LA-based practice Bunch Design was founded by Bo Sundius & Hisako Ichiki with a focus on light, materials and structure. At the core of their work is a desire to build in more mindful ways, making spaces that enrich everyday life. Recently, the duo have launched BunchADU to create custom and pre-designed Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) that can address pressing issues of housing.
The launch of BunchADU follows California passing a state law in 2017 that eases the construction of building an ADU on properties with single-family homes. Accessory Dwelling Units can serve many purposes, including housing aging parents or returning kids, renting out for added income, or simply as a home office. With several predesigned options, BunchADU proposes a more off-the-shelf approach that speeds the ADU to the market and makes the end product easier to visualize for clients. Bo and Hisako believe ADUs can usher in a new wave of California living similar to the 1950’s case study program. In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Bo & Hisako discuss their practice and how they approach ADU design, as well as how architects can address issues of housing with care.
EB: You have backgrounds in literature and policy management before studying design. Why were you interested in architecture, and how does your background inform your work today?
BD: We both had a mind for architecture in college, but I think both of us were still curious about a lot of things. I don’t think we were ready at 18 to just jump in with both feet into the hardcore truths of an undergraduate in architecture. Later, when we were at SCI-Arc for graduate school, I do think we both tried to reconcile our interests particularly in our Graduate Thesis. Bo's thesis was called "Writing Architecture'' that looked at using narrative and semantics to organize, describe and design buildings. I still see clients as characters in a story that move through the program and relationships of the spaces we make together.
To this end, we storyboard our projects with many renderings, making sure key moments materialize as you move through the space. Hisako's thesis looked at how people engage in public space through an investigation called Serendip(c)ity. The thesis was basically her seeking out special moments in the city and seizing on an opportunity that she saw. The interventions were light gestures, almost slight of hand, that get the public to think and take ownership of their little slice of the city. I guess in this way, that interest has evolved into Accessory Dwelling Units in backyards and odd shaped lots in Los Angeles. We came to architecture school with some pretty well-formed interests, and I think it has made a huge impact on our practice and has certainly helped us be creative and always interested in what we do.
EB: You founded BunchDesign with a focus on materials, light and structure. Why did you decide to extend your practice into BunchADU, and how does your focus shape your ADU projects?
BD: Interests in light, materials and structure are central to our practice and in all of our designs. They are aesthetic decisions, but they are also practical cost decisions as well. Our clients have always been our peers, often working with more dreams than money. Instead of relying on fancy materials or overly complex forms, we try to focus on making amazing spaces with simple wood structures, finding beauty in natural materials and taking advantage of views, landscape, and that famous Los Angeles sunlight. And we try to have fun, as well.
Los Angeles is pretty built up; new construction is often only in the hills where a ton of money goes into the foundation. The ADU is a wonderful opportunity to build tiny and amazing little spaces in the mostly flat backyards spread across the city. And of course, it fills a dire need for new housing that allows for financial flexibility for homeowners. The ADU is really a tremendous opportunity for homeowners and the fact that it is small means that design is even more important. You want to make something tailored to the family and property.
Speaking of tailoring, our ADU called Stop Making Sense, which is one of our prototypes and is being built right now in Atwater Village, was designed with the question: "How do you make something small look big." The question brought us to the amazing "Big Suit" David Byrne wore in his video of Stop Making Sense. We watched the video as we designed the building. Humans perceive space by how walls meet floors and ceilings. It is these corners that define our reading of space. If we pull those apart and blur those corners, you can alter how people perceive the space. Byrne's "Big Suit" does this as well by inserting an armature between his skinny frame and then draping excessive fabric over him. The relationships between the structure and what we read as him, the Big Suit, are now out of whack. There is opportunity in this. His movements in the video are the result of a design that separates skin from structure making everything feel bigger, flowing and expansive. Narrative, cause / effect, opportunism, and just trying to have fun is the core of what we do. And we try to bring our clients into that fun as well. They are participants and they get excited in the making of something special and it gets to happen in their backyard.
EB: Los Angeles’ current system for affordable housing doesn’t meet the growing demand. How do you think ADUs can help provide housing for Los Angeles?
BD: The housing crisis in Los Angeles breaks our heart. I hope that folks truly embrace the ADU as something they want to do and make enough of them to create an impact. Our pre-designed prototypes are an attempt to make something more "off the shelf" that speeds clients into construction as well as getting costs better understood quickly and upfront. There is so much mystery to design and construction, which is exciting when you watch it on HGTV, but not so fun as a homeowner trying to make ends meet. For us this is a big challenge. The ADU ordinances are asking a city of individuals to step up and make an impact on housing.
It is so much easier to ask the government or a large corporation to buy land in the middle of nowhere and develop 10,000 units. But the ADU is small, precise, and asks a population to rethink their city, person by person, property by property. The ADU is very entrepreneurial. It is so wonderfully grassroots and American. The ADU empowers the homeowner, because it allows you to reinvest into one of your greatest assets, your home. And that does not just mean real estate value or the rental potential a new address can provide. It also means flexibility to allow for multi-generational living, caring for family nearby, a place for someone in need. We recently had a call from a divorced father looking for a way to be near his son, but not under the same roof as his ex-wife, so he was curious if he should build an ADU for him to live in. Life takes all sorts of twists and turns. The ADU empowers the homeowner a flexible lifestyle breaking many of the constraints of a single-family home while maintaining some of its more charming aspects.
