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LA breezy in-law unit is multi-level “cabin in the woods”

When Bo Sundius’ father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, given the 6-to-8-thousand-dollar-per-month cost of 24-hour care, Sundius and his architect wife Hisako Ichiki began designing a home for his parents in their yard.

On their triangular lot in LA’s Solano Canyon, there was space for a second home, and since CA code now makes Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) legal, the couple invested in building a small home next door. For one year, the couple helped care for Sundius’ father at night while they and their children formed a tighter bond with their grandparents.

Taking cues from the neighborhood and their own home, Sundius and Hisako designed a home that looks like a “Monopoly piece” on the outside, but inside they were prompted by the openness and geometry of Japanese architecture and the post-WWII Case Study Houses.

Since their budget was very limited, they used structural elements as interior design. They opened up spaces between the balloon-framing so the structural beams serve as visible frames for long clerestory windows. The space has no walls but is instead divided by functional items like a bathroom/closet cube and open-tread Douglas Fir stairs.

“The ceiling was a bit of an invention on our part,” explains Sundius. “None of our clients have big budgets and we simply had no budget when we built this so we had to make the most of what we had and what you have is you have a roof. Traditionally you take the roof joists and they go from edge to ridge, but we decided what would happen if we flipped it.”

The result is their now-signature “new sky” Douglas-Fir-clad stepped ceiling that creates a feeling of space inside the 750-square-foot cottage: an effect inspired by the Renaissance architect Brunelleschi. “He said something to the effect of, ‘once you start a line the line goes on forever’ and so when you see a line go you automatically want to take it to its one-point perspectival point, or two-point. So here your eye automatically goes to the furthest point of the house and I think that psychologically it makes you feel like the space is bigger.”

Today, the backyard home is a rental unit, and Sundius and Ichiki are offering 4 sets of pre-approved plans – their cottage included – that they hope can help others follow their example. All of their plans follow their “5 Rules for ADUs”:

  1. welcome residents home with an entry pathway;
  2. expand the boundary with a side yard;
  3. borrow the view with high windows;
  4. open exterior walls to release space;
  5. create a new sky with high ceilings.