Small Structures, Big Opportunities

In November 2008, the National Association of Home Builders released statistics indicating that builder confidence was down to its lowest level since January 1985. The release credits the financial markets, weak job market and economic uncertainty for plunging builder confidence, according to the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index. With this news comes a call for trade professionals to find new opportunities for income and referrals. Designing and building detached structures such as nanny units, home offices and pool houses can create these opportunities.

Many architects, designers and builders, including the three we interviewed for this article, believe in detached structures and the benefits they offer both the trades and homeowners. Each of these professionals has a different passion for the structures he builds, but all three believe in the many advantages these structures provide.

Solutions for Happy Guests

“A lot of times, the reason we look for this kind of solution is because of historic homes. Sometimes it’s best to not touch [the homes] at all,” says Jonathan Parks, AIA, principal, Jonathan Parks Architect in Sarasota, Fla.

Designing in sunny Florida may be a contributing factor to the extensive nature of Parks’ portfolio of detached structures. “[Florida] is unlike other environments where you need a [physical] connection [between structures] — it’s not snowy here where you would need the connection. And Florida is a place where people like to visit. The best way to keep friendships intact is to let people stay out [at the detached structure on the property], so they can keep to their routines.”

Parks has designed detached offices, pool houses, casitas, game rooms and more. “Everyone has different wants — some people want privacy and some people want a separation for work,” he adds.

A multitude of benefits come from detached structures, Parks says. “It allows people to stay in their current home and have a project in their backyard without it affecting them. You don’t have to turn their power off,” he adds.

“It’s also a great way for [builders and architects] to extend their construction services. Contractors can spend time really showcasing their work because the owner will be there quite a bit. And if you do a good job, there’s always the ability to get referrals,” Parks says.

But with advantages come challenges. “You really have to do a simple structure. They can get expensive and the contractor’s work can be extensive. You need a sweet scope with square footage, details and finishes; you don’t want the budget to be a challenge,” Parks adds. “The biggest challenge is that you don’t have the economy of scale as you do with larger projects — you have to be on the game. Try not to do too much when you’re not building another house. It’s not supposed to feel like you’re building a new house. And it’s not to take the place of an off-site storage compartment. The buildings need to have some type of poetry.”

Age in Place, on Site

Thomas Turman, licensed architect and owner of Turman Associates in Berkeley, Calif., became involved in the creation of detached structures such as guest residences long before the recent housing crunch. “The first versions were full residences with kitchens and bathrooms. We were providing structures that didn’t overwhelm the lot or crowd the existing structure, and we created a courtyard between the two structures. It slowed down in 2000 but picked up recently because people realized they can extend without buying a new house,” Turman says.

Turman believes detached structures can provide alternatives to massive aging-in-place renovations or new construction. “Why not build a structure on your property that can accommodate the elderly? We noticed that people in their 70s sometimes want to give their house to their children, but have no place to go themselves and don’t want to live in a place for the aged. So we started moving clients into 500-sq.-ft. structures that can hold older people in comfort and good design, on their own property,” Turman says.

Focusing on detached structures has been a positive experience for Turman and he recommends it to those considering taking it on. “Discovering this client base has been good for us,” he adds. “The extended family is really the idea behind it and that’s how it should be sold.”

Turman has designed a variety of detached structures including pool houses, game rooms and home offices. Turman designed the Tea House shown on page 19 in association with builder Masao Wani and associate Greg Lemley.

The owner of the Tea House is a psychologist who will use the space to bring clients, as well as give herself a sanctuary away from daily stressors. “As she gets older, it will be a place where she writes and paints,” Turman adds.
The design for these structures is important and shouldn’t be ignored, Turman says. “We’re trying to make a sophisticated detached structure. We’re not just plunking another building somewhere.”

For Turman, the challenges surround solving the equation of square footage and the space between structures. “Figuring out how to put the square footage on the lot without crowding it and still creating an extended living structure [is the biggest challenge],” Turman says. “The space in between is important.”

Detached Outdoor Living

Finding a niche in any industry can take years, or possibly require a shift in career paths. Bryan Gordon, president, B. Gordon Builders in Walnut Creek, Calif., has been successfully building in his niche within the custom home market for 16 years. His claims to fame are his detached outdoor structures designed, engineered, approved and constructed by his own team.

Gordon designs and builds almost any outdoor structure he’s asked to create, but he stays away from remodeling projects. “There are times when people offer me a remodel project and I turn it down because I want to stay focused on being the best in outdoor structure building,” he adds. “We build pavilions, cabana pool houses, outdoor theme structures with posts or stone columns, arbors, gates, decks and more.”

Gordon and his team work closely with his clients to guarantee the outdoor structure complements the style of the existing home. “[The process starts by us] meeting with the client and finding out what they want. We look at the architecture of the home and design these structures to enhance or match the structure of the [existing] property,” he adds.

B. Gordon Builders handles everything from the drawings to the approval by governmental officials. “We do the architectural drawings in-house and provide all the structural or other types of engineering needed. We also deal with the cities and counties to [get the outdoor structures] approved. Ultimately, we get the plans drawn, get the project engineered if necessary and build the structure,” Gordon says.

A unique outdoor structure Gordon designed and built was a veranda with recessed drop-down curtains. “The curtains were 20 ft. long on all sides of the structure that were dropped down via a remote, and invisible when not in use. The roof structure had an 8-ft. wide by 16-ft. long retractable skylight that was also operated by remote control. The whole roof would open — it was really neat,” Gordon adds.

After 16 years of building only detached structures, Gordon still enjoys his job. “Being able to meet with clients, see their excitement, listen to their needs, put that on paper, build the project and exceed their expectations, is why I love what I do,” Gordon adds. “These outdoor structures are very much a visible piece in the yard and the clients enjoy them for years — and I get to do that approximately 50 times a year.”