City’s Plan for Pre-approved Backyard Cottages Shouldn’t Require Uncompensated Labor


It has been nearly two years since Mayor Jenny Durkan directed the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections to fast-track pre-approved designs of backyard cottages. At the time of the announcement, the Mayor’s Office stated, “The City will hire architects to develop several standard architectural plans for backyard cottages that could be built and permitted more quickly and at a lower cost to residents.”

Geared to entice more homeowners to add a backyard cottage, pre-approved plans were a component of the City’s accessory dwelling unit reform enacted in 2019 the City which aimed to generate an additional 2,460 homes over a decade.

In July of 2019–more than a year after the Mayor’s Office announced the City would hire architects to do this work–Mayor Durkan signed an Executive Order that stated this intent again: “Directive to Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to fast-track pre-approved designs for Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs) by hiring architects to develop several standard architectural plans for backyard cottages that could be built and permitted more quickly and at a lower cost to residents.”

By the fall of 2019, that statement – to pay architects for their labor –had been eliminated, to a call for submissions. The submittals were due on February 17, 2020. Those submissions will be reviewed by a number of people, including fellow planners and architects. The report on the selection process states that six to ten submissions will be approved. For this level of submission, entrants are required to submit the following items:

  • A 150-word description of the project;
  • Narrative of how project meets the submittal design guidelines;
  • An estimate of construction costs;
  • Dimensioned floor plans;
  • Building sections showing wall and roof assemblies;
  • Building elevations;
  • 3D views for marketing;
  • Major materials lists;
  • A list of mechanical systems; and
  • Price for the plan (maximum of $1,000), with how much the hourly rate is for further work (e.g., siting and landscaping).

That’s quite a bit of unpaid labor for a designer to submit. But it actually gets worse. If, on the off chance your submission is accepted, the City will require even more uncompensated labor from design firms. Accepted sets will require a full permit-ready set must be submitted for approval, including following items:

  • Glazing schedules;
  • Door schedules;
  • Framing and foundation plans;
  • Energy calculations or prescriptive energy code compliance documents;
  • Heating equipment sizing calculations;
  • Structural notes and calculations; and
  • A memorandum of agreement outlining issues related to copyright and liability.

The Mayor’s big proposal to save money on DADUs comes by reducing the cost of labor to the very folks who design them. I’ve worked on a few DADUs, and the design costs for these have generally been north of $15,000. While a DADU is smaller than a house, the required documents for submittal are effectively the same as a house. It’s almost the same amount of work.

It takes a fair amount of time to design a code-compliant DADU, prepare all of the necessary marketing images for it, plan assemblies that meet (or exceed) the energy code, and prepare documents for a permit-ready submittal. On top of this, the City is basically telling the architect to hire a structural engineer with their own money –on the off-chance that over the next few years, perhaps they will get more than 15 to 20 people to pick their design and build it.

Furthermore, the City’s pre-approved DADU submission guide states that the City will “aim to support and draw on the diverse experience and expertise of Seattle’s design and homebuilding professionals, especially early-career architects, emerging professionals, and women- and minority-owned businesses (WMBE).” These are the very groups the City should be paying to do work. I have also had several architects reach out to me and state that this is not only inequitable, but that other cities are in fact holding requests for proposals and paying architects to develop pre-approved backyard cottage plans for their jurisdictions.

This process is ridiculous. If the Mayor originally committed to hiring architects to develop a series of backyard cottages for pre-approved designs, the City should follow through. The entrants whose proposals are accepted should be paid a stipend to bring their designs up to the level that is needed for getting these submissions permit-ready. Reducing the cost to build a backyard cottage by forcing architects to provide free labor is truly disheartening. And frankly, something our millionaire mayor should know better than to authorize.

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Mike is a dad, writer, and mass timber architect with a passion for passivhaus buildings, baugruppen, social housing, livable cities, and safe car-free streets. After living in Freiburg, Mike spent 15 years raising his family - nearly car-free, in Fremont. After a brief sojourn to study mass timber buildings in Bayern, he has returned to jumpstart a baugruppe movement and help build a more sustainable, equitable, and livable Seattle. Ohne autos.

