A Tiny House Turns This California Backyard Into a WFH Retreat
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Nearly 30 years after buying a modest two-bedroom, one-bathroom home in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, Calif., Michael Solomon and Naomi Lieberman have turned to their backyard , where they hoped to add a guesthouse that would accommodate family and friends.
In what seems inconceivable by today’s real estate standards, they bought the 1,300 square foot home in 1994 for $300,000. But decades later, desiring a little more space, they had little success in finding a larger dwelling they both loved. “We were lucky and bought the house right after the Northridge earthquake,” Solomon said. But today “there really isn’t an affordable place to go” if you want more space, he added.
Given the deep attachment to their longtime neighborhood, the couple decided to add a secondary suite, or ADU, in the backyard, rather than renovating or moving elsewhere.
Their decision to stay put is not surprising in neighborhoods like theirs, where small single-family homes sell for more than $2 million and nearby neighborhoods are among the most expensive ZIP codes for buyers in the country.
Set on a large lot with a detached garage and large rear yard, the traditional 1939 house, along with others in the lot, was built for Hughes and McDonnell Douglas aircraft workers in the 1930s and 1940s.
“We thought it would be awkward to add to the house” because it’s so “old fashioned,” said Solomon, a former music director and artist manager who is now the Southern California rep. for Penguin Cold Caps, a British line of headgear designed to minimize hair loss during chemotherapy. He liked the idea of a separate structure, though, especially if it could incorporate elements of mid-century modern design, which he’s a fan of.
Interested in green design, the couple were inspired by the possibilities of prefab construction after visiting a Venetian home designed by Erla Dögg Ingjaldsdóttir and Tryggvi Thorsteinsson of Santa Monica-based Minarc.
“We loved the quirky nature of what they did,” Solomon said of this home’s open-air floor plan and green building solutions.
So they hired Minarc to make something for them.
These secondary suites are on the rise in Los Angeles, where the city relies on ADUs to address insufficient housing needs: in 2020 alone, the City of Los Angeles received more than 5,000 applications for ADU.
The house that Minarc built for Solomon and Lieberman is known as Plús Hús (Icelandic for “Plus House”), and the plan is one of many available through the Department of Building and Safety Standard Plan of Los Angeles: The program offers more than 40 elegant, pre-approved ADU designs aimed at simplifying the authorization process.
The pre-engineered ADU is made with mnmMOD construction panels, a wood-free, fire-retardant option made from recycled steel and durable expanded polystyrene insulation panels.
Minarc’s compositions for the couple echo what the designers call their desire to create sustainable and flexible housing.
“We wanted to change the mindset when it comes to building,” Ingjaldsdóttir said of Plús Hús. “We started thinking about it 10 years ago when we built our first prototype. We studied [using shipping] containers, but they are not made to live in because there is no insulation and the ceilings are low. Why put a lot of energy and work into something that isn’t made for humans? We started thinking about crisis kits. We thought, ‘How can we help if someone’s house is on fire?'”
Impressed with Minarc’s low-waste and sustainable building approach, Solomon and Lieberman chose to install a custom Plús Hús, a 320-square-foot studio that was fabricated in downtown Los Angeles, arrived in form of flat kit and was assembled on site in one day.
Even though it takes up part of their treasured yard, the tiny studio adds huge curb appeal and a touch of modernism to the backyard, where drought-tolerant landscaping and a new pool complete the serene addition.
Located next to the garage, the ADU offers both natural light and privacy, thanks to narrow floor-to-ceiling aluminum windows at three corners. A heavy, well-insulated sliding glass door connects guests to the pool, backyard and main house.
Inside, interiors reflect Solomon’s minimalist preferences, with white maple upholstery on the walls and ceiling and a space-saving queen-size Murphy bed by Italian furniture maker Clei ($15,000 at the time at Resource Furniture in West Hollywood) that offers storage and an easy pull out built-in couch for overnight guests.
In an effort to reduce volatile organic compounds inside the unit, there is no paint, no carpeting, and bathroom tiles are certified by the nonprofit Environmental Institute Greenguard for indoor air quality.
Thanks to the structure’s energy-efficient mnmMOD interior wall panels, Solomon said the ADU is always at a comfortable temperature. “The insulation is great,” he said. “If it’s hot outside, it will retain heat and stay warm at night. It’s very efficient and inexpensive to use.”
The couple splurged on a luxury steam shower and sauna from Aquapeutics in the bathroom, but the kitchenette includes inexpensive cabinetry from Ikea (FÖRBÄTTRA cover panels in matte white paired with VOXTORP drawer fronts), Caesarstone countertops, a 24-inch compact refrigerator, and an electric cooktop and microwave for a sleek modern look. “We didn’t want to clutter up the space,” Solomon said.
The small footprint proves you can have separate living spaces in just 320 square feet, as the kitchenette, living room and convertible master bedroom, dining room, and bathroom each have an individual presence in the shared space .
After six months of construction, the project was completed in January 2020 at a cost of approximately $150,000, due to additions. Minarc also offers one-bedroom units starting at $79,000 for materials, with custom details like skylights, windows, and door upgrades available for an additional fee.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the couple have only hosted one guest since the ADU was completed. Still, the ADU was a prescient move, Solomon said, as more Americans work from home as coronavirus variants emerge. Lieberman, a psychotherapist, chose to abandon his 20-year-old practice and now uses the ADU as a virtual therapist practice.
“We didn’t build it for that reason,” Solomon said, “but she loves working in that space.”
As someone who appreciates the ADU’s connection to the outdoors, Solomon said the only downside to the ADU is a lack of abundant sunlight. “The bathroom and dining room in the far corner are a bit dark, so I’m going to install solar light tubes with light-catching lenses.”
The ADU may have been a trade-off in terms of space, but for the couple, it’s been good: Solomon and Lieberman can stay in the neighborhood they love while Solomon works in his office in the garage and Lieberman works in the ADU. They can enjoy the second bathroom they’ve always wanted, and hopefully one day when the coronavirus pandemic ends, they’ll be able to house their family in space. Looking ahead, Solomon said the ADU could potentially be used as accommodation for a carer, should one need help.
There’s even a rowing machine in the ADU, for when the urge to sweat it out strikes.
“We got everything we wanted in a small resort,” Solomon said. “I wanted something that looked good. Now when I look in the garden I see a garage which was built in 1939, a swimming pool, a comfortable lawn for our dog and a guest house which has been built two years ago. They’re the look I wanted. And it’s so private my neighbors can’t see me. If I could be nudist, I would.”
ADU ESTIMATED BUDGET
We asked Minarc to break down the budget for a typical secondary suite. Standard Plan applicants select an approved plan, then Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety personnel review factors for the specific site, including compliance with zoning code and foundation requirements. Note that the city’s pre-approved standard plans may not be approved for use in certain situations or site conditions. Standard plans are designed and owned by the design companies and are purchased directly from them as plan owners. Minarc also works with ERLA Building Services to facilitate construction as a contractor, but this is not required. Homeowners are encouraged to use their preferred construction company, or they can obtain a permit to “build as owner”. With those caveats in place, here is a general overview of what a Plús Hús ADU costs:
Site planning and permits: $6,500
Municipal fees: $2,500 to $5,500
Site work and utilities: $5,000 to $20,000
Plús Hús Materials: $47,000 – $59,000
Foundation and assembly: $56,000
Total estimated cost: $120,000 to $147,000