EB: Can you tell us a bit more about a few of your ADU projects? What has been built so far?
BD: An ADU is basically a small home. While there is nothing particularly difficult about designing a small home, the challenge is that the house must fit within existing property conditions and is often tight to property lines and next-door neighbors. Quite frankly, it presents a new housing typology that is not really being discussed very much. This new typology is a dense suburban model that has ditched the car in favor of transit and walkability. Like the suburban model yards are maintained, the unit is standalone, everyone has a front door. The challenges are that this density comes with homely desires. Everyone wants their own tiny yard, privacy, leafy views, and the spatial opportunities that come with a home versus an apartment. We have tried to address through a few principles of design.
One example is to make clerestory windows and skylights that frame distant views and "borrow" surrounding landscape often looking over or just past neighbors. Another example is to expand the boundary of the interior by making large openings to the side yard space between the house and property line. This can create an outdoor "room" tailored to a program that is part of the function and enjoyment of the house. It also extends the visual boundary to the property line when inside the house.
We are conscious that in making these tiny homes, the occupant should never feel bored or the space stale. So, we often look to art and are surprised at how elements come together. In our Highland Park ADU, we play with stepped ceiling forms and skylights that illuminate colored elements of the interior that reflect a light back on the ceiling that subtly changes throughout the day. A very tall 15-foot door goes from floor to stepped ceiling, and is so large that it alters the feel of the room depending on when its open or closed. We also try to make the entrance special. Because the house is typically hidden from the street and the approach is passed a front neighbor, we want the front door of the ADU to have dignity. For our Echo Park ADU, we bring the occupant into a kitchen with a fairly low ceiling and then release them into a double high volume living room.
EB: Creating projects around Los Angeles, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
BD: All of the predesigned prototypes offered on our BunchADU website have either been built or are under construction now. We wanted to offer designs that had been fully vetted by actually making them. We also enjoy making custom designed ADUs. We are a design focused studio and clients come to us because they like our work, so often they come wanting to make something specifically unique to them. We are happy to design either custom or as a prototype. Often an ADU is the easiest way from a regulatory way of getting new space built that does not trigger additional parking or other regulatory headaches. In this way the ADU has made general construction easier in the very regulatory rich environment of Southern California. We have one custom project where the owner has a very small cabin like primary residence. They love their terracing backyard and spend a ton of time outdoors. They wanted to add on to their house but not to disrupt the outdoor spaces or their current quaintness. So, we designed an ADU for them to live in, but their kitchen and public spaces are in the primary house. The result is a landscaped compound with multiple smaller buildings rather than one big one.
Often, we design an ADU for a client, which they intend to rent and then they decide to move into it because the new house is just so nice. It is not surprising. Honestly the housing stock in Los Angeles is completely stuck. It is so expensive to change, old, drafty and out of touch with how people live and building new in your backyard is often the easiest way of getting what you want. I guess one of our biggest lessons is that housing for Los Angeles is so cookie cutter, one size fits all, and the financial models so strapped because single family dwelling rules over all things real estate, yet the city is so diverse, with so many different housing needs, that the ADU has allowed for a whole new range of options that very much fits Los Angeles' style. From the perennial sunshine to the abundance of unused backyards, the statewide ADU ordinances have opened up lots of options for average folks.
EB: With your new ADU sector work, how do you think these types of projects can address construction time and cost?
BD: The ADU is a complete house. Just because it is smaller than many, does not mean it builds much faster than other projects. Regulations, construction access, and all the trades that are needed to make a house from scratch means that it is not much faster to build than any typical new build. Where time can be saved is if you select a pre-designed option, then design is sped up, mobilization of the contractor is sped up since they have built it before and the whole process is much better understood.
I think prefabrication has real potential in the ADU market, but I am unsure if the majority of customers are ok being locked into a system of design. They tend to want what they want and enjoy flexibility in the design process. Their home is their castle and they want the ADU to be adapted to the existing lifestyle. I do not believe there is a technological fix to speeding up construction and lowering costs. Cost and time are mostly consumed by navigating the tricky regulatory process and the fact that the city originally was developed in a patchy way with the city now asking for fixes at homeowner expense. But for the time being, property values as they are, the ADU nearly always pencils out and is a great investment that helps people stay in their homes and makes the most out of their largest asset.
EB: Beyond your ADU work, what are some of the projects you’ve enjoyed working on most?
BD: The ADU work is just part of our design practice and one place our design interests get to be worked on. We like to travel extensively, and we always bring back spatial ideas, details and approaches back from our travels. Truly, we see design everywhere and feel very fortunate to be able to deploy interest in program, narrative, art, movement, music, culture and really all things into our work.