The Bitter Suite

33 thoughts on “The Bitter Suite”

  1. An excellent discussion on how to do a work around municipal regulations/fees. It is sad that we have to do this, but the “system” forces many people who do not live within the norms of society, (low income, creative, innovative, free thinkers) to do these work arounds.
    An important point that you made, but didn’t articulate fully is the concept of designing/engineering to a 80 – 90% solution. In many cases we get too focused on achieving a 100% solution, when we would be perfectly happy with most of our requirements being met. And if this compromise would allow the project to be built or even started, then you have a solution that most people won’t even consider.

    1. Back in my college days a good friend was an engineering student. Something one of his professors said in class, that he repeated to me, has stuck with me for a long time: engineering out the last 5-20% of performance often increases the cost by far more than it’s worth to anyone. This has many applications in real life, and it’s reinforced in social sciences and business as the “80-20 rule”.

      80% solutions are probably the optimum price vs. performance tradeoff. Also, being a B-minus student might be the optimum effort vs. results tradeoff. 🙂

  2. well, be a Libertarian. Somebody just trying to build an illegal shack is a wack job. Someone who gets it done is a high functioning wack job. A regular political party, even small, could tip the next local election. Some folks think Libertarians have a code for everything, and agree on all issues. Check it out and see if your IMPORTANT issues are Libertarian. I vote, donate modest amounts, and work the polls as a Libertarian.This means I will be back EACH election, not just if the Obama girl is on TV. I don’t agree with every Libertarian on everything. I know 5% of the vote +- can swing some elections, and make establishment politicians more friendly to your views. It’s worth the modest investment to make society better.

    1. I’m not a political animal. I don’t believe the current environment lends itself to pragmatic problem solving. Things are too polarized with all the usual suspects digging in to defend their turf. I can’t be bothered to tilt at those windmills. Failure ultimately fixes itself. Let things fail. The best response for most ordinary people is to find reasonable work-arounds that don’t involve the authorities.

  3. Curious what you think about CA SB-1069, the new law that (supposedly) standardizes and relaxes regulations for ADUs statewide, superseding local law.

    1. Cat and mouse. Most local jurisdictions hate it and are busy crafting work-arounds to make it as difficult and expensive as possible. They’re going to be highly successful in that effort. Other locations like the idea and use the state’s legislation as political cover. “We hate this as much as you do, but the idiots in Sacramento have tied our hands.”

      1. Pretty sure my jurisdiction is pursuing the make it “difficult and expensive” route. I’ve called a few times about ADUs but have gotten the run around. The lady in charge is never there and all the other people can tell me is they are “reviewing the new legislation.” I suspect they are crafting a strategy to block it as much as legally possible.

        On the other hand, monolithic superblocks of luxury condos are getting the green light left and right. I suppose a ribbon cutting and a meaty pound of flesh in the form of community “benefits” sounds better than letting me house a working guy in my backyard. Zero upside from their perspective.

        1. Yep. “Transactional Governance.” Every town in America is cash strapped. From the municipal standpoint every new permanent resident – like the $32K a year schlub you might rent your theoretical ADU to – is a drag on scarce resources. But a new 200 unit condo building? Impact fees, ratable tax base, new construction jobs… That pays the bills. Keeps the pension funds solvent. Pays municipal salaries. Keeps the lights on.

  4. I loved it when I saw it first thing this morning. I had questions, but I figured if I waited a while, all would be explained. Somehow, I imagined that your guests/friends/roommates/whomever would hang in the main house and that the Bitter Suite would be your personal escape.
    Kudos to you for reverse engineering this to make it happen, whatever you plan to do with it. Awesome!

  5. It’s beautiful! It bothers me that other people build big houses which they have to heat/cool all the time, when it would be much more efficient to have a much smaller “core” dwelling to pack into when the weather is harsh, and un-conditioned space to expand into when the weather is fine.
    Have you thought about putting in a storage loft (for boxes of dehydrated garden produce, for example)? High ceilings are nice, of course, but there’s some space up there that could be put to use.

    1. I’ve already got the food and water storage thing sorted out elsewhere. People need more gracious accommodations than rice and canned goods.

  6. Nice solution. Backyard “sheds” and enclosed decks are legal by right in almost every older suburb (i.e. those without HOA covenants). They just can’t be on a permanent foundation.

    My son owns my old city house, where a secondary dwelling unit would be allowed by right. But it’s a very long and narrow lot (50×300), in a place where heat and AC would be required, and the water, sewer, and gas all run in the street more than 100 feet of driveway from where the garage is now. So it would cost a small fortune to put the utilities in, without considering connection and permitting fees, before the first footing is dug.. (Wells and septic are prohibited where there is city water/sewer service available.) So while it’s technically legal by right, it won’t happen in that neighborhood.

    1. We must live in the same neighborhood! Sounds exactly like mine. I ran electricity and water out to the middle of the back yard when we refurbished the house, just in case. Love the ADU shown here – compostable toilet and grey water system to one I could put in at my home?

  7. Would pass my mom-test. This turned out great!

    En route to Poland to be a bridesmaid at my best friend’s wedding. Next week, I pick up my steel toed boots and do my roof safety training. Can’t wait!

  8. Really lovely looking place. I think this is the root of the hacks that we will have to do to provide affordable housing in California. Perhaps more importantly, this method re-establishes sense of ownership and agency in a land use system that has strangled the ability of average people to improve and inhabit the landscape.

    I have been an active observer of John Anderson’s Small Developer group on Facebook. I’m feeling frustrated by the very high land/construction/parking/development fee costs in Reno so I have been looking at rural land over the hill in the western Sierra foothills.

