Los Angeles Fast-Tracks New ADUs by Offering Homeowners Pre-Approved Plans
Under the direction of Los Angeles’s chief design officer Christopher Hawthorne and the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS), the city has enlisted emerging architecture firms to design 28 accessory dwelling unit (ADU) plans that are pre-approved under the new Standard Plan Program—speeding up the permitting process from weeks-long to as little as a day.
In 2017, California passed laws preventing cities across the state from imposing significant restrictions on their ADU codes. Since then, ADU construction has boomed, but some barriers have persisted. As Taalman Architecture—the creator of six designs for the initiative—notes, "The biggest hurdle in making these small spaces was the process with the city and permitting, which required a significant investment on the part of the client."
With the new pre-approved plans, homeowners can find thoughtful designs without spending an exorbitant amount of money—or the time involved in pursuing a more customized plan.
Hawthorne, along with Theadora Trindle from the mayor’s office, looked to other cities with standard, pre-approved plans while developing their initiative but ultimately decided on a program that would support small firms hit hard by the pandemic. Thus, the plans are not owned by the city, so homeowners are encouraged to reach out and begin the process with a participating architect.
The plans approved by the city vary in aesthetic and approach, much like the larger architectural landscape of Los Angeles, and represent a microcosm of contemporary practices. Hawthorne emphasized the importance of bringing the public into conversations about design, breaking down the assumption that beautiful design is expensive, and "making the case that good design can actually be a way for us to be more efficient and even save money."
For their ADU design, Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena of Escher GuneWardena Architecture recalled an experience with a security guard at their old building who had approached them with sketches of a plan he’d been trying to get through to LADBS. That’s how most people who can’t afford a custom ADU approach it, they say: "They will try and design it themselves, go to the building department six times, and get hassled by the inspectors."
The firm is excited about serving homeowners interested in off-the-shelf designs and the Standard Plan Program’s potential impact on the housing crisis. "It’s not relying on larger institutions or organizations doing larger projects," the architects add. "It’s doing something with the kind of small projects that can be done relatively quickly."
While materials can be traded out according to the client’s budget, Escher and GuneWardena’s plan is designed with a baseline goal of affordability without compromising on quality or structural durability. The ADU eschews "fantastic forms" for a well considered solution that "addresses simple or important needs that everyone has."
Placing flexibility at the forefront, Alice Fung and Michael Blatt of Fung + Blatt devised an ADU that can be situated many ways, creating moments of privacy with a partially shaded roof terrace and strategically placed windows that can make a tight site feel more spacious.
"The goal of repeatable design should be to create things that uplift the spirit, function better, and achieve a greater economy of means," say the architects. "The ADU standard plan pilot program provides the perfect opportunity to apply these principles in a way that has the potential to reach the greatest number of people, and to make a small dent in addressing the housing shortage in our city."
For their contribution, SO-IL strategized about the relationship between the main house and the ADU. "The triangulated shapes [that] make up the plan also allow for the entire structure to seem opaque, preserving privacy," the architects explain.
Their ADU plays into the firm’s broad endeavor to create "a more productive relationship between the interior of one’s home and the exterior of one’s activity."
Taalman Architecture had already designed the IT House system, a flexible prefabricated dwelling that can be assembled on site, so their work for the initiative was mostly about scaling down for smaller plots.
Excited about the potential of the initiative, the architects describe it as an opportunity to "return to our core beliefs in designing minimal architecture—but not just minimal from a design perspective, but also in terms of material use, resource use, waste, and cost."
Reminiscent of the Case Study House Program of the midcentury era, L.A.’s Standard Plan Program is poised to answer a social problem with beautiful, thoughtful design. Other architects involved in the initial stages of the project include Welcome Projects, Jennifer Bonner/MALL, Abodu, First Office, Connect Homes, Amunátegui Valdés, wHY, LA Más, sekou cooke STUDIO, and Design, Bitches.
The Standard Plan Program is still open to all architects and designers who can meet the basic requirements, and the city encourages new firms to join the initiative. As the first few builds get underway, LADBS will be tracking construction and refining the pilot program.
The next stages are already in motion, as the mayor’s office is collaborating with the city council offices of Kevin de Leon and Bob Blumenfield to see how standard plan programs can be incorporated into larger affordability programs involving multi-family housing, housing nonprofits, and similar ventures.
A Conversation With L.A.’s Chief Design Officer Christopher Hawthorne
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