A Seattle Musician Improvises During the Pandemic by Building Out His Own Backyard Cottage

Starting with a design from prefab builder NODE, musician Michael Lerner relies on YouTube tutorials and perseverance to complete a DADU.

About eight years ago, Michael Lerner of the band Telekinesis and his wife, Amiee, bought a 1954 home on a sizable Seattle lot. Over time, they accrued enough equity in the property to finance the construction of a detached accessory dwelling unit for their backyard. "We’d been thinking about doing a DADU for some time, but it all really happened to coincide with this pandemic, and me not being able to travel or work," says Michael. Even though he didn’t have any training in construction, formal or otherwise, Michael had always been interested in learning how to build a house. So when the pandemic struck, he was suddenly presented with the opportunity. 

Michael Benjamin Lerner of the band Telekinesis collaborated with local prefab builder NODE to build a 392-square-foot DADU in Lerner’s Seattle backyard. The builder took care of design, permitting, site prep, and the foundation and framing. Michael tackled the finish work.

He and Amiee flirted with the idea of turning a shipping container into a small residence, but it ultimately would have been too expensive. Instead, they chose to collaborate with local prefab builder NODE, who was experimenting with a one-off pilot program to test new prefab technologies.

For the program, NODE essentially provided a completed shell: They designed and engineered the DADU, prepped the site, installed the foundation, and finished the framework. They then roughed-in plumbing and electrical before completing the building envelope. They handled all of the permitting, too, which made for a streamlined process. "In reality, it’s incredibly difficult to permit something like this," says Michael.

"It became really apparent that the only way we were going to be able to achieve something like this was if we built it, or if we built a large part of it, ourselves," says Michael. "We didn't have the funds to do a project like this if we were going to pay someone to do the entire thing."

Michael had just returned home from a tour when NODE started the build in late fall of 2019. The timing allowed him to work alongside the crew to get the hands-on education in construction that he’d long desired. "I really wanted to learn about how every process happened," he says, describing eight-hour days. "So yeah, I was there right from the beginning."

After two months of work, NODE was finished with their part, leaving the couple to complete the DADU as they saw fit. The moment was a memorable one: "It was like, ‘What on earth do we do now? And how on earth do we do it?’ It was terrifying," says Michael.

Michael and Amiee finished the walls in plywood, while the floors are covered in large-format tile with a radiant heating system underneath.

To find answers—and a way forward—Michael turned to YouTube, estimating that he watched some 1000 hours of tutorial videos to learn everything from laying tile and trimming out the plumbing and electrical, to installing an IKEA kitchen and building a deck. "There were so many times in the project where I felt like it was an insurmountable task, and I would really feel I wouldn't be able to do it," he reflects. "And then every time I started to do it, I realized that it was totally doable." 

When it wasn’t possible to install a freestanding wood-burning fireplace, Michael opted for a bio ethanol model. "I was able to get the ambient, cozy aspect of a fireplace without the bummer of having to direct any noxious fumes out of the house," says Michael.

An IKEA kitchen looks sleek and saves space. 

The only trades the couple hired out were the installation of the quartz countertop, backsplash, and drywall in the bathroom. Michael says the quartz "takes an IKEA product that’s relatively inexpensive and makes it look a lot more high-end."

Michael also built the floating media console and desk/eating area, which are both walnut plywood. "For a beginner, it’s terrifying because they’re like $200 for a sheet of plywood," says Michael.

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The couple wrapped the project in August of 2020, and have since been renting it out on Airbnb for extra income. Michael reflects on his work with immense pride, and has a newfound respect for the building industry. "I really appreciate people that do this for a living," he says. "And I have so much more respect for the entire process and the reason why a house is an expensive thing to buy." He adds: "It was a really eye-opening experience and it was super fun. Also, an incredible way to spend a bummer year, really."

A bedroom nook sits off the main living spaces.

Michael built a platform for the bed and lined the walls in wool felt. "It feels like you’re sleeping in a quiet little cocoon," he says.

"It was very, very fun for me to be involved in everything from the moment we broke ground, until we were able to pop some champagne when it was done," says Michael, sitting with wife Amiee and their dog, Gerry.

A built-in planter adds a pop of green in the bathroom.

Michael wrapped the exterior in 2x2 cedar boards with a half-inch gap between each one, which took about four weeks and 2,000 screws to complete.

Michael and Amiee enjoy the DADU's deck. "We were just super careful and I researched the heck out of everything," says Michael of their DIY approach to all of the finish work. 


Related Reading:

Budget Breakdown: A Seattle Couple Expand Into a Backyard Addition for $413K

Project Credits:

Design: NODE + Michael Lerner / node.eco + @telekinesis

Structural Engineer: Lund Opsahl

Interior Design: Michael Lerner

Cabinetry Design and Installation: IKEA and Michael and Amiee Lerner

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