Los Angeles Is Giving Away Plans for a Pre-Approved ADU

Last week, the City of Los Angeles rolled out a new tool to address the city’s housing crisis. The You ADU, designed by Lehrer Architects and Kadre Architects, is a one-bedroom accessory dwelling unit engineered to be built inexpensively and extensively across the city, providing an opportunity to densify single-family home lots. The design is “pre-approved” using the city’s Standard Plan Program: Developed in 2021 by the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LDBS) alongside the city’s former Chief Design Officer Christopher Hawthorne, the plan capitalized on a law passed by the state legislature that prevents cities from establishing restrictions on ADU construction.

Lehrer Architects and Kadre Architects created a free design for a 455-square-foot, one-bedroom ADU that is pre-approved by the City of Los Angeles.

Lehrer Architects and Kadre Architects created a free design for a 455-square-foot, one-bedroom ADU that is pre-approved by the City of Los Angeles.

The city partnered with smaller architecture firms to design plans for ADUs—emphasizing good design and affordability—that would be pre-approved for permitting ease. Those designs, however, are owned by the firms and would require homeowners to purchase them from the architect. The You ADU is the first city-owned plan that is publicly available and can be downloaded from the city’s website. Lehrer and Kadre’s design is intended to be straight-forward, modifiable, and built with off-the-shelf materials to reduce construction costs.

According to Erik Alden, the technical director at Lehrer Architects, the You ADU project began as a collaboration with the city more than a year ago to produce a prototype that is cost-effective and easily permitted, which required the firm to coordinate with several departments including LADBS and the Bureau of Engineering. The building’s foundation was designed for conditions that Alden calls “the worst case scenario”—a site with clay soil that expands with water contact—which was stamped and approved by the city. The plans have also been reviewed and plan-checked. Homeowners interested in building a You ADU are required to complete a checklist provided by the city disclosing building and property size, and zoning and parking information. They also must complete a scale drawing to show where the ADU would sit on a lot relative to property lines, says Alden—a task usually completed by an architect, but one that could be done by a savvy homeowner. Once the city receives a submission, it goes under review by trained specialists.

“This is the closest I’ve ever seen anyone get to a pre-approved, over-the-counter plan. You can’t just download it, pay the fee, and get a permit. It’s not as automated as that… but it is as close as we’ve gotten,” says Alden.

The You ADU is a next logical step of the Standard Plan Program, which ultimately endeavors to provide much-needed housing stock that residents of Los Angeles can afford. But if you ask Elizabeth Timme, an architect at Office Of, a local firm with projects nationally, the plan’s aim of keeping costs low for renters is questionable. Prior to Office Of, she was the founder and codirector at LA-Más, a firm focused on implementing California’s ADU policies that, in 2016, were coming down the legislative pipeline. Their studies led them to pilot a 1,025-square-foot, two-story, two-bed ADU in Highland Park, constructed by Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles. Despite their best efforts to provide below-market-rate housing, her team soon learned after construction completed that that unit would not be rented affordably.

The ADU adds to the city’s list of pre-approved designs under its Standard Plan Program, an incentive for homeowners to build units on spare land.

The ADU adds to the city’s list of pre-approved designs under its Standard Plan Program, an incentive for homeowners to build units on spare land.

Timme decided to take a different tack. LA-Más created its own program called The Backyard Homes Project, an initiative to design ADUs as Section 8 housing, she explains. According to a 2018 Urban Institute report, 76 percent of Los Angeles Section 8 voucher holders are rejected by landlords. Her team worked backwards from the Section 8 rental price point, collaborating with housing authorities, Restore Neighborhoods LA for construction, Genesis LA for pre-development financing, and a local credit union to create a financial product that allows homeowners with land to spare to fund an ADU build by refinancing their mortgage. The firm also worked with the Housing Rights Center to provide training in being a Section 8 landlord. According to the Los Angeles Times, by March of 2021, they had five participating properties across the city. Since, they’ve expanded into multifamily design and housing for those experiencing homelessness, says Timme.

LA-Más was later invited to participate in the Standard Plan Program and pro-bono produced three designs, two of which have been pre-approved (the third is pending). Still, Timme is skeptical.

“There are a lot of differences in how these programs look and act and what the impact is on the homeowner, based on the city and the geography and the location, the context, the planning, department scale and size,” she says. “Those standard plans give you an idea, but they exclude a number of costs associated with infrastructure, planning, and permitting.” They also don’t address the potential financial and legal roadblocks, including labor costs or liability, she notes.

Alden acknowledges these uncertainties: Utilities like sewer and power, which were not pre-approved for the You ADU, are a big challenge for owners and architects, he says, as they are subject to change depending on decisions made by local utility providers, which can increase costs or alter home designs. Though he believes the You ADU could accommodate those changes, “That’s not something that most homeowners can deal with on their own,” he says. Homeowners may need to rely heavily on a contractor, and Alden is unsure if the city intends to provide a list of vetted builders who understand that the purpose of this initiative is to keep materials and labor costs low in order to rent these units affordably. He is also unaware of any programs that teach private homeowners about liability issues. Since building a You ADU doesn’t require the involvement of an architect, there could be questions surrounding insurance during construction.

The ADU is designed to be built using off-the-shelf materials to keep costs low.

The ADU is designed to be built using off-the-shelf materials to keep costs low.

To create an architectural design, says Timme, requires commitments between the homeowner, contractor, and city. “Unless those have all been made in a way that is explicit with cost projected, it is very hard to guarantee that there’s going to be any level of certainty around affordability,” she explains. “There’s a lot of ways to be thoughtful about how to reduce costs from a design perspective. However, we are in a situation where we have middle class, low-to-moderate income individuals [becoming] unhoused. And that speaks volumes to how unaffordable it is to live in Los Angeles and also how unaffordable it is to build anything. Unless there is a construction program in place, it’s very hard to make the correlation that that housing is going to be rented affordably.”

On the design end, the You ADU looks cost-effective. The materials it requires and some pre-approvals will certainly make them less costly to build; not needing to hire architects or engineers shaves off between $30,000 and $50,000, says Alden. but there are no guarantees about what affordability will look like. These could easily become several of the city’s illegal Airbnb units, or rented well above what a low- or even middle-income individual can afford. Couching the You ADU in a program similar to LA-Más’s Backyard Homes—which considers financing, construction, and landlord education—could alleviate some of the financial and technical barriers to building and renting units at a reasonable rate.

The You ADU is ultimately just one tool in a toolbox to generate affordable housing, says Alden. “There’s no one silver bullet. This is one standard ADU homeowners can build [that] is within code, and that allows homeowners who have properties with extra space in the back to add another unit. And that will help house people in varying ways, but that’s only one solution, and it’s not going to solve everything.”

Related Reading:

Los Angeles Fast-Tracks New ADUs by Offering Homeowners Pre-Approved Plans

Here Are 16 of the Best ADUs in Los Angeles

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