    I’ve been reading the land development codes for many Gold Country counties and I think there may be some very favorable things that are possible on Rural Land. I imagine buying a larger piece of land and subdividing it (I think small subdivisions may not necessarily require CEQA process).

    Single family lots can be clustered with the houses as close as possible (get ready to fight fire officials) to form a small hamlet. On the single family lots, there are lots of other legal structures that can be built from guesthouses, ADUs, and even second units.

    Another thing I have been reading in the code is the potential for “Farm Labor Housing”. Up to 12 detached units on single family farm property. This obviously could be used to build cottages for farm laborers. But the definition may also allow housing for people who own and manage the farm. I don’t see why members of a farm co-op (i.e. regular old people who are member-owners) could not rent this farm labor housing.

    1. John Anderson and Jim Kumon are great. If you ever get a chance to participate in one of their Incremental Development events sign up. They’re fun and informative. I’ve been to several in different parts of the country.

      At the same time, I encourage you to exercise caution when attempting to build anything new. It’s a shit show of endless regulations. Even substantially altering an existing structure or just trying to change the intended use of an old building is mind numbingly tedious once the authorities insert themselves in to the process.

      My advice to you – and anyone who isn’t a seasoned professional developer – is to find an existing property that already does what you want the place to do and is already legal as it is. Clean, paint, garden, maybe give the kitchen and bath a cosmetic face lift… but stop at the line drawn by officialdom. Life’s too short.

      I tried the “cabin in the woods” thing in rural Hawaii and it worked well enough for seventeen years. But living out in God’s Country has drawbacks that wear you down. I prefer being close enough to civilization that I can ride a bike to most daily needs.

    1. Renting this place out would break all sorts of laws and be anti-social. I would never dream of being the kind of scofflaw absentee slumlord who built a substandard structure, sucked rent out of a vulnerable and possibly unsavory tenant, and depressed neighborhood property values. No sir. I leave that up to the people who build perfectly legal garden apartment complexes on the side of the highway with a view of the Jiffy Lube dumpster and the mini self storage facility by the Burger King drive-thru. That’s the perfect location to offer truck drivers $5 blow jobs and smoke meth. But if you wanted to visit you could hang out at the Bitter Suite for a while without anyone crossing that line.

  9. Thanks for continuing to show us what’s possible, Johnny. Speaking as a conservative (what on earth are we conserving, anyway?) I think this is one of the main areas where left and right can get together, if we’d just open our eyes to the problem. I appreciate the way your photos and thoughts shine the light. You give me ammo for the fight in my little suburbia. Thanks!

  10. I’m curious if this is technically legal for occupation where you live? Where I live, this wouldn’t be considered legal for occupation without meeting codes, etc. So an enforcement officer who found out someone lived in it could kick them out.

    1. If anyone attempted to live in the shed full time that would be against the law. But in this case no one is living there. The gray areas are – you have a teenage kid who more or less lives in the place full time, but they’re clearly residents of the main house and just hang out in the shed most of the time. Or you take on a room mate who legally inhabits a bedroom in the main house but spends most of their time in the shed for added privacy. It comes down to what your neighbors will tolerate and how badly your town wants to crawl up your ass. I wouldn’t try this in a subdivision with an HOA since people pay extra to micromanage the behavior of their neighbors. Sometimes it comes down to aesthetics. If it’s clean and attractive and people are quiet and respectable people let you slide. If it’s junky and white trash they shut you down.

      1. When my brother and I went to live with an uncle as kids, an almost garage sized detached cinder block storage room became our bedroom. It had electrical service, and served well (a little cold in winter though). Being in a rural area, nobody cared. Reverted to storage after we left. Sometimes the isolation was beneficial for noise control.

  11. I’m curious whether this could be ‘no permit required’ construction in San Francisco or other large cities? I know there are many unpermitted ADU’s in SF that have essentially been grandfathered, but the current housing crisis in urban areas could easily be solved if bureaucracy and NIMBYism could be bypassed. I’m also certain that if I asked a lawyer or a planning department the answer would be “No” so I guess I’m wondering what happens ‘in practice’ when building inspectors discover this type of structure in SF or another urban area?

    Whatever the ultimate legal status for an urban area, this is beautiful work and should be welcome anywhere.

    One last question: What kind of insulation is that green stuff? I’ve not seen anything like it and it looks as if it were sprayed in place between the wall studs. I hope you or Kirsten Dirksen made a construction video because the pictures left me wanting to know even more.

    1. The insulation is in fact spray on foam from a company called Foam It Green. I’ve used this stuff on just about every property I’ve ever owned and it’s great. It turns your house into an Igloo cooler. It has an R-value of 7 per inch (much better than fiberglass batt insulation) seals up cracks, repels water, and even muffles sounds. It’s also fun to install DIY.

    2. The more compact a neighborhood is the more rules are created to limit what you can and can’t do. In this semi-rural suburban location there are set-back requirements. Five feet from the side property lines, fifteen from the front, and some other limit from the rear which I don’t remember – probably around thirty feet. There’s also a rule that says you can have as many sheds as you want so long as they are fifty feet apart from each other. If you have ten acres you can have dozens. If you’re on a typical 25 x 125 foot city lot…

      I used to rent an old 1930’s potting shed in a backyard garden on South Van Ness between 18th and 19th Streets in San Francisco. I loved it. It was only a few feet bigger than the Bitter Suite so it could accommodate the world’s smallest bathroom (shower stall and toilet) and a wee little kitchenette. It was a vestige of an earlier era and completely illegal.

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