanksgiving 2018, I wrote a check for $2,500. I have the money in a savings account and will transfer it to checking shortly. Yes, $2,500 is a lot of money! I could buy a really nice bicycle for that amount, maybe even one with electric assist. Instead we are spending this money on an architect, specifically Christopher Strom Architects.

Christopher Strom Second Suite Sign

A sign for Second Suite, a subsidiary of Christopher Strom Architects, at a build site for an ADU.

Chris Strom is a well-respected architect with deep knowledge about Minneapolis accessory dwelling units (ADU). He runs a side site, Second Suite, aimed at helping landowners develop ADUs on their property and was an adviser on Minneapolis ADU policy in 2014. Those are the main reasons we chose Chris to help us design and focus our ADU project.

Good architects are on a long time scale, however. When I contacted Chris early last fall, his first availability for new work wasn’t until summer 2019. So, we are spending $2,500 on a retainer to secure a spot in Chris’ schedule as one of the first steps toward actually building additional dwelling space on our property.

It’s exciting, and also a bit terrifying. A large project like this requires time, money and effort, and committing to the first step means our ADU is moving from dream to reality.

Why finding an architect is one of the first moves

Architects contribute to so many aspects of the design and building process that they’re a logical first step for your own ADU. You can’t just go to a builder with a sketch. You need to know that the design will be structurally sound and fit into your city’s zoning laws — things architects are paid to understand.

Do a Google search for architects and ADUs in Minnesota, and Christopher Strom is one of the first names to come up. He has a strong interest in the field and knowledge of specific local ordinances. I also liked his website.

So, I emailed him, we had a phone conversation, I double-checked a few things, and we finally signed an agreement to start the planning process this coming June. We expect architect’s fees to be about 10 percent of construction costs, so finding a knowledgeable person whom you can envision working with for several months — and whose work you may live with for a lifetime — is a big deal.

I recommend interviewing two or three different architects, though expect the costs to be similar. For me, finding someone as excited about ADUs as I am was essential. I tend to trust my research and go with it if no red flags show up. 

Chris’ major concern was financing. Many people have strong interest in building ADUs but few understand the costs involved. Typically, detached ADUs cost upwards of $200,000, and internal ones run about $100,000. These costs center on utilities, which are tied to the main house (for a detached ADU you have to dig a trench to connect the new space to the existing one), plus all of the costs of constructing a small house: a roof, insulation and the finishings.

Most people assume an ADU is like building a fancy garage rather than a second house on their property. Having spent a few years researching ADUs, I was prepared for the costs and am looking forward to making a space our own.

Chris Strom Papers

A sneak peak at a previous Christopher Strom ADU project.

We likely will work with Chris for more than six months, from pre-design (how we want the ADU to look) through the design phase, figuring out a construction budget, modeling and tweaking the design, and finalizing construction documents, which lay out process, finishings and other specifications. For construction itself, we expect Chris will help choose a general contractor, conduct site visits and modify the design as needed.

This will cost between $10,000 and $20,000 — and it will be worth every penny to have a professionally designed space that suits our needs.

Images gratefully shared with permission from Christopher Strom. Sourced from Instagram.

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9 Responses to Brit Builds an ADU: the First $2,500

  1. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele January 7, 2019 at 10:34 am #

    I absolutely value the work of architects – I had a thorough plan from a local architect for some major work on my house, and I can’t imagine having gone through that level of work without an architect providing a certain level of guidance. There are so many little details – where doors swing, how roof lines intersect, how to conserve energy and enhance building performance – things that are so obvious when not done right but which require a keen eye for detail.

    That said, I hope we can eventually flatten a portion of ADU design and planning so as to help reduce the costs of building new units. I know Vancouver and a few other cities have published manuals that include building plans, freely available to the public. This allows property owners to know what they could build under their existing land entitlements after ensuring they meet certain criteria. https://vancouver.ca/files/cov/laneway-housing-guide-2018.pdf

    • Brit Anbacht
      Brit Anbacht January 8, 2019 at 11:06 am #

      Absolutely on cost flattening, though it may still be beneficial to get some sort of planner to look over the site specifics to make sure things work for that site. We are using this project for several different needs which is part of why an architect is crucial.

      Perhaps I’ll look into the pre-planned options out there for the Section on “what is possible” thanks for the link!

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke January 7, 2019 at 11:29 am #

    Thanks for putting this series together. I am fascinated by your story.

  3. Jack January 7, 2019 at 12:58 pm #

    Very exciting! I so want to do this, too.

  4. Marshall January 8, 2019 at 9:50 am #

    I echo Bill’s statement, thank you for sharing your experiences building this ADU.

  5. Brit Anbacht
    Brit Anbacht January 8, 2019 at 11:01 am #

    Thanks everybody!
    To clarify by “last fall” I meant early fall 2018 (august) rather than 2017. Winter had arrived by the time I wrote this. Though it seems to be skipping along like a stone on a pond this year.

  6. David Greene January 8, 2019 at 2:25 pm #

    I’m really looking forward to seeing where this goes! We’re strongly considering building an ADU as well. The garage is on its last legs. You mentioned above that you’ll use this for several different needs. Can you elaborate on your goals for this space? It’d be great to get some ideas to consider for our project. I have a dream to build a full-on tunnel from our basement to the ADU/garage basement. My wife just rolls her eyes. 🙂

  7. Lou Miranda January 8, 2019 at 6:52 pm #

    Thanks for the reality check on cost. Most people probably do think it’s a glorified garage.

    I remember touring the architect’s Lake Harriet red ADU a few years ago. Great use of space & light.

  8. jared czaia January 14, 2019 at 4:49 pm #

    I have considered building an ADU as St. Paul has opened it up to the whole city now, but I already own and occupy a duplex and I don’t think it’s allowed for duplexes.

    But the other reason I was hesitant are the larger-than-expected building costs. I ballparked it to be about 100,000 and could rent for about 1000. That’s what they call the 1% rule in real estate investing – it’s not a great investment if you’re not close to hitting that figure. After reading some case studies it seems like it could easily be 175,000 and I don’t think it would be getting 1,750 a month.

    Unless a person plans to occupy it as the affordable version of their “dream home”, It’s just an investment – and based on the case studies I’ve read it doesn’t compare as favorably as I thought to other investments. However, prices might come down a bit if the economy cools off and builders aren’t in such tight demand. And also some people might have family situations that would make an ADU worthwhile even without great financial returns. If I didn’t already own a duplex, I probably would be thinking about forking over close to 200k to have one built.

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