"GRANNY FLAT" Is There One in Your Future? - Richard H. Dodd
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“GRANNY FLAT” Is There One in Your Future?

28 Jan “GRANNY FLAT” Is There One in Your Future?


Part 1 – focuses on Second Unit legislation AB 1866 (Chapter 1062, Statutes of 2002, § 65852.150)        and its ramifications.

Part 2 – examines some of the architectural considerations for “Granny Flats.”


A “Granny Flat” is merely euphuism for a second-unit dwelling as allowed by State Law and local ordinances. These units are typically smaller than the primary residence.

The intent of the Second Unit law is to provide housing for family members, the elderly, in-home healthcare providers, the disabled, students and others, at or below market prices within existing neighborhoods. Homeowners who create second-units benefit from not only from the ability to have their loved ones nearby but in many instances there are additional benefits, such as extra income or an increased sense of security.

Local ordinance generally requires a maximum and minimum allowable square footage. This may challenge the Architect’s creativity in meeting the owner’s needs as allowed by the ordinance. The mere words “granny flat” seems to indicate a one-story solution. However, in some cases, a second-story structure or building addition may be the answer. The local Planning Department will have input in this regard. A free standing unit will often qualify as an accessory structure in the zoning ordinance as well as the building code. There may also different requirements from the main residential structure.

California’s Second Unit legislation became effective January 1, 2003 and July 1, 2003. On July 1, 2003 local governments with a second-unit ordinance must “ministerially” consider second- unit applications. On January 1, 2003 the law required local governments without a second-unit ordinance to ministerially consider applications for second-units in accordance with State Standards. The word “ministerial” is used throughout this legislation. The California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA] describes “ministerial” as a governmental decision involving little or no personal judgment by the public official as to the or manner in carrying out the project. In other words… decisions must be based on a building code or ordinance not personal ideas on how the project is to be accomplished.

Typical of all legislation the government code is lengthy so I’ll only touch on the relevant portions of the code. For those that wish a copy one can be downloaded from the Department of Housing and Community Development website: www.hcd.ca.gov.

The local governments have some flexibility when adopting a second-unit regulation however the adopted ordinance cannot be arbitrary, burdensome or unreasonably restrict the property owner’s ability to create a second-unit. Designated zoning will authorize where the units are allowed and include requirements for parking, height, setbacks, lot coverage, and unit living area. Fortunately, the California court system ruled “a zoning ordinance which required that the occupancy of a second-unit be limited to persons related to the main unit’s owner” to be unconstitutional.

Various versions of second-unit ordinances have been adopted throughout the United States. Development of second-units has been encouraged for many reasons. They not only provide affordable housing but they can also provide a source of income, privacy, independence, and an alternative to assistive living facilities by supporting aging-in-place with an accessible living environment.

To date, the impacts of this legislation have not been fully realized but it presents numerous opportunities and in my opinion, I believe it will be more fully utilized in the near future as a viable option for many.



The Architect has considerations in addition to the clients building program and budget. A building program is a tool The Homeowner can use to define their family’s needs. This can be prepared by The Homeowner or in conjunction with their Architect. A sample building program can be obtained by contacting us at www.richardhdodd.com.

Your Architect should be knowledgeable with the State’s Second Unit legislation as well as the local ordinances regulating second-units. A meeting with the local planning department staff member to review their requirements is recommended. After assessing the local ordinances, the Architect should develop preliminary sketches based on the owner’s program.

All the features of a normal residence are necessary at a scale and proportions in keeping with the area allowed. In addition any special owner requirements should be incorporated. Attention should be given to low maintenance materials, and future accessibility, i.e., larger door openings, lever handles, grab bars, accessible showers, etc. For a two-story design or addition, the owner may want to consider an interior location for a future elevator installation. Also, both natural and artificial lighting should be incorporated. Natural light can be achieved by windows, clerestories, skylights or dormers. Artificial lighting should consider both overall ambient as well as reading and task lighting. A good resource for ideas is “The Center for Universal Design” School of Design N.C. State University http://www,ncsu.edulncsuldesignlcudf. Once the property owner approves the schematic design, they can then meet with a Contractor for input and a “ballpark” cost estimate.

The “Granny Flat” is a unique type of living and it’s no longer only to house an elderly relative. The additional time spent in the schematic stages will help assure a successful project.

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