Live the Tiny Home Dream in Your Own Backyard

A Madison Valley couple relocates without leaving their property.

By Karin Vandraiss September 1, 2020 Published in the Fall 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Ditch the Lawn Mower Natural stone and native planting allow for an aesthetically pleasing sub-alpine yard with little upkeep or water usage.

Building a detached accessory dwelling unit (DADU, for short) in the backyard—that’s increasingly common in Seattle. Few such homeowners, however, actually move into the space themselves. Patti Rossie and Austin Smith traded their 1906 Madison Valley home for a newly built rear cottage on their own property. But the two weren’t squeezing their life into one of the glorified dollhouses you see on HGTV shows dedicated to downsized living. With its 800 carefully designed square feet, the “tiny” home would yield more space than the couple’s single-story farmhouse. They even had a plan for Smith’s mother to move into the original home. 

Enter Bruce Parker, lead designer and founder of Seattle-based firm Microhouse. He has spent more than a decade proselytizing small-home living to the Pacific Northwest. He leads permitting workshops at local community centers and hosts open houses to show that backyard cottages, as he refers to them, aren’t as small as you may think. “You’d be surprised at how spacious a small home can feel,” says Parker. “A 600-square-foot house seems much larger than a 600-square-foot apartment.”

From 2009 (when Seattle legalized DADUs) to 2017, 562 permits were issued for backyard cottages. “The majority were intended for senior family members,” says Parker. City council eventually relaxed regulations on DADU construction in 2019 to accommodate a wider range of households; today, by Parker’s estimate, only 10 percent of projects are of the mother-in-law variety. While a large number are now rental properties, Parker still sees interest in building DADUs for varied uses, from a musician wanting an on-site studio to a recently divorced couple looking for a more convenient way to co-parent.

With more than 100 DADUs on his resume and hard-won experience navigating the permitting process (which often takes up to six months), Parker appealed to the couple’s pragmatism. He’d come recommended by a friend, but for Smith, a lifelong cyclist, Parker sealed the deal by arriving to the initial site visit on his bike.

Good Clean Fun Industrial grated flooring in the gear storage space allows for easy cleanup (and doesn’t count toward square footage). 

Rossie and Smith, a neonatal ICU nurse and respiratory therapist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, respectively, share a love of the outdoors and hoped the home would reflect their connection to nature. On a practical level they needed storage for kayaks, bikes, climbing gear, and skis, and a mudroom for post-adventure cleanup. They also wanted plenty of room for entertaining and cooking—Smith, a former restaurateur, planned to install a nicer-than-average oven. Neither of them liked the idea of cluttered countertops.

Happy Feet Hydronic radiant heating (aka heated concrete) keeps you cool in the warmer months and cozy in the winter. 

Parker leaned into his clients’ outdoor proclivity, recommending a two-story build, with a deck just overlooking the neighboring trees (that conveniently wouldn’t add to the overall square footage). Situating the sizable master bedroom and bathroom upstairs also allows for an open floor plan below. Parker circumvented the city’s height and dormer restrictions with an open tread staircase; he left joints exposed so the space wouldn’t feel cramped and installed windows throughout for an abundance of natural light.   

Rossie, who led the charge on design, calls the look “contemporary cabin.” The gray, cream, and caramel palette on both the interior and exterior suggest the snow-covered environs of Eastern Washington’s Methow Valley. “It’s one of the places I’m happiest, and I wanted to recall that feeling,” says Rossie. Keeping things tidy feels like another element of the aesthetic, she says. “It’s a bit like living on a boat—you have to put things back where you found them.”

After months of watching construction from their bedroom window, Rossie and Smith moved across the yard in October of 2016. Smith admits he enjoyed living on-site during the process. “I loved coming home from work and experiencing the house being built day by day.”

View from the Top A rooftop patio with a retractable awning provides year-round privacy and protection from the elements.

Personal Space Turning over the entire second floor to the master suite makes it feel roomy.

City council’s move to ease size restrictions and eliminate owner occupancy requirements—an attempt to address Seattle’s housing shortage—has streamlined permitting and building. Now some of Rossie and Smith’s friends, and even a few admiring passersby, are considering building cottages of their own, helping to make small-home living an outsize part of our city’s identity.

More Tiny House Tips

  • Dainty Dishwasher Follow the European trend of high-quality, smaller appliances. (Note: Half the size doesn’t mean half the price tag.)
  • Smart Space Consider built-in cabinets and furniture with storage over freestanding pieces.
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