Move over tiny houses: the granny pods are coming. A granny pod—also known as a granny flat or in-law unit—is a type of accessory dwelling designed to accommodate an aging relative. These dwellings live on permanent foundations on the same residential lot as the main house. Granny pods are becoming more popular as families recognize the benefits of having an older family member close by and more people seek low-cost alternatives to sky-high rent prices.
Most cities have restrictions when it comes to accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, which are second dwellings on the same lot as a single-family home. But there is growing movement, especially on the West Coast, to relax regulations and zoning restrictions. Some cities—Portland, Oregon, for example—have dropped systems development charges for ADUs as a way to encourage infill. In 2020 and 2021, California enacted statewide legislation that reduces costs and removes barriers to ADU development, prompting a flurry of interest in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles.
Recently, many families have been reconsidering their options when it comes to caring for an aging family member, says Sam Sudy, associate architect at New Avenue, Inc., a firm which specializes in ADU design in the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland.
Many families feel that their parent or relative is safer living in their own home as opposed to a senior care facility. Despite the initial costs, a granny pod can save the significant costs associated with long-term care.
For some families, a granny pod offers a way to pool financial resources on a solution that benefits everyone. And when the inevitable happens, Sudy points out, the ADU can be repurposed as a guest house, studio, or source of rental income.
Granny pods are often fully detached, site-built ADUs; they can also be attached to the main house or converted from a garage. Some companies offer modular granny pods that are tailored to the need of older residents; such units come with fully accessible layouts that can accommodate wheelchairs. One advantage of modular options is that they can usually be built and delivered more quickly than a site-built ADU.
Although granny pods may take many forms, Sudy recommends some general design principles exist in all these spaces.
Small and Sustainable
Granny pods don’t have to be tiny houses, which are usually 400 square feet or less, but a small, efficient layout benefits older residents. There’s less to clean, and a small, energy-efficient home is easier to heat and cool.
Sudy recommends incorporating the principles of universal design wherever possible. A single level with an open layout makes it easy to maneuver in the space. Doorways should be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, while low or zero thresholds at doorways reduce trip hazards.
Smooth and Comfortable
When it comes to flooring, “think smooth,” says Sudy. She likes to design ADUs on a concrete slab-on-grade, which can also serve as the finished floor. Slabs can also accommodate radiant floor heating, where hot water runs through flexible tubing in the concrete floor. Most older people, who often have cold hands and feet, find radiant floor heating extremely comfortable. An electric mini-split heat pump can be used for supplemental heating and for cooling.
Other good flooring options include engineered hardwood, which maintains dimensional stability. Sudy does not recommend carpeting, which holds dirt and odors and can be a tripping hazard. If the resident really wants carpet, Sudy says, the floor can be softened with area rugs.
Accessible Bathrooms; Ergonomic Kitchens
A fully accessible bathroom can eat up a lot of square footage in a smaller space, but these accommodations, which include grab bars and extra space around the toilet, are essential for older or disabled residents. As a general rule of thumb, Sudy doesn’t recommend bathtubs, but favors walk-in showers where the floor is an extension of the bathroom floor. These showers present less of a tripping hazard and are “super easy to clean,” says Sudy.
In the kitchen, it’s all about ergonomics, says Sudy. Whenever possible, she designs lower cabinets with drawers rather than doors. It’s easier for an older person to open a drawer and bend over it than to squat close to the floor.
Finally, don’t forget to consider layout and placement on the lot, says Sudy. When planning an ADU for a family member, there’s an opportunity to create communal space—a shared garden, patio, or outdoor dining space—between the granny pod and the main house.
"Granny Flats, Garage Apartments, In-Law Suites: Identifying Accessory Dwelling Units from Real Estate Listing Descriptions Using Text Mining." Economic and Housing Research Insight. Freddie Mac. 2020.
Apply for an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) System Development Charge Waiver. City of Portland. 2018.