Two months after the Seattle City Council approved legislation reducing barriers to developing accessory dwelling units in single-family zones, two city departments have launched a survey to inform the creation of pre-approved design plans to lower the cost and shorten the permitting timeline for constructing backyard cottages.

“A lot of the cost is in the labor and the materials, but we want to help as much as we can, and that’s where the pre-approved plans come in,” said Mike Podowski, code development manager with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections.

Having pre-approved design plans is expected to reduce the time to receive a building permit for a backyard cottage (detached accessory dwelling unit) from 4-8 months to 2-6 weeks, and includes a reduced permit fee.

The pre-approved plans are being developed through a directive Mayor Jenny Durkan included in an executive order when she signed the legislation the city council approved in July that eased restrictions on ADUs in single-family zones.

SDCI and the Office of Planning and Community Development announced the launch of an online survey on Sept. 30 to guide the process for creating pre-approved design plans for homeowners to choose from. The survey is open through Monday, Oct. 21.

Once the survey closes, OPCD and SDCI will put out an open call to architects and designers to submit plans to be considered.

“It would resemble more of a design competition based on a number of criteria,” said Nick Welch, an OPCD senior planner leading the project.

The plans will then be reviewed by volunteers pulled from a number of existing city boards and commissions, including the Seattle Planning Commission, Seattle Design Commission, design review boards, and the Construction Codes Advisory Board.

“We’re hoping we can whittle it down to about six to 10 [designs],” Podowski said.

Matt Hutchins with Cast Architecture said he’s looking forward to making a submission. Hutchins is also a founding member of the group More Options for Accessory Residences (MOAR).

“I think it’s a good incentive,” he said. “There will be a reduction in time, there will be a reduction in kind of uncertainty, and also in cost in terms of permit fees, and probably in design fees as well.”

Accessory dwelling units can be a much more affordable housing option, he said, but it is expensive to hire an architect.

“I think where they really want to go is provide some solutions that really address affordability,” Hutchins said. “These, I think, are going to be more focused on feasibility and constructability.”

OPCD and SDCI have not set a specific price target they’re hoping to reach with the pre-approved plans.

“Certainly we think lower-cost designs are likely to be what we will emphasize,” Welch said, “in part because it’s more practical for us to offer a wider range of options that people can afford.”

Each backyard cottage project site would be different, Hutchins said, so there would need to be some work to make the pre-approved plans fit.

Podowski said SDCI will review the structures and work with a private designer hired by a permit applicant to address setting a foundation, site work and utility connections. The expectation is that permit fee costs will be reduced by 30 percent by using pre-approved plans.

Welch said a call for design submissions will follow the conclusion of the survey, and he expects review to start in early 2020. Neither the mayor nor the city council has asked to be involved in the selection process, Podowski said.

Hutchins said he’s already taken the survey.

“At this point I have made, of course, some wonky suggestions about things they can do to improve the code,” he said, “but those are not really design solutions.”

Hutchins said he’s sure there are a few architects in the area who are not happy about the city’s plans and think it devalues their work, but he sees it as an opportunity to participate in an intriguing challenge that will not only address the housing crisis, but also climate benefits.