Dwelling on ‘missing middle’ housing

RG Construction Services meets demand for ADUs, while advocating for clients 

Design and Construction panoramic

Accessory dwelling units, also known as ADUs, have skyrocketed in popularity. Even anecdotally, anyone driving through an urban area can see these dwellings tucked in behind other homes on tiny lots or shooting up two stories over street facing garages.

ADUs are synonymous with opportunity in homeowners’ eyes – the opportunity to save money by having a loved one defray the costs of living for each family, for example, an elderly parent or grandparent. Or better yet, they present the opportunity to make money in the era of Airbnb, and the perennial culture of side gigging.


Contractors, too, are offered a new class of opportunities. A step above a remodel but not quite a custom home, ADUs also present a new level of permitting and codes to navigate. Since the dwelling includes everything a home would, such as bathroom, kitchen and laundry, there is an expectation it will be occupied and thus triggers impact fees similar to a new home.

In urban areas of the county, an ADU is defined as “an additional smaller, subordinate dwelling unit on a lot with an existing or new house including a manufactured home. An ADU can be an attached or detached dwelling unit that provides a greater range of housing types in single-family or multi-family residential districts while protecting the character of the neighborhood. An attached ADU means sharing a common wall or walls and a detached ADU means physically separated.” 

Whereas, a rural accessory dwelling unit, or RADU, while still defined as an additional smaller, subordinate dwelling unit on a lot with an existing or new house, is limited to “an attached dwelling unit that provides a greater range of housing types in Rural and Resource lands while maintaining rural community character and ensuring the conservation, enhancement and protection of resource lands. An attached RADU means sharing a common wall or walls.”

In other words, urban ADUs are meant to preserve the character of the city, and RADUs are meant to preserve the character of the country. But not everyone sees it this way.

Richard Garrett of RG Construction Services, a full-service residential contractor in Battle Ground, has built 10 ADUs in the last three years. He has seen a sharp uptick in demand for these structures both in urban and rural areas. Though Clark County codes were updated early last year amid fervid debate to reflect demand across the region, he contends the codes are still too restrictive for some of his prospective clients, particularly in rural areas, which do not allow detached ADUs, only those that are part of the existing structure. In advocating for his clients, Garrett said he has talked to “representatives and legislators.”

“If I want to build a shop, I can. But if I want to build the same shop, make it look the same and put an apartment over it, I can’t have that. Most of the clients I have want to build a shop and put an apartment in it,” he said. “A lot of people are still trying to get the rural portion of it changed. We are waiting for the next session to come in, and we’ll have public hearings. Rural rules were made by less than a handful of people, and the county pushed the onus on to the state. It’s a political battle, and private residents are very passionate about it.”

Sweeping legislation at the state level in favor of significantly reducing ADU restrictions in urban growth boundaries was introduced in the House last January but died in committee. 

Nevertheless, skyrocketing housing prices coupled with the cost of living, aging family members and opportunities to make some extra money have homeowners wading into the fray. In 2018, the county processed 17 ADU permit applications. Garrett’s firm is currently working on three ADUs in the city of Vancouver, which updated its own codes in 2017, and allow both attached and detached ADUs

For example, one of his clients is a woman who lives in Astoria and owns the downtown Vancouver house that her daughter and son-in-law live in. She plans to build an ADU that she can occupy.

“This is one of the things we see – family wanting to be on the same property, aging in place and income potential,” Garrett said.

Modern and hip design

RG Construction Services recently purchased the Orndorff house in Battle Ground and renovated the historic structure into a private showroom for clients who want a one-on-one experience choosing design elements and finishes for their projects. The firm has a designer and a design and planning manager on site.

Garrett said most clients who are building ADUs want a look that is modern and “hip,” though it depends on who is moving in. With the “tiny home mentality,” he said, many are looking to get the most of their square feet with space-saving features like walk-in showers, stacked washer/dryer combos and even a murphy bed. Most of the time, his clients are looking for studio spaces, but the occasional one-bedroom is sought after as well.

Build Small Live Large & ADU Academy

The 2019 Build Small Live Large summit will be held on Nov. 7, at Portland State University. The summit focus will be “missing middle” housing. This is the fourth Build Small Live Large Summit, a national conference about how to inform, inspire and connect professionals driving the market for small-scale, creative and sustainable housing solutions across North America.

The 2019 conference will specifically focus on how state and local policies and regulations can better align to achieve positive outcomes for smaller-format and space-efficient housing types, and showcase how high-opportunity single-family residential neighborhoods and districts can support the reemergence of other innovative, small-scale housing types along with supportive funding and regulatory tools. The keynote speaker for this year’s event is Richard Rothstein, the author of “The Color of Law.”

The second iteration of ADU Academy will be on Friday, Nov. 8, at Revolution Hall in Portland. ADU Academy is an educational event for designers, builders, entrepreneurs, developers, realtors, real estate investors, lenders and appraisers.

For more information and to register, visit https://buildsmall-livelarge.com/register.

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