Relocating to a cottage for aging in place – Fine homebuilding

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Written By Jim J Neal

When designing a new house, I try not to have preconceived notions and allow the process to unfold naturally. One of the greatest joys about being an architect is not knowing the final results. These solutions are a response to the site, local culture and client’s needs.
This mindset is what I brought with me to my meeting with Chrystel and Dan, my new client. I met Chrystel in her 80s, and she was now living alone. The house she’d lived in for seven decades was too big and unsuitable for her golden years. Her property was large enough to allow for the construction of a small cottage if it was subdivided. I was asked to design a cottage that would enhance her home experience and make it easier for people in their 90s to do daily chores.
The new residence will be located on the shores Budd Bay, Washington State. It will be next to the current large historic home of the owner, which was built in 1920. It is also listed on the local historical register. It is home to three generations and is full of family memories and traditions. The property is a historic landmark in the city, so I was familiar with it. This house, clad in cedar shingles and emblematic for the English revival style, was a magnificent grand dame that I had always admired.


Bedrooms: 2 Bathrooms: 2-1/2 Size: 1862 sq. 322 sq.ft. (85 sq.-ft. garage). ft. (house), $218 per square. ft. (house & Garage) Completed: 2022 Location in Western Washington Architect: Swalling Walk Architects. Builder: Scott Carey, Caretek Construction

Innovative solutions to zoning restrictions

The project required a small living space and sleeping area for Chrystel, as well as a guest suite and a 2-car garage. This project was no exception. Two stories were allowed by the zoning code. The lot was narrow and had a significant drop in elevation. The driveway had enough space for back-up, but there wasn’t enough space for a garage or living space at the lowest level. It was hard to imagine someone in their 90s carrying groceries up a flight stairs. My clients were open to the idea of an elevator so I included one in the plan. I designed Chrystel’s entire living space on the floor above her garage. The most used areas were placed to maximize the beautiful views over the bay. It all came together very well, but there was no way to make enough space for guests. The idea was attractive to Chrystel, who wouldn’t have to access that floor. She actually preferred it because it would allow her to keep her visitors more private.
To build an additional story on top of the main floor, we had to make sure that the garage level was classified as a basement due to the two-story restriction. This was possible with creative excavation, the addition a retaining wall and some backfilling. It also allowed for a smoother transition between the yard of the original home and the cottage. Dan and his spouse were able to create a path between their two homes.

Take downsizing to another level

The only way to add another story to your garage was to make it a basement. For a basement to be considered, the finished floor must not exceed 6 feet above the final grade and more than 50% of the building’s perimeter. This was achieved by adding a retaining fence on the west and filling in the gap on the south to increase the grade.

Floor-plan drawings: Martha Garstang HIll

Not upstage, but complement

Chrystel wanted her home to be compatible with her existing one and easily recognizable as a part of a complete set. It was important that it be compatible with the original without being copied. The main house shouldn’t be overshadowed. Once I had a basic layout of the spaces, I was able to focus my attention on the form.

The original house had gables and steep roofs as its main features. I tried to simplify the language and use a similar style. To make the house less prominent from the street, I used a single gable as the main portion and concealed the top story in the roof. The entry facade was highlighted with a covered porch and two gables. The west elevation, which is the view side, required a different treatment. To cover the bay window in the dining room and shelter the doors to the deck, I created a hipped roofing.
The same materials were used to unify the two structures: copper roof shingles, painted trim and rich cedar siding. The exterior trim profiles I used were the same as the original house. They are simply stunning and can’t be improved on. The original’s clipped eaves, rakes were what I did not copy. Overhangs are vital in the rainy Pacific Northwest to extend the life of building materials. I allowed for 12 inches. I allowed for 12 in. On the rakes. I would have gone 18 inches. Except that a 12-in-12 pitch makes it difficult to reach the upper wall below the eaves, I would have gone 18 in. All entryways are also covered. To protect and add dimension to the facade, I recessed the garage doors.

Universal design

As we worked on the design, we began to discuss options and strategies for helping Chrystel age in her place. All interior doors were 36 inches wide. Except for the powder room, all interior doors were 36 inches wide. This was to ensure that she could use her bathroom even if she became impaired. The 18-inch limit was discussed. We discussed the 18-in. clearance recommendation for wheelchair users on both the pull and push side of the doors. However, there was not enough space to do that. The family reasoned the doors should be open most of the time, so if Chrystal needs a wheelchair, she would need an aid.
Showers are an area that demands no compromises. At 3 ft. 4 inches. By 4 ft.4 in. To make it easier for people to use the showerhead, an adjustable handheld was installed. Grab bars were also installed around the water closet and on three sides. The family was against lowering the countertop heights. However, they felt that this would make it too uncomfortable for future users.

Delicate strength

The brackets were not present in the original house, but I added them to the cottage several times to give it its unique identity. I wanted something delicater than the typical 45-degree knee brace. So, I created a gentle curve and added rounded ends. They add a nice rhythm and flow to the entry porch and cantilevered deck.

Selecting the right partner

Contractor selection is crucial to any project’s success. I wouldn’t be remiss if this was not mentioned here. There are a few ten contractors we work with regularly and that we feel comfortable recommending. Scott Carey, Caretek’s own contractor, was approached by the owners to help them with this project. Scott met the owners while Scott was working on their next-door house. My fears were unfounded as I am always nervous about working with a contractor. Scott’s attention and excellent craftsmanship made it a pleasant experience for all of us and earned him a place on our preferred contractor list.
Swalling Walk Architects is headed by Sheila Swalling (AIA), in Olympia, Wash. Photos by Doug Walker, courtesy Swalling Walk Architects.

Fine Homebuilding #308