Universal Design is not just Design for Aging or Design for Independence

The term “Universal Design” and “Design for Aging” are commonly used in the design community, but what does it actually mean? According to MJ Lee, a recent Master’s graduate of San Francisco State University, Design for Aging is the desire to live in one’s home as long as possible – preferably to the end of life – and avoid institutionalization.  AIA (American Institute of Architects) San Francisco’s Design for Aging committee explored this topic at a recent meeting as Lee presented her Master’s research on baby boomers’ intentions for aging in place.  This entailed a survey of 225 adults, ages 50+.

New Avenue helped Mona Cain build her new, comfortable and handicap-accessible backyard home.  Read more about this story by clicking on photo. Photo by Tearsa Joy Hammock / San Francisco Public Press.

When asked of the desire to age in place, 78% of respondents answered yes, which aligned closely with a 2003 AARP study at 80-90%.  However, only 30% of survey respondents made modifications to their homes.  The leading motivator?   To maintain independence and stay in the community.  Home modifications are important in creating a comfortable and safe living space, and boomers should be more proactive in their approach to aging in place.  Examples of such modifications include curb-less showers, hand rails and zero threshold entrances. The most common home modification was the installation of grab bars.  Although not many survey participants made modifications to their homes, a large sample did downsize in terms of footprint.  62% of non-boomers (ages 65+) and 68% of boomers (ages 50-64) lived in dwellings less than 2,500 square feet.  A great example is Mona Cain, who now lives comfortably in a 610-square-foot home in her daughter’s backyard, thanks to New Avenue.  A major implication of Lee’s findings is for designers to emphasize independent lifestyle when promoting home modifications and incorporating universal design.  She would like to expand the cohort group for a further survey to increase the diversity of respondents.  To learn more about this survey and her other research, visit her website. 

Attention All Architects – Join Us!


Less of this means….

New Avenue is launching an Architect’s Profile feature for our website and we would love your input.  Our cloud-based collaboration program connects homeowners to the architect and takes care of the paperwork, helping them through the complicated process of designing and building sustainable accessory dwellings.

…more of this!

Now we are ready to showcase our amazing architects with a new feature in development.  We are holding focus group sessions at our Emeryville office in the next few weeks.  We are excited to meet you and get your feedback!

If you, or a colleague, would be interested in learning about our SAS program or becoming an architect partner, please call us at 855-5NewAve or email partners@newavenuehomes.com

Here is what our current partners have to say about our software and business model:

“New Avenue has helped to take the work of finding and attracting new clients off of our to do list, allowing us to focus on what we enjoy doing the most – designing for our clients.”

-Patrick Bartlett, Bevan Bartlett Architects

“If you’re not pursuing an integrated design process, in all probability it’s a ‘dis-integrated’ process, with sub-optimized results pretty much guaranteed. For top outcomes, an integrated process is a must.”

-Ann V Edminster, Advisor, former Chair of LEED for Homes and renowned sustainability and green building leader

Planning and Building Permits Required For a Kitchen Remodel, Master Bath and Bedroom Addition in San Rafael, CA

At New Avenue we have paid over 30 different types of permits to get residential projects approved.

We recently completed a conversion of a nearly 100 year old duplex back to it’s original single family home while also adding a two story addition for a master suite, master bath and nursery for a baby who arrived during the remodel.

This is a summary of the permitting requirements in San Rafael.  An unusually fast office for any city, let alone Marin County!

We guarantee your project will be different!  This is a great starting point if you are researching.  Most people have never heard of all these permit requirements.

Here are our findings:


Q: What is the zoning district?

A: R5

Q: What is the allowable coverage? How is it measured

A: 40%

Q: Is there a floor-area ratio (FAR) between the Main Home and the Second Unit? What is it?

A: Second dwelling unit can be up to 40% of the gross square footage of the principal dwelling, not including the garage, but can be at least 500 square feet.

Q: What is the maximum allowed size for the Second Unit?

A: The maximum size is 800 square feet, unless a Use Permit is granted, which can allow a maximum size of 1,000 square feet.

Q: Do chimneys, window boxes, and/or bay windows count toward the square footage of the Second Unit?

A: No

Q: Do other structures count toward the existing footprint? What are they?

A: No

Q: Does the basement and/or attic count toward the floor area of the Main Home?

