How to Add an Accessory Dwelling Unit to your Property in 7 Steps

Courtesy of Christopher Strom.
Courtesy of Christopher Strom.
Courtesy of Christopher Strom.

Courtesy of Christopher Strom.

By Christopher Strom

If you’re old enough to remember watching TV’s Happy Days, Arthur Fonzarelli’s bachelor pad above the Cunningham’s garage defined “cool.” The Fonz had his share of independence yet was still part of the family…in a non-traditional sense.

Fast-forward to December 5, 2014: The Minneapolis City Council approved an amended zoning code to allow for “Accessory Dwelling Units” (ADU) to address issues of density and affordability. Not a cool name like “Fonzie Suite,” but exciting nonetheless. This building type has been very successful in cities like Santa Cruz, Oakland, Seattle, and Toronto, and allows for multi-generational living while maintaining independence and privacy from the main home.

An obvious benefit to owning one of these units is the financial gain. If you own a home or are considering buying one, operating a rental unit can greatly subsidize the costs of home ownership, including the ability to make higher monthly payments on your mortgage. Beyond the financial incentives, this building type will serve an diverse group of needs:

  1. It allows families to pool resources and provide secure, affordable housing for a relative (think “mother-in-law suite”).
  2. It can provide accommodation for a live-in caregiver.
  3. It increases the potential for companionship and help with routine home maintenance such as snow removal or lawn care.
  4. When not rented, it may just provide more flexible space for a home office or studio.

As a residential architect with extensive knowledge of the Minneapolis building code, I am introducing a product to Minneapolis called Second Suite ( Building an ADU/Second Suite can proceed with the following process:

  1. Find an architect that is familiar with Accessory Dwelling Units that can design in a style that suits your needs. You may decide to “build-to-blend” with the character of your existing home or add a pleasing modern counterpoint to your yard.
  2. Determine if a detached Accessory Dwelling Unit can fit on your property. Floor area can vary between 300 and 1000 square feet, and there is a 20 foot maximum height (see graphic). An architect-led code review can rule it out if setbacks or other limitations would prove prohibitive.
  3. Discuss your requirements for accessibility, daylight, size, parking, kitchen and bath needs, etc. Architects call this a programming meeting, and will help you define and prioritize your needs.
  4. Allow yourself some time during the architectural design process to consider options you may not have thought of. Refine the design with your architect over a series of meetings. As more detail is developed, select the materials and finishes.
  5. Choose a builder with good references to help with determining cost, or get multiple bids using the Architect’s professional documents.
  6. Get a permit and start construction.
  7. Final inspection and…enjoy!


Christopher Strom has been an advisor to city zoning staff for the adoption of the Accessory Dwelling Unit Ordinance. Recently, the American Institute of Architects – Minnesota announced Strom as the 2014 “Emerging Talent” for his unique design solutions. Find more information at and

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