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  • Could You Ever Live in an Accessory Dwelling Unit?

    Denver architect Nate Jenkins tells the tale of his adventures in designing—and then living in—his own contemporary carriage house.

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    5280 Home: So how did this whole thing start?
    Nate Jenkins: In 2012, I bought a 1913 bungalow at 28th and York, and at the time, the term “ADU” wasn’t even a thing, really. I had no idea that I was living in an allowable district for ADUs. Even the term “carriage house” felt anachronistic. But I cracked open the zoning code. It was just curiosity that made me do it: What can I build on my property?

    That seems like a very architect-like thing to do.
    Yeah, it was. I found this term, “accessory dwelling unit,” so I Googled it and began researching. Soon, I started to model what the zoning allowed, which wasn’t really this edgy, cool form I was aspiring to design. I looked at [my drawings] on a weekly basis for maybe eight months. Then one day, I saw this carriage house in the Netherlands with an asymmetrical gabled roof, and I realized: I could [use that idea and] get one side of the ADU’s gable to align with the pitch of the old house. I wanted some continuity with the bungalow.

    Clever. What other design tricks were up your sleeve?
    The exterior stair. [The living unit sits atop a first-floor garage.] I liked the idea of connecting the front door to the alley, but I didn’t want it at street level. And, by putting the stair outside, I was able to capture some storage space underneath it; plus, it doesn’t consume internal floor space, which was constrained to 24 feet by 36 feet—864 square feet—on the first level. One of the other assets is that the stair has to have a terminus, a landing. We’ve got this stair landing now that’s a little perch, like an overlook. It’s a decent spot to hang out.

    This kind of nimble thinking applies to the interiors, too.
    Yes, inside the upstairs unit, the floor area has to be three-quarters of the ground floor [footprint], so there’s a kind of recess to shrink that upper floor. But in the code, anything below five feet of height on the upper floor doesn’t count [toward the total allowable square footage]. So I designed what I affectionately call “saddle bags”—around the perimeter, we have this cavity of space that creates storage areas.

    I also maximized the height of that upper story by limiting the height of the first-floor garage. The second-floor ceilings are 14 feet to the underside of the beam. By adding that volume, it makes the space live big, and it allowed us to create an open, functional storage space above our bathroom, which just happens to fit a queen mattress [for extra sleeping space] and a desk.

    And you get up there by…?
    My friend Jordan Vaughn who owns [case goods and cabinet company] Vonmod and I modeled some ideas and came up with this…we’ll call it a climbable closet. We created this killer thing that doesn’t interrupt the space and still provides access to the functional storage area.

    After all of this design-driven innovation, did you rent it out?
    I started the ADU with the idea that I would rent it to generate income, but about halfway through construction, my wife, Stacie, and I were walking the site, and we said, “This is a new house, and it’s badass. Let’s just live here and rent out the main house.” We were super intrigued by the challenge it represented: We had just watched [the 2015 documentary] Minimalism, and we were inspired to live more resourcefully.

    How’d it go?
    Great. Excellent. We would have lived there forever if our baby boy hadn’t come along. But really, because we lived in the ADU, our life strategy was altered. We don’t have as much stuff. Our house is easier to clean. It’s a little buzzy, this idea of minimalism, but it’s made all the difference for our daily life, even today.

    What else should we know?
    My whole pitch on ADUs is this: They make alleys safer. They make alleys prettier. The minute you put a new house [adjacent to an alley], you put people back there. And you’re providing an affordable housing unit in the city. It provides density in a city that’s starving for it. All of those things bring so much value to Denver.

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