A: No

Q: Can the Second Unit have two floors?

A: If located in a detached accessory building, the height limit is 15 feet unless a Use Permit is granted.

Q: Can the Second Unit have a loft, mezzanine, open storage, closed storage, and/or attic?

A: Yes

Q: Can the loft be habitable space?

A: Yes

Q: Can the Second Unit have a basement, workspace, or other area? Do they count toward square footage?

A: Yes

Q: What landscaping requirements and exceptions are there

A: None that are known

Q: Is this a liquefaction zone?

A: No’

Q: Is this a fire zone?

A: No’

Q: Is this a flood zone?

A: No’

Q: Is this an environmental zone?

A: No’

Setbacks and Dimensions

Q: What is the front setback?

A: 15′

Q: What are the side setbacks?

A: 5′

Q: What is the rear setback?

A: 10′

Q: What are any other required setbacks? Special setbacks may be needed for creeks, power lines, key or corner lots, etc.

A: There is a creek running through a culvert underneath part of the property. i believe there is some easement regulation for that.

Q: Are there any setback exceptions?

A: None that are known

Q: Can the Second Unit be connected to the Main Home? If not, how far apart do they have to be?

A: N/A

Q: Can we continue a wall of an existing structure within a setback? Is there a maximum length for walls

A: N/A

Q: What is the maximum height limit? Is there a max average height limit? Can we match the height of the existing house?

A: 15 feet or Use Permit if that is exceeded


Q: Do we measure from the sidewalk, the property line, or from somewhere else?


Q: How many parking spaces are required for the Main Home? Sizes? Do they need to be covered? What configuration or access must they have?

A: Depends on requirements for making that a single family home again. Per City of San Rafael, we would not need to change anything about the existing parking for that.

Q: How many more new spaces are required for the property? Sizes? Do they need to be covered? What configuration or access must they have? Do they require a border around them?

A: 1 uncovered

Q: Is there a turning radius or other parking rule to test?

A: No


For a detailed budget of this project, example floor plans or to use the free New Avenue project management system you can sign up for free here: Get Started

Concord Open House – Saturday, April 5

A wonderful project of ours is nearing completion, and we’re opening it up for you to see Saturday, April 5th, from 12-2pm. We’ll be there answering any questions you have about our process and how projects like this work. Feel free to share this invitation with your friends and family.

Click here to RSVP, and we’ll email you the address a few days before the event!


Correction: The event city is Concord, which is near Walnut Creek, but it’s not Walnut Creek.

This picture was taken recently, and the cottage will have siding and drywall completed. Come see how much can change in less than two weeks!
This picture was taken recently, and the cottage will have siding and drywall completed. Come see how much can change in less than two weeks!

How do I get permits for an accessory dwelling (ADU)?


Navigating the planning and building permit offices in your city or county when trying to build an accessory dwelling or structure can be a frustrating experience. You walk in with some simple ideas and often walk out feeling more confused with little or no options.

After dealing with many permitting offices throughout the many second unit projects we’ve been involved with, we’ve learned that the more you can speak the language of the people with the rules, the better off you’ll be. Saying that you want to build a house in your backyard will quickly get a “you can’t do that.” Saying that you want to build an accessory structure, which might be the same thing to you, will get much better results.

We’ve also learned that you need to ask the same questions multiple times with multiple people. One person might interpret your question differently than another and you want to feel confident when building your accessory dwelling that you’re doing things right. If you put all your eggs in one basket, you’re taking a risk.

Another great idea is working with a good architect. They’re professionals who have navigated this path many times before and do things much more quickly than you can as the homeowner.

Many people call us saying that they’ve talked with the city and building a backyard cottage isn’t possible on their lot, only to have us look into it for them and learn that what they want to build might be called something else and it is in fact possible. It’s an interesting learning experience to go to the city on your own, but most people quickly find out that it’s worth it to have someone like us do it for them.

New Avenue Backyard Cottage in the News

It’s great to see another one of our projects in the news. InMenlo wrote a feature article on an accessory dwelling in Menlo Park that we helped build for a family who wanted a backyard cottage to live closer together.

InMenlo describes the 750 sqft house as “spacious” and “well laid out,” and the photo shown here illustrates how clients like to add their personal touches, often times making the second unit even more interesting than their main house!

