8 Modern In-Law Units

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By Wright / Published by Dwell
You may recognize an Accessory Dwelling Unit (or ADU) by one of its many other names, including in-law unit, granny flat, laneway house, or sidekick house. Regardless of what term is chosen, building an ADU has become a popular way to house family members and other guests—or even to gain an extra income by renting it out.

An ADU is defined as having a second small dwelling that sits on the same property as a regular single-family house—or is attached to it. Typically, these take on the form of an apartment over the garage, a tiny house on a foundation in the backyard, or a basement apartment. The rules vary by jurisdiction, but usually, these buildings are required to be less than 800 square feet or a percentage of the existing home's area. Sometimes, people design and build their ADU with the purpose of moving into it themselves, and then renting out their main home. 

If you're thinking about taking the leap and building an ADU on your property, consider visiting some examples to make sure you're comfortable with downsizing. Many cities have ADU tours, such as Portland's annual Build Small, Live Large Tour in September. Take a look at some creative ways people have incorporated small living into their lives.

Gary Shoemaker Architects

8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 1 of 16 - This Seattle ADU makes a modern statement that's clad in copper and cedar. The backyard "garden pavilion" connects to the main house by way of an expansive slate courtyard. 

This Seattle ADU makes a modern statement that's clad in copper and cedar. The backyard "garden pavilion" connects to the main house by way of an expansive slate courtyard. 


8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 2 of 16 - The double-height interior features an upper loft accessed by a custom wood-and-aluminum rolling ladder. 

The double-height interior features an upper loft accessed by a custom wood-and-aluminum rolling ladder. 

Steven Routon Architect

8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 3 of 16 - A wood trellis offers coverage and marks the entry to this 700-square-foot cottage ADU.

A wood trellis offers coverage and marks the entry to this 700-square-foot cottage ADU.


8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 4 of 16 - The tall space over the main room features timber detailing and ample natural light from high windows—which also offer privacy from the main house. 

The tall space over the main room features timber detailing and ample natural light from high windows—which also offer privacy from the main house. 

8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 5 of 16 - This 460-square-foot addition to a Cape Cod home adds much needed space for additional family members. The building's siding coordinates with the existing home, while the deep cedar overhang provides privacy from adjacent neighbors. 

This 460-square-foot addition to a Cape Cod home adds much needed space for additional family members. The building's siding coordinates with the existing home, while the deep cedar overhang provides privacy from adjacent neighbors. 

8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 6 of 16 - This 760-square-foot ADU is accessed off an alley in Vancouver, British Columbia, and serves as a home and office. The multilevel home takes advantage of its slope with a split-level plan that features an upper balcony. 

This 760-square-foot ADU is accessed off an alley in Vancouver, British Columbia, and serves as a home and office. The multilevel home takes advantage of its slope with a split-level plan that features an upper balcony. 


8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 7 of 16 - The ADU shares the backyard of the main home, but gabion retaining walls (rocks in wire cages) and an elevated terrace give it an intimate space of its own. 

The ADU shares the backyard of the main home, but gabion retaining walls (rocks in wire cages) and an elevated terrace give it an intimate space of its own. 


8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 8 of 16 - The interior of the space is filled with natural light, thanks to the vaulted ceiling and skylights. The owner's workspace resides in an upper loft—a volume highlighted by salvaged wood panels. 

The interior of the space is filled with natural light, thanks to the vaulted ceiling and skylights. The owner's workspace resides in an upper loft—a volume highlighted by salvaged wood panels. 

8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 9 of 16 - This 340-square-foot Maryland ADU replaced an existing one-car garage. Although small, this home was built to maximize its energy efficiency with high levels of foam insulation and limited windows. 

This 340-square-foot Maryland ADU replaced an existing one-car garage. Although small, this home was built to maximize its energy efficiency with high levels of foam insulation and limited windows. 


8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 10 of 16 - Built-ins, such as this Murphy Bed wall of storage, accommodate living in a small footprint. The ladder accesses a small loft above the bathroom for additional living space.

Built-ins, such as this Murphy Bed wall of storage, accommodate living in a small footprint. The ladder accesses a small loft above the bathroom for additional living space.

8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 11 of 16 - Taking its cues from the traditional homes in the neighborhood, this Portland, Oregon, ADU features a deep entry that faces the street and serves as a modern interpretation of a front porch.

Taking its cues from the traditional homes in the neighborhood, this Portland, Oregon, ADU features a deep entry that faces the street and serves as a modern interpretation of a front porch.


8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 12 of 16 - The interior of the 800-square-foot ADU melds the warmth of exposed-wood framing with crisp white finishes in an efficient kitchen. 

The interior of the 800-square-foot ADU melds the warmth of exposed-wood framing with crisp white finishes in an efficient kitchen. 

8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 13 of 16 - This ADU serves as a guest house/yoga studio and sits over an existing garage. Fusion Landscape Design worked with PATH to remake the backyard into a grown-up playground. Under the stairwell sits a tiny custom cedar sauna and an outdoor shower—just a literal hop, skip, and jump away from the sprawling in-ground eight-by-ten-foot hot tub. 

This ADU serves as a guest house/yoga studio and sits over an existing garage. Fusion Landscape Design worked with PATH to remake the backyard into a grown-up playground. Under the stairwell sits a tiny custom cedar sauna and an outdoor shower—just a literal hop, skip, and jump away from the sprawling in-ground eight-by-ten-foot hot tub. 

8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 14 of 16 - Strips of white-oak flooring line the interior of the studio, created by designer Jeff Vincent and PATH Architecture.

Strips of white-oak flooring line the interior of the studio, created by designer Jeff Vincent and PATH Architecture.

Alice Design & Domestic Arts

8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 15 of 16 - This simple ADU sits in the corner of a backyard. The exterior paint colors reflect the palette of the main home and creates uniformity.

This simple ADU sits in the corner of a backyard. The exterior paint colors reflect the palette of the main home and creates uniformity.


8 Modern In-Law Units - Photo 16 of 16 - In the 470-square-foot ADU, wide French doors open up to a patio and fire pit. 

In the 470-square-foot ADU, wide French doors open up to a patio and fire pit.