Los Angeles Fast-Tracks New ADUs by Offering Homeowners Pre-Approved Plans

Teaming up with emerging firms, the city’s Standard Plan Program makes it easier and more affordable than ever to build a backyard dwelling.

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."

One of six ADU designs Taalman Architecture adapted from their IT House system for the Standard Plan Program. 

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.

A peek inside Welcome Project’s contribution to the program. Laurel Consuelo Broughton, founder of Welcome Projects, has "always struggled with the way architecture can be sidelined as ‘not democratic,’’ she shares. "[The program] seemed like an interesting opportunity to introduce people to using architects and thinking about design."

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." 

Exterior rendering from Escher GuneWardena. Juhee Park, project manager for Escher GuneWardana Architecture, worked on developing the project and will continue to oversee permutations as the firm gets requests from clients.

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."  

"The outdoor space becomes a mediator for the private and public parts," says Escher GuneWardena Architecture. It serves as an extension of the interior and becomes "the nexus of the whole house."

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."

Escher GuneWardena Architecture opted for a heavily textured cement plaster that continues seamlessly from exterior to interior—a great example of an affordable, classic Southern California material and method for weatherproofing that also captures the beauty of small, important details like "how a material changes under different light conditions or when it’s wet."

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. 

"We employed every trick in our bag to make space feel more expansive," says Fung + Blatt. "We created opportunities for extensions horizontally and vertically, and for functional and perceptual gains."

"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."

Fung + Blatt also designed with accessibility in mind by incorporating adequate space for ramp access at each entrance, so any execution of their plan can easily be made ADA accessible.

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.

SO-IL’s starburst-shaped ADU considers the relationship between the main house and the smaller dwelling.

Opaque, slanted windows create a sense of seclusion while still letting in light.

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." 

Exterior rendering of SO-IL’s ADU design.

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. 

Rendering of the IT Tower, one of six options from Taalman Architecture.

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."

Meaghan Murray, an associate of Linda Taalman, is spearheading design for the pre-approved plans and will be guiding clients through the firm’s various options. "The forward-thinking request by the city is really exciting in its potential to connect architecture with everyday people and increase housing," say the architects. "Our goal is to continue to develop and improve how we deliver these to increase affordability and accessibility."

The IT Cube from Taalman Architecture. The IT Pod, not pictured, is a one-story option, demonstrating the flexibility and modularity of the designs.

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. 

This exterior rendering from Fung + Blatt highlights the outdoor space, a critical aspect of their design due to the needs highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.

Related Reading: 

A Conversation With L.A.’s Chief Design Officer Christopher Hawthorne

Why Now, More Than Ever, the ADU Is the Future of Home


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