Check out the article about this in-law unit and feel free to view more photos of Erin’s accessory dwelling unit (ADU), which was a garage conversion, on our site.


Anthropologie Book Treasure – Quick Review

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In the midst of the obligatory holiday shopping trip I ducked into Anthrolologie last night and discovered a perfectly curated collection of home design books.  Who knew that they sell books in there???

This is “sort of” a book review because I only had 15 minutes to read all 5 books:)  But I saw enough to make a quick decision and purchase one of them and after researching them this morning, I may buy all of them.   Thank you Anthropologie Media Buyer/Planner!


Remodelista by Julie Carlson: http://www.remodelista.com/about/julie-carlson

This is fancy in a super well thought out rustic kind of way.   There are stunning uses of exposed wood interiors such as rafters and eaves that are painted a nice clean white.  We will be copying this in our designs:)

Making a House Your Home

Making a House Your Home by Clare Nolan: http://www.clarenolan.com/

Unlike many of the books that we look at which focus on materials and products, this book has a unique angle about the mental process and preparation for living well.   That’s way too often overlooked in the building process.

Creative Family Home

Creative Family Home by Ashlyn Gibson:  http://www.creativefamilyhome.com/

When I opened this book I immediately thought of my artist sister and her five daughters. Everytime I go by their home a wall is a new color or there’s new artwork, sketch books, and those fancy drawing pencils that artists use scattered around.   There must be 1,000 little ideas in this book that you can pick up and have some fun with.


Domino by Deborah Needleman, Sara Ruffin Costello & Dara Coponigro: 

This book breaks your home down into manageable spaces that you can think through.  It’s a perfect step by step guide.

The authors live interesting lives and have been profiled in a few publications such as:

Deborah’s Tribeca loft in NY Mag… I’m pretty sure that being a published author who lives in a NY Mag worthy Tribeca Loft is living the dream – http://nymag.com/homedesign/spring2007/31805/

Sara has a New Orleans Home featured here –  http://www.domainehome.com/sara-ruffin-costello-grand-designs/

Dara Coponigro had this amazing story about her own parent’s downsizing and improving an ugly old condo to feel like a “Stockholm flat”.  This is a story that we can believe in at New Avenue!   http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/08/garden/08dara.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

A Life Less Ordinary

A Life Less Ordinary by Zoe Ellison and Alex Lexendre

This book immediately made me think of Restoration Hardware, but custom and storied and authentically antique… it’s the inspiration behind Restoration Hardware more than the actual store.

If you’re building a home you could easily justify buying each and everyone.  I had to go with Domino because of it’s practical focus on the different spaces.   After reading about the author’s personal experience I’m glad I did… this is a perfect mix of the practical and the beautiful that makes good design great.



Lessons on Rightsizing vs. Downsizing – When to Expand and When to Contract

What is Downsizing?

In downsizing, you reduce or eliminate the amount of content and clutter in your house. If you are moving from the three bedroom house that you and your spouse raised your children in over the past 10, 20 or 25 years to a considerably smaller house, cottage, condominium or apartment, you simply will have no space or need for all the items that filled the house. You will have to decide which items you want to keep and which items you want to give away, sell or otherwise dispose of. When moving from a larger to a smaller home, you are downsizing the home itself.

What is Rightsizing?

In rightsizing, you also focus on optimizing what you own and that typically entails eliminating the amount of content and clutter in your house but it is a much more open concept.   Instead of just stepping down from that three bedroom house that you and your spouse raised your children in smaller house, you may move to a similarly sized house that has a different layout or is closer to come services, church, transportation or the action.   You might even go bigger if you need room for an office, a caretaker and a stream of out of town guests.   The key, again, is deciding which items you want to keep and which items you want to give away.  Rightsizing is a planning process that is introspective and may take a year or more to complete.

What to Keep, What to Dispose of – and, is Storage an Option?

How do you decide what to keep and what to dispose of? No question – making some of these decisions can be tough. These are highly subjective questions that only you and your family can answer. Some of us feel terrible when we dispose of the items we grew up with. For sure, some of feel terrible when we dispose of our old emails! Sure, one option is to keep everything – if you want to place the items in storage and pay continual, draining storage fees, which may cost anywhere from under $100 to over $1,000 per month. For many downsizers, storage is not a desired option and defeats the purpose. Storage, however may be an excellent temporary option until you are able to dispose of everything you want to.

