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See Carmin’s future backyard ADU

Published on Mar. 27, 2021 by Steven Vance

Updated on Mar. 28, 2021

I’ve talked about Carmin Ballou a couple of times on this blog. Her parents moved in with her, her partner, and their two school-age children right before the COVID-19 pandemic started to upend lives in March 2020. Many combined and multi-generational families yearn for more space, including Carmin’s.

At first, the originally proposed ADU ordinance’s treatment of certain residential zoning districts was going to require that Carmin and her partner obtain a “special use permit” through a process that would have resulted in hiring an attorney and appearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Thankfully, that version of the ordinance was modified to include RS-2 zoning districts “as of right”, and fortunately, the ordinance’s pilot area included her house. Since winter started, Carmin and her architect, Doug Sandberg, have been working on a design for a small one-bedroom apartment over a new garage. They might be far enough along on May 1, 2021, to apply for a building permit. (May 1 is a Saturday, so a plan reviewer wouldn’t get around to seeing the application until the following week.)

And they’re revealing the first schematic drawings here on Chicago Cityscape.

Consider some of the building parameters set by the ADU ordinance that constrain the design process:

  • The backyard house’s footprint cannot exceed the lesser of 60 percent of the rear setback or 700 s.f. For Carmin’s oversized lot (it’s 30' wide rather than 25' wide), that puts the maximum at 624 s.f.
  • The backyard house cannot exceed 22 feet in height. This includes any appurtenances and structures, like solar panels.
  • One side needs to have 3' clear and open to the sky. The other side will be dictated by the Chicago Building Code.
Left: A schematic design of the east elevation (looking west from the alley). Center: A schematic design of the upper-level one-bedroom apartment. Right: Site plan showing the footprint dimensions as well as features required by the zoning code and the permit review.

In the current design, the kitchen and living room share an open floor plan, there’s in-unit stacked laundry, a linen closet in the bathroom, and a 133 s.f. bedroom. Additionally, a window seat overlooks the backyard. Material choices are still being mulled over; the window bay would likely be wood, and flush panel metal sidings are a possible choice for the rest of the cladding.

The stairway is enclosed and accessed from the gangway. To maximize interior space, architects have the option in the zoning code to have an exterior stair in the rear setback, where it won’t count against footprint and floor area. The mix of elderly tenants and Chicago winters made that a no-go for this backyard house.

On the ground floor, a new two-car garage — two spaces are required by RS-2 zoning — has patio doors so it’s easy to move play and party equipment in and out of garage storage.

What will it cost? Carmin said they haven’t asked for any bids from contractors yet. Her family will be paying for it in part by cashing out of a recent refinance (“this made sense given the low rates”). About the rest, she said, “maybe a HELOC (home equity line of credit) or draining savings”.

Carmin mentioned that a staffer at 47th Ward Alder Matt Martin’s office had asked about financing. While she feels fortunate to have options, she encouraged Martin and other public officials to support programs for others without access to credit. Even with a small footprint of the ADU, new constructions remains expensive.

Alder Martin is hosting three ADU webinars, starting with the first on Tuesday, April 6, at 6:30 PM. I will be speaking, alongside representatives from City Hall.

We are currently gathering information about funding & financing options through this survey. If you’re calling banks, let us know which ones you’ve called and what they said. If you’re still figuring out what money sources are right for you, tell us what you’re considering. All responses are confidential.

Carmin added, “We would probably wait a bit to start to save more if needed rather than sacrifice design.”

The Chicago Cityscape ADU Portal has a directory of ADU service providers (architects, builders, and consultants), an FAQ, and a lookup to see if your property is in an eligible location.


See Carmin’s future backyard ADU was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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