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Seattle’s backyard cottages gain new legal ground—and new appeal for homeowners looking to shack up
They used to be as illegal in Seattle as a bubbling whiskey still. But as of last December, those backyard studios, beefed-up potting sheds and cozy shacks concealed behind Seattle’s bungalows have a new name, “backyard cottages,” and a brand-new legal status. Homeowners are now allowed to build “detached accessory dwellings” of up to 800 square feet on their lots (with some restrictions). Property owners with existing backyard units have a grace period (until June 30 this year) to apply for a building permit for their legalization.
Sally Clark, who chairs Seattle City Council’s Committee on the Built Environment, says the city changed its policy after trying out the idea of allowing backyard cottages in parts of southeast Seattle. People in other neighborhoods wrote in wanting the same privilege. “What we heard is that it provides two major advantages,” says Clark. “It adds to the overall variety of housing choices in Seattle. And it also gets to affordability.” Clark says that while many of the backyard units won’t be what we think of as low-income housing, they may help homeowners cover the cost of staying in their primary houses by providing a space to rent out, or perhaps housing for members of an extended family such as parents or grown children—the proverbial mother-in-law dwelling.
Seward Park resident Joyce Yarrow is researching cottages with the hope of using one as a source of income during her retirement (when she plans to live in her main house and write fiction). “We’re looking at it for a few years down the line to rent out when our income is slower,” she says, noting that the alternative would be to move to a cheaper neighborhood, which might mean leaving the city. “I’m a believer in urban density as opposed to suburban sprawl,” she says.
She’s not alone. Local business Modern Shed, which has been selling its sleekly modern prefabricated sheds and dwellings around the country for several years, saw an immediate boost in Seattle inquiries after the ordinance passed. “What people are particularly talking about is having family members move in,” says Christine Palmer, Modern Shed’s director of sales, who has also noticed the interest in second buildings as rental properties. But Palmer says accessory dwellings seem to have a wide appeal. “People are using them for all sorts of things. Offices, workout rooms, play rooms, recording studios, and guest rooms.”
Yarrow is considering the clean-lined backyard cottages offered by local builder Sloan Ritchie’s company Backyard Box, which she describes as having “a modern but intimate feel.” The designs, by architect Jim Burton, emphasize sustainability, and are built to an extremely rigorous “passive house” energy standard Ritchie says can offer a “70 to 80 percent reduction in energy bills” compared to typical construction.
Ritchie points out that the very concept of the backyard cottage is inherently green. “They’re smaller living units, the house occupies a smaller amount of land [than a traditional house], so they are more sustainable and efficient,” he says. Ritchie’s “boxes” have some prefab components but are mostly built on site, and prices include building costs. (Most dwelling prices, including these and Modern Shed’s, do not include the cost of a foundation or utility hookup.)
For those on a tighter budget with do-it-yourself chops, a good resource for learning more about small house construction is the long-established tiny house movement, whose propon