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In the wake of COVID-19 and with tragically high levels of death and illness in the nation's senior homes and communities, more people are looking for living arrangements for their aging parents or options for themselves when they decide to retire.

Wolf Industries, a modular tiny home and prefab manufacturer based out of Battle Ground, Wash., says accessory dwelling units (ADUs) could be the answer. BUILDER consulted Derek Huegel, owner of Wolf Industries, to gauge his opinion on why the pandemic might fuel an ADU surge, how increased production could benefit society, and what ADU features are most important for an aging individual.

BUILDER: Why will the construction of ADUs continue to increase?

Huegel: The pressure from local governments to maintain their urban densities and prevent urban sprawl will force land costs to remain high, if not increase over time. The pressures to make developers fund their development also adds to the increased costs of conventional development. When you look at ADUs, all these add-on costs don’t drive immediate value to the person evaluating where to live. That’s the high-level economies behind it.

The psychological evidence is shown that parents would like to be near their children but not “too” close. An ADU is an answer to that. Another angle is that when the parents pass away, the children are left with a simpler asset to manage. The ADU is already installed and done. They don’t have to navigate the selling of their parents' home or belongings. The downsizing has already happened while they had the help of the parent when they were living.

BUILDER: How can homeowners/society benefit from increased ADU production? Are there any disadvantages?

Huegel: Homeowners and society can benefit from the use of ADUs through tighter woven relationships between the generations. This is the fabric that has made America. This is what will build resilience in future generations when they hear stories of past generations.

The only angle I’ve heard complained about is the increased traffic/demand on services that aren’t being compensated for in the terms of fees or land-use planning. My counter to that is the simple fact that the average household size has gone from much higher in the past to an average of 2 1/2. The demands on services haven’t gone up. They’ve simply changed location from all allocated inside the primary home to an occupant or two living out back in an ADU.

BUILDER: What are the most important features homeowners will need in ADUs? Least important?

Huegel: The most important items fall into three categories; first, the bedroom on the main floor. There is so much hype about having a loft for a sleeping space, but I faced the music at age 18, and it was very stupid to crawl into bed to realize I forgot to turn off the bathroom fan. It was important to have a bed on the main floor.

Second, full-size kitchen appliances. Everyone asks me about small compact appliances. In the ADU I lived in, the appliances were tiny. I couldn’t put a week's worth of groceries in the fridge, much less have enough room to do anything else. The lesson here is make sure you have full-size appliances and the ability to cook food comfortably. Besides, the cost of regular appliances is so much less, and the parts are much more available.

Third, a full-size shower. In America, people are full size so the shower should be, too. With most people used to a standard-sized shower, I made that one of the critical features.

Least important is having storage space. I know it’s counterintuitive, but there are so many companies that excel in this area that it doesn’t make sense to pay a builder to compete with companies like IKEA. IKEA can make small spaces so efficient with their well-designed cabinets and gadgets. I know everyone is attracted to these design elements, but if you get the shell built and installed, the purchase and setup of IKEA-style items lends itself to a separate scope of work nicely.

Another low importance item would be the element of going green. I agree wholeheartedly with being conscientious about the environment and doing our part to keep things sustainable, but here’s the rub: Why pay so much money for materials and products that prohibit customers from ever buying? We shoot for the middle ground. We offer low-VOC paint, use sustainably harvested woods, and use metal roofing that’s rolled in America with recycled steel. Suppliers will continue to update us with better products and materials, but it’s not the most important aspect when looking for an ADU.

BUILDER: Are there any ADU features that have changed since the onset of the pandemic? If so, what?

Huegel: From our experience, we saw a freeze near the end of March where everyone went "oh boy, what is going on?" Then two to three weeks after, we saw a huge surge in interest—not from folks that just “dreamed” up the idea but rather from folks that were already thinking in the direction of an ADU. Then when the pandemic hit, they pulled the trigger after life normalized.

Even though more people are working from home, it seems that the main focus of the ADU has still remained a place of dwelling. Our homes have plenty of little areas or nooks to locate a desk or workstation enabling clients to make do with existing designs.

BUILDER: What’s the cost-benefit analysis of building an ADU versus utilizing other care facilities?

Huegel: The simple difference is this, building an ADU is planting seeds for the future. Care facilities still have their place and purpose, but I think more often than not, people get placed there early because they don’t have any other options. Building an ADU may have a higher upfront cost, but the money is simply going to pay for itself. The sheer intimidation would be one of the deterrents, but we’re here to offer options and solutions beyond the normal ones. The hassle of building is reduced to a few meetings and material selections, and we take care of the rest.

BUILDER: What advice can you offer to other builders looking to incorporate ADUs in their future plans?

Huegel: Know who you are, what you stand for, and where you will position yourself in the marketplace. Here at Wolf, we’re not everything to everybody. We have a few stock plans and a handful of options for the client to choose from. Maybe you would select a different route with a lot of options or maybe you would choose the green route, but, at the end of the day, stick to the plan but be willing to change if the market conditions do.