Handy In Law Suites
There are so many general parameters to consider when designing an addition of an in-law-suite: access, zoning setbacks and restrictions, site topography, space requirements, mobility constraints, budget, the list goes on and on. I will try to present a few key design elements below to help guide you through this process. As an architect, I whole-heartedly recommend that you employ the expertise of a design professional when undertaking this task! I also recommend that all, or at the very least most, design meetings involve the homeowners as well as the in-laws. Bringing all of the involved parties together makes for a much more successful project and leads to shared future enjoyment-the goal here!
1. Kitchen/no kitchen (oven)!
This is probably the most important issue from a cost/zoning compliance/lifestyle point of view. The main factor affecting this decision is the level of independence of the family members who will be living in this addition. Active, lucid, and social residents will undoubtedly want to entertain, be able to prepare their own meals, bake breads and sweets, and retain as much as possible of their pre-suite lifestyle. In-laws who are suffering from short-term memory loss and/or dementia symptoms are not good candidates for the responsibility of safely operating a cooktop or oven, and often benefit from dining with the rest of the family. I specifically use cooktop and oven, as microwave ovens are usually acceptable in this case. Assuming that the folks will be cooking, each jurisdiction has their own requirements for this aspect of an in-law suite. For example, Montgomery County, Maryland currently allows for this type of arrangement with a simple zoning request and affidavit. Frederick County, Maryland, on the other hand, may consider the suite to be a separate apartment, subject to special exception hearing(s), fire-separation between main house and suite, impact fees, and yearly status reports to the zoning administrator. Without a kitchen (oven), none of this is typically required. The bottom line is that if the in-laws can do without a cooktop or oven, then that is usually the most efficient way to go.
2. Private exterior Access
This is again a lifestyle issue, as active (still driving or social) parents may want to maintain their privacy by having their own entrance. If this is the case, make sure that the entrance is well-lit, safely-located, and covered. If the parents maintain an active lifestyle, they will also want to be able to entertain friends without involving the main household in their private business. Provide an accessible parking area as well. Allow your folks the dignity of social privacy-so that they do not have to relinquish this in their lifestyle transition.
3. Access to main house
It is highly recommended that the in-law-suite be located at the same main level as the house. inlaw suite. inlaw suite. Most of the shared time between the family and in-laws occurs on this level, so this is easier for all involved. Many clients ask me about an elevator to alleviate this requirement, but at a cost of $50,000+, it is often not feasible for most budgets. As these are relatives, it is wise to maintain an interior access to the main house for all involved. As this access is informal, location is not paramount (through a foyer, back hall, mudroom etc.). I recommend that this access be handicap accessible for current and/or future use. Although your folks may be mobile now, things can rapidly change.
For most people moving to an in-law suite, space will be limited. Often giving up the family home that the children grew up in to a substantially smaller dwelling can cause stress and anxiety. By providing additional and abundant storage, the in-laws can retain possessions/furniture/collectibles, etc without having to downsize immediately. It is usually inexpensive space that will make the transition easier for all.
5. Accessibility/handicap/age-dependent issues
Although the parents may be active and mobile now, this may be their last home. It is tremendously important that this space be able to accommodate the changing needs of your elders. I recommend making the space, at the very least, handicap-friendly. It does not necessarily need to meet the requirements of the ADA codes, but some planning now for limited mobility in the future is a good investment. Try to keep doors at least 36" wide, eliminate steps, and carefully consider heights of toilets, vanities, counters, etc.
6. Private outdoor space
We all enjoy the simple things like the outdoors. It may be important to provide your family members with a private outdoor space (also have a shared outdoor space for family events). Adeck, patio, screened room, or covered porch (recommended for smokers) will allow them to watch the world go by at their own pace. And although the purpose of the suite addition is to be able to help care for their needs, they will want time away from you every now and again!
7. Flooring choices
As most suites are compact versions of the folks' former homes, having a consistent semi-formal flooring makes the space feel larger, flow together, and serve various functions. Carpet is not usually high on my list, due to the upkeep, staining, and wheelchair drag. Hardwood and laminate flooring are usually a safe bet: they can be easily cleaned, are smooth for walkers/wheelchairs, and fit in a kitchen as well as a living room. Seamless vinyl flooring is also good, as it is easy to maintain, waterproof/durable, and soft underfoot. If necessary, a low-pile carpet is also an alternative.
A garage is a personal choice, but for a still-active driver, a great convenience to have. It allows older/slower folks the luxury of time in getting in and out of the vehicle with no concern for the elements. If one of the parents has been a tinkerer or auto enthusiast his/her whole life, then this also affords them a place to continue their hobby. It also provides an escape for one parent away from the other. The more similarities between the former home and this new in-law-suite, the better!
Another personal choice to be made, as some folks are used to sleeping in separate bedrooms, and don't want to change now. Usually one bedroom will suffice, but let the in-laws dictate this. Make sure that the bedroom will accommodate the furniture planned, and ensure that the closets are sufficient for existing wardrobes. If only one bath is in the budget, try to design it to be accessible from the bedroom as well as the entertaining space. If a lot of entertaining is planned, maybe include a separate powder room as well. The bath should be handicap friendly with respect to tub/shower access, counter and toilet heights, and space to move around. A linen closet never goes to waste.
10. Consider existing furniture
As mentioned above, design the spaces to accommodate the furniture (almost always existing from the in-law's former residence). Allow a little extra space for a wheelchair or walker. Using the existing furniture provides some continuity between the former residence and this new suite-don't under-estimate its impact in making the parents feel at-home.
A simple rule: provide abundant and adjustable lighting. Older folks tend to have failing eyesight and appreciate abundant lighting (I know I do!). Task lighting is most important (kitchen preparation areas, vanity/ makeup area, etc.) to ensure clear view of work areas. Consider a generous use of recessed lighting for general applications (dimmable) and you can't go wrong.
12. Future use
I mentioned earlier that the in-law-suite is temporary-the folks will eventually be moving on. Don't be afraid to discuss the secondary use of the suite (maybe not in front of the parents), and attempt to determine what the space might become upon the departure of the in-laws. In some cases, it is a natural progression for the suite to become a first floor master for the aging house owners; it may become an additional family space, a rented accessory apartment, etc. The point is to think of the eventual use of this space beyond its original intent, and consider the ramifications in the design.
The biggest complaint I hear about in-law suites is: "we should have done it sooner". The function of the suite is to allow the parents to age in a family environment, be able to make the adjustment before their faculties are failing, to allow family care instead of institutional care. Don't wait until the progression of a debilitating condition negates the positive benefits of family interaction- the worst thing you can do is go through the headaches of this transition, only to find that it is short-lived. Encourage your family to discuss and plan for this. Making the change sooner than later can be beneficial for all involved.
There are many other considerations when planning this particular building type, including, but not limited to, fire separation between the main house and suite, financing alternatives, security concerns, etc. It is time well spent in the planning stages of the project to consider all of the above to ensure the project proceeds smoothly and is enjoyed for years to come.
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