Alyssa Lee Photography

Chris Iverson was living in a 2,500-square-foot home in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis when he downsized to just a quarter of the space.

Iverson chose to build a modern accessory dwelling unit (ADU) to live in behind his mid-century duplex, with plans to rent out the main home for extra income. Minneapolis legalized ADUs in December 2014.

He commissioned local architecture firm Christopher Strom Architects to design a sleek unit in the spot where a small stucco garage stood. After tearing down the existing structure, the firm set to work building an entirely new ADU—garage included—that would function as new home for Iverson.

When designing the project, principal Christopher Strom had to work around a number of design constraints to meet the city’s zoning requirements. ADUs can’t measure more than 1,300 square feet with the parking spaces, and have to stay below 20 feet in height, which can be difficult as most include lower-level parking spaces.

Alyssa Lee Photography

“Residents [in Minneapolis] generally have indoor parking because of the climate here. We almost always build a two-stall garage with the unit,” says Strom. “So the living area is usually about half that size—in the Iverson house it’s 640 square feet, and that includes the staircase going upstairs which takes up a fair amount of space.”

But Strom didn’t let the small footprint detract from the quality of the design—in fact, he used the limitations to his advantage.

“With a traditional single-family home, it’s really easy to just keep increasing the size in order to accommodate something in the design,” he says. “It’s refreshing to be working within a specific square footage because you have to be very disciplined about how you use the space. Every inch that you add to one spot you have to take away from another, so you have to really think about where those inches are most important.”

Strom and his team optimized the small space by creating a quasi open-concept floor plan.

“We opened up the bedroom as much as possible, because the owner is living in there by himself, so being able to visually look through to the bedroom from the rest of the living space allowed the rooms to feel larger,” says Strom.

Pocketed double doors allow Iverson to close off the bedroom as needed when he entertains, but don’t take up space when he decides to keep them open.

All four walls of the unit have windows, plus Strom added skylights to bring in natural light and expand the space. A long, slotted glass window sits along the top of one wall to provide natural light while still offering a sense of privacy.

The home also includes a deck for outdoor living, a feature that doesn’t count against the zoning department’s allotted square footage as long as it doesn’t face a neighboring lot.

Since the city began allowing residents to construct ADUs a few years ago, the housing type has grown in popularity. Although a number of Minneapolis residents have added an ADU onto their property for a family member or rental income, they haven’t popped up in every backyard in the city, likely because of one misconception Strom says many consumers have about ADUs: that they’re an inexpensive housing option.

“People see something small and have a low cost point of reference for it. But ADUs are actually pretty expensive,” he says.

In fact, the custom tiny homes Strom’s firm builds often cost around $250,000—on par with the average existing home price in the area.

“It’s not just a tiny garage living space, and that’s an idea people need to get past,” he continues. “You really need to think of them as a smaller single-family home with parking underneath. It has all the same traits and components of a house, and actually comes at a higher cost per square foot because of the size.”

Since ADUs are harder to build than residents initially assumed, their legalization hasn’t proved to be controversial in the city.

“Local officials were surprised by how positive people were toward them,” Strom says. “Of course, people voiced concerns about parking and density, but there hasn’t been a lot of negative feedback since not enough people have built them yet.”