Courtesy ACDDC

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to add a building to a homeowner’s lot without bureaucratic logjams. For many home architects, this mission would appear nearly impossible. So the AIA’s Small Project Practitioners and Housing Knowledge Communities gave a master’s degree student in Austin, Texas, this year’s AIA Innovation and Practice in Housing Design Research Grant to produce a handbook for a fast-growing building type. Alison Steele received $7,000 to research materials, techniques, and costs for rolling out “accessory dwelling units”—free-standing homes in yards or alleys, which homeowners can carry or rent out through a variety of financing schemes. Many architects understand why clients would want these—and why they would create headaches. Steele wants to erase this second part.

Her proposal, which bested more than a dozen others with its practical heft, aims to detail the means of delivering low-cost houses to undersupplied Austin. The nonprofit Austin Community Design and Development Center (ACDDC), where Steele was working while in grad school, had been seeking a method for building what it calls “alley flats.” According to ACDDC materials, the city of Austin was 39,000 short on necessary affordable units in 2009.

Arithmetically, extra homes on existing parcels can plug the gap, the organization said in a press release. “Recent research from the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture has shown that there are over 42,000 single-family lots in Austin eligible for the development of an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) … at the rear of underutilized lots with existing single-family homes.”

“Underutilized,” as many urban architects know, can be a subjective term. Like many ideas that make clarion sense in school, adding units to alleys or lawns bumps up against laws. In many places, zoning forbids extra residences on a lot, or at least hems in where owners can put them.

For Dayton, Ohio, architect Marika Snider, AIA, vice chair of the Small Project Practitioners Knowledge Community, this poses problems that Steele’s approach can detail. “This is a design challenge, not just a square footage and policy challenge, and particularly relevant in areas with high real estate cost,” Snider says of Steele’s research. Cities facing climate change, like Austin, tend to contain natural boundaries that reduce sprawl. As they densify, they also need materials that withstand intense heat or storms.

So Steele will spend a year researching methods for delivering quick, low-cost, and attractive housing that slides easily into her client’s pipeline. “We’re trying to get the lowest number we can build at, and then compare it to conventional wood frame,” says Steele. “Construction costs matter so much because a lot of people who need these units don’t have money to front.”

Designing ADUs for rent, as the Austin brief proposes, means simultaneously controlling for cost, speed, and aesthetics—all of which creates puzzles. “We’re looking at something called EZ Log, which has dealers throughout the U.S.,” says Steele. “Most of what they sell now in the U.S. is sheds or cabins or things that don’t have to be code-compliant.”

Steele’s report intends to explain techniques and prices for adding insulation, with input from structural engineers. This is timely because some municipal laws limit ADUs’ size or require off-street parking, according to a 2011 USA Today article “A House Divided Helps Pay the Bills.” If Steele’s research pays off, it will outline for architects in many markets the steps to draw, spec, and construction-manage units as fast as the market for them is growing.

“You can start thinking about empty space as living space,” Snider says. “The American family is changing.” As more Americans care for aging parents, or welcome back grown children, more homeowners are ready to share their parcels while keeping their own lockable door.

Other reasons for adding units reflect common sense. Some owners want rental income (perhaps after a mortgage blowup). Others grasp the wastefulness of tearing down homes and building replacements, as The New York Times detailed earlier this year in the style-focused Home section. R. Denise Everson, Assoc. AIA, secretary of the AIA Housing Knowledge Community, sees the need for ADU guidance in her own work at the District of Columbia Housing Authority. “We are working on a project that is very aged and deteriorating, close to 25 acres with over 400 units, that we’re looking to develop into over 1,500 units. Our team has explored flats over garages—it’s an affordable housing typology I have not seen in the District before.”

Everson’s proposal doesn’t call for separate units, but she says momentum around the country will make such units more common. Her 7 a.m. session on multigenerational housing at the 2013 AIA Convention, she says, drew more than 200 attendees.

And Steele is aware that her work can ease production of even newer types. One of her deliverables is a design for what her client—the Alley Flat Initiative, a collaboration between the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp., the University of Texas Center for Sustainable Development, and ACDDC—calls AF2.0: zero-, one-, and two-bedroom houses that will be net-zero-energy capable in time to comply with Austin’s Climate Protection Plan for 2015. It’s territory, she notes, where “sustainability and affordability go hand in hand.”

Snider wishes Steele luck. “Designing these small spaces as theoretical projects is one thing,” she says, “but Steele’s project can help architects make these kinds of projects fit into the real world.