A crisply contemporary accessory dwelling unit in South Minneapolis—Home 9 on the 2019 Homes by Architects Tour—celebrates small-footprint, easy-maintenance living

By Linda Mack

Chris Iverson knew it was time for a lifestyle change when he went shopping for a rug and lamp for a room he never used in his large suburban house. His daughter had recently left home, and he realized he wanted something different for the next chapter of his life: a smaller, easier-to-maintain residence that offered him more freedom to come and go.

Inspired by a backyard Airbnb that Minneapolis architect Christopher Strom, AIA, had designed for a house near Lake Harriet, Iverson contacted Strom and started the process of designing an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) for the backyard of a duplex he owned in South Minneapolis. He moved into his 640-square-foot, second-floor home in January 2018. “It’s like my own version of a condo, with parking below,” says Iverson.

“It’s a very compact design, where every inch counts,” says Strom. “It pushed us to be concise.”

The desire to maximize the limited living space made a flat roof a natural choice for the project. Slightly canted, it extends over a deck that gives the boxy structure a treehouse feel. The kitchen wall pushes out toward the street, its wide, orange-stained awning window punctuating the gray cementitious exterior.

Iverson wanted an interior stair to the living level (many ADUs are accessed by an exterior stair to save interior space), and Strom tucked the entrance on the inside of the lot for privacy. He also gave the staircase some flavor—the treads and railings are stained blue—and framed a view of it from the exterior with a tall glass entry door and matching window frame above.

Inside and up the stairs, the space is flooded with light from three skylights, the south-facing kitchen window, and sliding glass doors that open onto the deck. “It’s the size of a studio apartment,” says Strom, “but there’s a lot more light because it’s detached, with windows on all sides. It really lives differently from an apartment.”

Splashes of color—blue quartz countertops and blue porcelain tile—and Iverson’s art pieces animate the simple space.

The bedroom is open to the living area but can be closed off with orangey-yellow pocket doors. “I love blue and orange,” says Iverson. The bathroom includes a washer-dryer, and the walk-in closet is generous. Iverson opted for downsized appliances in the IKEA galley kitchen, but he emphasizes that’s not for everyone.

Strom says the design questions for someone building an ADU are few but important: Do you want it designed like a studio, or like a one- or two-bedroom apartment? What can you get by with in the kitchen for cooking and storage? Do you want to invest in in-floor heating, or would you be OK with forced air and a mini-split [a heating and cooling system with an indoor air-handling unit and an outdoor compressor/condenser]?

Iverson opted for radiant heating under the Marmoleum flooring, and he loves it. That and the big orange window over the sink were his splurges.

Speaking of cost, ADUs are not inexpensive, Iverson cautions. “You’re building a house, not a tricked-out garage.” Strom says there’s lots of interest in ADUs, but people aren’t always prepared for the cost. “It can have a higher cost per square foot than a larger house,” he says. “We say $200,000 is a minimum.”

But with smaller families, aging parents, kids returning from college, and short- and long-term rental opportunities, ADUs are a growing phenomenon. Strom has formed a subsidiary business, Second Suite, that focuses on ADUs, and has five built or under construction, with two more in design. Minneapolis legalized ADUs in 2014; St. Paul this year.

“We like to build in the city,” says Strom, “and ADUs are a great way to build in the city without doing a teardown.”

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Client: Chris Iverson
Architect: Christopher Strom Architects
Principal-in-charge and lead designer: Christopher Strom, AIA
General contractor: JCJ Construction
Size: 640-square-foot living level over a 600-square-foot garage
Cost: $225 per square foot
Completion: January 2018
Photographer: Alyssa Lee Photography