It’s a rather unfortunate platitude that good design and government programs don’t mix. More than unfortunate, it’s also untrue, as a new initiative from the City of Los Angeles demonstrates.
The newly launched Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Standard Plan Program offers homeowners 20 eye-catching, pre-approved designs for the increasingly popular typology, which many see as a viable alternative to costlier mid-rise apartment buildings. Administered by the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) in United States and featuring designs from firms including SO – IL and LA-Más, the program is a bid to fast-track permits for these humble, backyard homes—better known as ADUs—as well as making them “more accessible, more affordable, and more beautiful,” said L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti in a press statement.
ADUs have come a long way in California since 2017, when legislation was enacted to lift barriers to residential permits that contributed to the state’s acute housing shortage—the most severe in the country. Within a short amount of time, the state received over 1,900 applications for ADU approval; now, four years later, that number has increased nearly threefold, or 22 percent of newly permitted housing units.
In his statement, Garcetti championed Angelenos’ “creativity, innovation, resilience, and an immeasurable can-do spirit,” while characterizing the program as one piece of a broader “blueprint of our efforts to tackle our housing crunch and create more affordable communities citywide.”
This past November, Garcetti and L.A. Chief Design Officer Christopher Hawthorne launched the Low-Rise competition, soliciting the architectural community for alternative ideas for housing. (The submissions phase closed in mid-February.) In a similar vein, the standalone ADU program looks to emerging currents within contemporary architecture. Hawthorne enlisted the participation of “some of the most talented architecture and design firms at work in Los Angeles and around the country” such as sekou cooke STUDIO, First Office, Welcome Projects, and whY Architecture. Housing start-ups Abodu, Connect Homes, and IT Houses round out the design roster.
The 25–plus designs (many are showcased in the gallery at the top of this page and throughout this article) range from small studios to roomier two-story layouts; the majority have already been approved, though the status of a handful is pending.
The projects share a breezy, laid-back flair, a collective quality no doubt owing to Hawthorne’s keen curatorial eye. Pop elements predominate, with an emphasis on color and profile. Still, some stand out from the pack. MALL’s Lean-to-ADU, for instance, is a playful twist on the stucco box and the false front—two gestures commonly found within the architectural vocabulary of Los Angeles; only here the shapely parapets are also functional and screen off a rooftop terrace. Jennifer Bonner, the founder of MALL, sees the design as a reference to the American backyard as a site for DIY experimentation. “The mantra, ‘I can build anything in my backyard’ is optimistic and connects back to the problem at hand—a lack of housing units in the metro-area,” Bonner explained in a press statement. “Staunchly resisting NIMBY attitudes, DIY collectivism seems like the way forward and the utilitarian lean-to shed might be the iconic hook to get it done.”
While providing a less tongue-in-cheek design, the ADU designed by Cristobal Amunátegui and Alejandro Valdés of Amunátegui Valdés, a firm with offices in L.A. and Santiago, Chile, is one of a few in the program that might appeal to those seeking clean lines and usable outdoor spaces amid sparing pops of color. With over 900 square feet (84 square meters) of living space, the home is adorned with a shaded roof deck accessible via a bright yellow spiral staircase positioned off to the side like a statement piece. These outdoor features, along with its floor-to-ceiling corner windows, are a nod to the leisure and scenery expected in the backyard of homes in the temperate Los Angeles climate.
But perhaps the most novel design belongs to SO – IL, the Brooklyn-based firm behind the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art and the Ben Ari House on Long Island, New York. At just under 700 square feet, the so-called Pebble House is centered on a bathroom/kitchen/closet core, from which open living spaces radiate outwards in a starburst shape. “Channeling Los Angeles’ spirit of optimism and openness, SO – IL raises the house on top of a deck to maximize exposure to light and air,” write cofounders Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg in a press statement. In the Pebble House, one can see shades of midcentury L.A. icon the Chemosphere, the much larger, John Lautner–designed home in the Hollywood Hills.
As one of a handful of design-based initiatives spearheaded by Hawthorne, the ADU Standard Plan Program has the capacity to become a precedent for other cities that hope to increase housing density without sacrificing quality design. “The Standard Plan Program will dramatically streamline the process for homeowners of selecting and getting an ADU design approved by LADBS,” said Hawthorne, “while at the same time supporting the work of Los Angeles architects and extending the City’s rich tradition of innovation in residential architecture.”
All 28 designs, both approved and pending approval, can be found on the LADBS’s website.
This article was originally published on The Architect's Newspaper as "Los Angeles launches bold new ADU program to combat housing shortage"