Go-Go Granny Flats!
Building pros are betting that an antidote to the affordable-housing crunch lies in Mainers’ backyards.
TEXT BY SARAH STEBBINS
From the November 2022 issue of Down East magazine
Three years ago, while living in Easthampton, Massachusetts, Chris Lee heard about a neighbor who wanted to construct a small house in her backyard for her aging mother. Lee, who had dabbled in real-estate development, offered to help her navigate zoning laws and get the house built. At which point, “everyone started seeing it and realizing it was what they wanted for their parents and adult children,” says Lee, who now runs Backyard ADUs, in Brunswick. Short for accessory dwelling units — a.k.a. granny flats or in-law apartments — ADUs are self-contained structures, typically up to 900 square feet, that are either attached to or very near a primary home. Beyond facilitating familial cohabitation, they provide rental income for homeowners and affordable rentals for those who might otherwise be priced out of city and town centers, helping to mitigate sprawl. Lee offers six customizable, freestanding prefab models and, at the moment, “there’s more demand for them than there are builders to build them.”
And yet, the road to ADU acceptance has been rocky in Maine. After Portland’s BrightBuilt Home launched its first prefab model, in 2018, “there was a groundswell of interest,” director Parlin Meyer says, followed by “a tremendous backlash” from homeowners concerned about noise, crowding, aesthetic changes in single-family neighborhoods, and turnover in units used as short-term rentals. Many towns cracked down on granny flats. Then came the affordable-housing crisis, driven, in part, by a pandemic-fueled influx of new residents. In response, the state passed a law last spring permitting homeowners to build ADUs. “We’ve seen the pendulum swing back again,” Meyer says, noting that communities concerned about “the blow-out Airbnb weekend party” can pass regulations, such as mandating that the primary owner live on-site.
Maine architecture and building firms are prepping for a potential backyard-housing boom. Both BrightBuilt and Boothbay- and Portland-based Knickerbocker Group recently added lower-priced prefab units to their existing ADU lines, while, last summer, Saco’s Delano Architecture launched Modern Elm, a prefab line with an ADU customers can configure with up to four other modules. “We know we need to densify urban areas and that people want cool stuff quicker,” principal Chris Delano says. “So how about a place you can buy like a piece of furniture?”
Cost calculations are for homes alone and do not include excavation, site prep, utilities hook-ups, permitting, or surveying.
Model: Sidekick ToGo, by BrightBuilt Home
Highlights: Net-zero ready (capable of generating as much energy as it consumes annually) with heat pumps; select a flat, shed, or gable roof to match an existing home; choice of three kitchen layouts, three finish packages, and dozens of vinyl-clapboard and board-and-batten siding colors.
Square Feet: 496
Starting Cost: $190,000
Assembly Time: 4–6 months
Model: L-Line, by Backyard ADUs
Highlights: Shape nestles easily in a backyard corner; net-zero ready with heat pumps; fully customizable; standard features include quartz countertops, luxury vinyl-plank flooring, and crown molding.
Square Feet: 800
Starting Cost: $170,000
Assembly Time: 6–8 months
Model: Tieback, by Knickerbocker Group
Highlights: Helical-pier foundation minimizes site damage; net-zero ready with heat pumps and triple-glazed windows and doors; standing-seam metal roof; sustainable wood- or plant-based insulation and finishes; choose from three finish packages.
Square Feet: 800
Starting Cost: $290,000-$325,000
Assemby Time: 6-8 months
LEAN AND SERENE
Model: Cormorant 55, by Modern Elm
Highlights: Helical-pier foundation; pest- and rot-resistant, thermally treated ash or spruce siding; net-zero ready with heat pumps; choice of two energy packages (“high” and “higher performance”) and three finish packages; options to add stone walls and to attach additional buildings, enclosed connectors, boardwalks, decks, an entry loggia, and/or a screened porch.
Square Feet: 811
Starting Cost: $334,500
Assembly Time: 9 months