What to Keep, What to Let Go Of:

So what should you keep and what should you let go of? Here are some points you can consider:

  • Do you use the items on a daily, weekly or frequent basis? If not, consider freeing yourself of them.
  • Is the item in perfect working order or is it broken, unusable or unsightly? Dispose of broken clutter.
  • Will the item fit in your new space? This is especially relevant with furniture and “junk” you piled up in the garage.
  • Do clothing items still fit you? Can you honestly see yourself wearing them again? Or are you just holding onto the past? Consider keeping one or two items that represent a period in your life and parting with the rest.
  • Is the item practical and usable or is it sentimental? Sentimental items are important to many of us; the question is how many can you reasonably fit into your new space?
  • Are you holding on to a relative’s items but now the relative has moved away or passed?
  • Do you have the legal right to dispose of an item?
  • You may want to photograph your items before you dispose of them – just for your own memories.
  • If the items are mostly junk and not worth money, don’t waste time or energy trying to sell them. Just give them away or trash them.

Sell, Give Away or Trash Your No-Longer Needed Stuff:

In the digital age we have options that were not available to our elders. You can offer your items for sale on Ebay, Amazon, Craigslist and other online sites. It is important that you know the correct value and price range of the items you wish to sell so that you are fair to yourself and buyers. Some sellers suggest that you dispose of the majority of your items; just keep the things that are valuable and worth selling. You can place an ad in your local paper and have a house or estate sale when selling larger items such as furniture.

A Personal Experience:

Someone sold or gave away almost everything that he inherited from his mother, simply because he had no room or use for the items she left him. He was torn for a while but he had to make the decision. He did keep the China that she loved and cherished, but after a few years he realized he never used it, so he sold all of it except for one plate. To this day he uses that once in a while and in that plate he feels his mother’s love and presence. He also told me he has a very clear memory of all the furniture and items that were in her home – the home he grew up in – and he does not regret selling the items.

For additional reading take a look at Rightsizing Your Life by Ciji Ware.   This book is packed with practical lists and activities as well as intriguing personal stories.  You can find it on Amazon as it has been through several printings and if you’re curious about Ciji you can read more on her site: http://cijiware.com/

Home as a Source

Is it a House or a Home?

A happy home is the single spot of rest which a man has upon this earth for the cultivation of his noblest sensibilities. (Frederick William Robertson, Sermons Preached at Trinity Chapel, Brighton)

One of life’s lessons is that there are many differences between a house and a home. We have come to understand that a house refers to the building or in our case buildings – the actual property and physical structure with floors, walls, ceilings and rooms. But a home is so much more than a house. A “home” infers feelings – safety, familiarity, comfort, intimacy, emotional connection, attachment, history and memories. It often infers family roots and background. History shows us that it was common – and often expected – for families to take root and live their entire lives in one home. This is because realty is permanent in nature. This is also why it is called real property – property that is permanently adhered to the ground – as opposed to personal property, which is moveable.

Home as a Source

A comfortable house is a great source of happiness. It ranks immediately after health and a good conscience. (Sydney Smith)

You can tell much about a person or family by looking at their home; it is designed, decorated, maintained and organized according to their personal preferences. The artwork on the walls and the books on the shelves represent the interests and dreams of the family members. The home is the space where those dreams may be cultivated. A home and its contents reflect the inhabitants who live within its walls.

But what is in the heart of a homeowner? Dreams, hopes, children, family, friends, guests, education, healing, spiritual growth, wellness, love, retirement – and so much more. For many, the home itself is a dream come true as well as a place to dream about the future.   We are finding that our clients are committed to both the permanence of their realty and to using their home as a source that serves their other goals and dreams.

The Home as a Source of Stability

The home is a source of energy, family, experience, and stability…

Life itself is an unpredictable journey that is always unfolding before us, day by day. While it is not realistic to presume that all of our experiences will be ecstatic, we can be sure that what we do experience is for our benefit and growth and is exactly what we need at the time it is experienced. The home, as a source of stability, is especially meaningful during difficult times and personal challenges. The feeling of coming home is something solid, permanent and stable.  It is something we can count on.

