James Small: Home Builder

Who hasn’t heard the stories from friends or neighbors? Grown children are deciding to move back home while they save money for a house and at the same time their parents declare they need to move in too.

It’s a common problem for the “Sandwich Generation,” caught between caring for their children and their aging parents. According to Pew Research Center, nearly 47 percent of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising young children or financially supporting a grown child. Caught in between caring for two generations can be a challenge, especially if all three generations reside under one roof.

Too often people in the Sandwich Generation believe the only way to take care of both their parents and their children is to sell the family home in Portland and move to a larger house outside the city limits.

Instead of contemplating multiple generations living under one roof, why not consider them living on one lot. With an Additional Dwelling Unit (ADU) built in the backyard. ADU’s were once called mother-in-law apartments, but they have come a long way in the last decade. James Small, of Earth Bridge Homes, is a leader in the ADU movement. Which is helping Portlanders rethink what it means to build smartly – whether it’s an apartment for family members, a guesthouse or an art studio in your backyard.

You’ve built upwards of 250 homes over a span of nearly 23 years. All of them in Portland?

Most of the houses I have built are in Portland. I also have built in Beaverton, Tigard, Oregon City, Milwaukie, Boring and the Columbia River Gorge. Starting out as a superintendent for a high-production builder in 1991, I eventually became a project manager and then after several years started my own home building business in the mid-1990s.


Why the focus on ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units)?

For a homeowner looking for a property investment, nothing is smarter than building an ADU in your backyard, with or without the current city of Portland’s Building Permit incentives. You already own the lot because it’s part of your backyard. That’s a great start!

Is this the future when it comes to building in cities?

For the city of Portland, the ADU is an expression of its own core values when it comes to density and planning. I also think word is leaking out that these kinds of structures are solid investment models.

Do ADUs have more finishes and more upgrades than what I would see in a typical new home?

The ADUs range from 200 to 800 square feet. The ADUs are small enough that the customer can easily upgrade the house with top building science practices as well as create the personality of the interior/exterior. Architect Mitchell Snyder (msnyderarch.com) and I make it a creative and affordable experience for the customer.


How are people using these spaces once the ADU is built?

Customers are using the ADU as main living quarters, guesthouse, home office, writing/recording/art studio, renting the ADU as an income property or vacation unit. There are many possibilities.

It seems to be a smart use of a corner of one’s backyard.

I think it’s very smart. I’m finding that some make an average of $1,000-$1,400 renting the ADU as an income property. If they have a loan on the property, those payments can be around $500-$700 per month depending on the down payment on the loan amount. If there is no loan, then where else can you make 14 percent on your money? That’s an impressive number. Plus, if you factor in the yearly property value increasing on the ADU, it’s closer to 20 percent per year minus property taxes. The customer is retaining total control of a solid investment. As I said before, it’s your backyard …you already own the property. The customer is starting with a big savings.

Might ADUs have a negative impact on a neighborhood? Could the ADU be an eyesore? How about property values?

I don’t think so. A decade ago, the city of Portland’s Planning and Development Service initiated a three-year moratorium on narrow homes and other structures. This occurred because construction of new residential buildings was taking place without regard for the established architecture already in place. Now, there is architectural oversight at the planning/permit level called design review. ADUs were affected by this new layer of control. What that means for Portland homeowners is that ADUs must be designed resembling the existing structure. You cannot build a modern ADU in the backyard of a 1920s Bungalow. You can only build an ADU that reflects the style of the existing 1920s Bungalow. It’s important to me to preserve the character of Portland’s unique neighborhoods.

Is this ADU idea good for a city such as Portland?

I like what it offers to Portlanders. For starters, it’s great for the city density plan, which is to bring more people into the city per square mile. This helps build the tax base for the city. Also, ADUs are not a huge apartment complex blowing out the available street parking or the adjoining business district’s parking areas. We need to increase density to foster healthy business of restaurants, boutiques and general services in this great city. Socially, I think the ADU delivers more in way of community. For the owner, building an ADU can bring more long-term financial stability, especially when rental income is generated. It helps with long-term home ownership in our neighborhoods. I think it’s a very good idea today.

These structures have a small foot print. Are they limited in terms of layout?

Design and layout of an ADU is always the challenge. From the outset, you have to listen well to the customers and respect their ideas. Some builders tend to have a Type A personality, and more often than not have a tendency to run over the customer and the project like a football player, and seriously diminish the experience of building a personal structure. Building a house is supposed to be a fun and enjoyable experience throughout the entire process. That is one of the reasons I have enjoyed working with Architect Mitchell Snyder. I was sold not only on his ability to design an ADU or house but also on his ability to listen. Mitchell creates interior spaces that are creative and versatile.


How can a homeowner discover if their property can accommodate an ADU?

At no charge, the property owner can check with city planning at the city of Portland or can contact me to set up a no-cost consultation to discuss how an ADU would fit on their property. A consultation would also include discussing access issues like utilities, staging and planning. We can also discuss budgets and performance paths for energy conservation. I can help them navigate energy options, smart building materials, and plan designs.

What values drive Earth Bridge Homes?

We specialize in architect-driven design and fine craftsmanship. Respect for the process is foundational. For us that means Earth Bridge navigates the entire experience with you — not for you. You are not a file. You have a mind and heart and ideas. We strive to listen well to your aspirations and vision. We bridge the heart of your plan with a wise environmental path, taking into account how you live and responsibly considering the generations that will one day take ownership of your home. That’s important to me.

Another crucial element is how we interpret the building code. Building to code is the absolute minimum standard—it’s just squeaking by. I firmly believe we need to build way beyond “code.” Passing a building inspection doesn’t mean that a house performs well or is healthy. My goal is to construct homes that reflect a deep understanding of building science. There is so much false green building here in Portland. Even experienced green builders are struggling to figure out the science behind it. We owe it to generations that follow to set the bar higher.

If you have more questions about ADUs, contact James through his website: earthbridgehomes.com

About The Author: DC Rahe

Contributing Editor