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As someone who wants to build a DADU I welcome the City’s efforts to make this a less expensive process for homeowners (next they should remove water/sewer connection charges….). Architects do free work for the sake of marketing all the time, and I think you all are complaining because your site specific DADU design work will diminish. Your comments and this article are self serving and not in the effort of making housing more affordable in Seattle. Relax.

sheri newbold

Thank you for this post. I share many of the concerns outlined in it. I am an architect that has designed many ADUs and am passionate about expanding the number of them that are built and I teach classes about creating ADUs. I also decided, after a great deal of thought, not to submit for this call for submissions. There were multiple reasons, however a strong one was that if my design was selected, I would be donating a considerable amount of time, fees, cash and risk…it seemed to me that in exchange for that there ought to be an income limitation for those who could purchase a use of the design for this low fee and also a coinciding program in place to help lower income homeowners pay for/ borrow for the construction of that DADU, which is the vast majority of cost of creating a DADU. Although a great deal of effort goes into designing a DADU, which is a small house, and ought to be appreciated and compensated, full design and permit fees are a small subset of the total cost of creating a DADU. Again, the vast bulk of the cost is in the construction cost and this is where I’ve seen most people be challenged in the process of creating one. Reframing the DADU construction and other associated costs, it is certainly less expensive to construct a DADU than buying property or constructing a full size house in Seattle.

At the same time, I appreciate the effort that OPCD made to engage the architecture community and get input about the pre-approved plan idea. They held an open meeting in July 2018 asking for input–whether to do a call for submissions, a request for proposal to hire an architect and for other input. At that meeting, my recollection is that most people did not want just one firm selected to design a pre-approved plan and also did not want a call for submissions or contest. There were many suggestions, including creating a data bank of DADUs that already had been permitted. My recollection is that given the choice of a call for submissions or selecting only one architect through RFP, generally people preferred multiple people being selected instead of one. Another note, for this call for submissions, anyone who submitted, even if not selected, will have their design posted online in a gallery, which will provide marketing exposure for that firm and presumably this is part of the marketing plan for those who submitted. I am interested to see where this experiment leads. I hope that it engages homeowners to think about what is possible for themselves. I hope it engages non-homeowners to think about co-buying with other people and sharing property. We will see what happens over the next few months.

ADUs are not going to solve our housing shortage, they are a small piece of the puzzle. Digressing from this topic, what I would like to see is that all construction permitting is made simpler and more predictable. Housing would be delivered more quickly if that is the case. There needs to be a comprehensive plan to increase all types of housing, including missing middle housing. It will be tough and not everyone will be happy. It will require political courage and involve many decisions and adjusting the many facets of the system–not just permitting but also zoning, the building code and many more.

Vince Slupski

Of course we couldn’t just co-op on Lacey’s plans! Or any other city’s plan for four walls and a roof on a concrete slab. A few years from now, the look-back articles will report how few ADUs were actually built, despite the intense public controversy.

Matt Hutchins

For years I have written letters asking the City (both Councilmembers and Building department staff) to classify cottages as Subject to Field Inspection. this would allow many more people to build, would cut permit costs, and maybe just maybe, encourage more DADUs. As an architect I can state that these are simple structures, why is the City putting them through this complex process?? Thanks for the article and getting the facts OUT!


This is an unreasonable request IMO. Although they are simple structures they still need to meet building, planning, and fire standards. This doesn’t change based on size. Often adding a DADU is more complex planning wise than a primary structure.


I am on a team that submitted for this call, and we had these same discussions while working on it. We ended up deciding to do it for a bunch of different reasons, but we never agreed with the way the city was doing this. On top of what you mentioned in your article, the proposed fee structure is also very strange. Why even have a choice on how much to charge for a plan when $1000 is %0.5 of the project cost? That number means nothing.

The biggest problem I have with this process is that is it just a PR stunt by the city, and not a real solution to the housing shortage. DADU’s are too expensive to build and they will not have an impact in the housing supply. Only the wealthy can afford to build them, because who has $200K to just build something in their backyard?

As Mike pointed out, all the saving in this program are on the backs of design professionals, which might save you a few percentage points of the overall cost, but doesn’t lower the cost barrier enough to open it up to those with less means.

Having said all of this, I do think that backyard cottages make sense for many people but not as a serious solution to our housing and climate crisis. And this program certainly doesn’t help on the equity side of things either.


Thank you for writing this… The main cost of creating a DADU is in the construction cost, not the design cost. Creating public loans for owners without home equity or otherwise helping people afford a loan for these would go a long way.


Incredible. Now we know how unserious Seattle is about encouraging DADUs.

Jamie Alls

Do you know how many submissions they’ve received, if any? You rightly point out the stupidity, and it’s not having the desired effect.