The Home as a Source of Experiences and Growth:

The home is the source of new experiences and growth – and if we are fortunate, love. The great majority of one’s childhood is spent at home and in school. Afterwards, if the student goes away to college, they “come home” on vacations. Their home is the source of many of their childhood memories. A person’s future is unquestionably connected to their earlier growth and development – which normally occurs in large part in their home, usually around parents, siblings, pets, and often, friends and extended family.

The home can be the source of activity, fun, festivity, joy and life itself. Additionally, the home is a great source of information and knowledge. In the home we learn the most essential important skills: how to love, how to communicate, how to relate to others. It is the first place that we interact with others and develop long term relationships and bonds. A home can be a source of great security (or insecurity), depending upon one’s state of mind and heart, and one’s willingness to grow in the face of adversity and challenge.

Exposure to New Environments as Source:

When we visit the homes of relatives and friends, we often experience very different circumstances than we do in our own homes. We are introduced to new ways of living and different priorities. Some friends may live in a house filled with love, balance and material prosperity. This may be one’s first exposure to a healthy home environment. Children, especially, gravitate to their friend’s homes where they are welcomed and feel safe. The ability to welcome others in this manner is a source of joy.

Stresses for Building a New Home or Backyard Cottage

“A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety.”            Aesop, Fables

It makes perfect sense: those who are proficient at handling stress in their everyday lives are more likely to better handle the potential stress of building a new home. And, even under the best of circumstances, building a home may be filled with potential stressors. One of the primary reasons for this is that those who like to be in full control of their lives may have to learn to be comfortable with some uncertainties. The homebuilding experience is exciting, though – and there’s no reason not to have fun with it. You are in the hands of experts. They’ll do the work for you. Embrace it, enjoy it!

Communication is Key (Put it in Writing):

Since it is your house that is being built, it is important to know what you want and to be able to communicate that with others. One of the things that is recommended is to keep an ongoing journal of all things related to your plans and homebuilding experiences. Keep track of who you have spoken to, what you have discussed, future topics to discuss, future appointments, etc. Date the entries. Keep all documents and emails in appropriate computer and physical files. Even if you have a great memory, a journal is recommended so that you will have all the information at hand. You will empower yourself and reduce potential stress by maximizing your participation in the process.

Family Stress?

Building a house may increase stress with your spouse, partner, children and/or other relatives and friends, whether they are directly involved in the building process or not. It is not natural for everyone to agree on everything! Stress may result simply because of varying viewpoints – there is no right answer per se to any situation when there are choices. We make choices based on all the variables that have gone into formulating our outlook in life, from childhood until present day. What is helpful is to create a simple plan on how you are going to resolve differing issues. It is healthy to be able to express yourself and not to repress or stuff your feelings. Again, communication is key. Of course there will be differences. Communication and dealing with stress are life skills that can always be improved.

What are Some of the Possible Stresses of Building a New Home or Backyard Cottage?

Let’s face it: for most of us, building and/or buying a home is one of the largest – or the largest – projects we may undertake in our lives. It can certainly be one of the most exciting. It is often the most expensive, long term investment we will make. Just the thought of spending thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars can shake us to our core. So, of course, stress is an entirely normal and natural reaction, especially for a first-time builder who is new to the process.

Dealing With Stress:

A positive way to deal with stress is to learn and practice basic stress management skills. For many this may include exercising, jogging, walks, engaging in a hobby, practicing basic relaxation and meditation techniques, or doing whatever helps you relax. Another positive approach is to know from the onset that you are likely to face challenging experiences and to simply let them be. “What comes, let it come, what goes, let it go.” This does not mean that you give up your voice in your particular home building situation – quite the contrary. You simply learn to express yourself – and listen – from a more centered, powerful inner posture.

Home Building Takes Us Out of Our Normal Comfort Zone:

Building a home will tend to take us out of our normal comfort zone. We may be dealing with bankers, lawyers, lenders, financial institutions, architects, contractors, planners, designers, permit and zoning departments and others. One of the advantages of working with New Avenue Homes is that we work with you throughout the entire homebuilding process. And we have streamlined and simplified the process as much as possible. We work with many of the great architects and home builders in the country. We are familiar with all the aspects of building a new home, from conception to completion.