“Accessory dwelling” sounds like a new Barbie mansion. But it’s actually a full-size residential building placed on the same property as a larger residence. Sometimes called an in-law apartment, it is exempt from the minimum square-footage requirement most neighborhoods place on a primary dwelling, although it might need to comply with other restrictions. If a tiny house is parked legally in a US city, odds are it’s an accessory dwelling.
A few cities are famous for permitting accessory dwellings as a way of life. Among them are Portland, Oregon; Olympia, Washington… and now Burlington, Vermont. This article in weekly publication Seven Days peeks into the life of a retired couple who built their 400-square-foot house behind the home of their daughter and son-in-law in Burlington’s South End. Per zoning ordinances there, the accessory house has no more than 30% of the main house’s habitable area, and the total lot coverage does not exceed 35%. It’s insulated with 12-inch-thick walls, and the open interior looks very comfortable.
Accessory dwellings work in low-density cities, where private lots exist within walking distance of the city center. Yestermorrow instructor Lina Menard describes the practice as “infill architecture,” adding density to an urban area. It’s an anti-sprawl measure that creates economies of scale: fewer roads per capita, fewer miles traveled for personal trips and distribution of goods, more opportunities to meet people and share ideas. All you need to do is find someone who’s comfortable sharing their yard with you.