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COMFORT ZONE | Smart Designs for Pleasure and Planet

Yes, in My Backyard

By Anneli Rufus

"The house is nontoxic," says Kitty Cone. "I have allergies, and I wouldn't want to invite my friends into a space where anything could be off-gassing."

More than half of this country's single-family homes have just one or two occupants each and sit on sizable lots. That wastes space, energy, and resources. But what if tiny homes—cute, complete, and meeting all housing codes—popped up on those lots? In-laws, out-of-college offspring, or even paying tenants could share land but have a fully functional separate space, steps away.

Those steps can be the difference between serenity and squabbling. "A little separation provides a ton of independence," says Kevin Casey, whose New Avenue Homes of Berkeley, California, builds small, sustainable houses for $60,000 and up, including design, construction, and fees. One of Casey's projects, a 674-square-foot, one-bedroom cottage in a woodsy San Francisco Bay Area suburb, boasts reclaimed oak and salvaged doors and has Spanish-style roof tiles that match those on the main house across the yard.

"In this society we're all so separate and isolated," Cone says. "This is a great way for people who care about each other to share meals and use the same washer-dryer yet still have privacy."

Before moving into the cottage in her daughter's backyard, its owner saw her two grandsons every few months. Now she sees them daily. While the main house is outfitted to suit a growing family, the cottage reflects the mature taste of a well-traveled collector, with a two-way fireplace, a sleek white sofa, and a Mexican-tile bath. A shimmering golden kimono adorns a living room wall.

Another of Casey's "in-law" projects is a 475-square-foot, two-story home. The living room, kitchen, bathroom (with a tub), and ample closet are downstairs. Upstairs is a bedroom that fits a queen-size bed. "Small homes have all the same things as large homes," Casey says. "They just don't have empty rooms." Utilities in these cottages cost less than $30 a month.

The similarly sized Berkeley home of Kitty Cone, connected via a wheelchair ramp to her friends' full-size house, complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It offers a remote-control-operated front door, an emergency exit, bedrooms for Cone and an attendant, and a loft for guests. Sustainable features include an insulated foundation, radiant floor heating, spray-foam insulation, reclaimed windows, and salvaged wood. And it's nontoxic: Casey shuns vinyl, glues, solvents, and carpeting.

"It's really fun to work on creating your own house so that it's not some energy-guzzling space," Cone says. "I already use a tremendous amount of electricity—for my wheelchair, my respirator, my bed. That can't be helped. But this house will let me conserve other resources."

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