Over the past few years, Judy Ousterhout had been pondering her future as a healthy older adult: Where would she retire? How could she generate extra income? Would she be willing to leave her Palo Alto home? The longtime Palo Alto resident, who bought her two-bedroom home on Channing Avenue in 1975, decided that building a home in her backyard was the answer.
Working with Stephanie Batties, her former business partner from The Right Touch Designs, Ousterhout custom designed her perfect "retirement" home tucked behind a garage at the end of her long driveway.
Bright, light and private
In August 2022, the city did its final inspection on her 472-square-foot ADU and adjacent new one-car garage, which took two years to complete.
"One of the things I wanted was privacy for myself and privacy for the tenant," said Ousterhout, who plans to rent out the backyard home.
Her design allows her and her labradoodle to use her backyard and pool without being visible from the new unit's living area.
Because a garage was included in her project, she was able to position the new unit along the fence line, maximizing space for a private-access gated walkway leading to the home, which matches the property's main gray stucco residence.
Clerestory windows let plenty of light into the living space, without sacrificing Ousterhout's privacy. At the back of the home's living room, a large sliding-glass door opens onto an ample wood deck, extending the living space outdoors.
The floors throughout the unit are synthetic material designed to look like wide-plank weathered wood.
Oil-rubbed bronze door and cabinet handles and fixtures offer rich contrast to the bright white walls throughout the home.
The kitchen is cleverly simple, with dark charcoal quartz counters, a four-burner Wolf induction cooktop, an under-counter refrigerator and a separate under-counter freezer. Ousterhout sacrificed an oven, but installed a microwave and toaster oven.
For such a small home, there is a deceptive amount of storage with cabinets tucked neatly into nearly every space. There's even a specially designed desk nook off the kitchen.
Many of her ideas came from attending open houses for local homes with guest properties. She took pictures of things she liked and began curating her plan. Designer Batties was able to draw and submit elevations to the city for the permitting process.
Throughout her project, Ousterhout replicated things from her own home, including appliance brands and fixtures she liked, and created spaces like a desk nook that she thought she would use.
"My decisions were made on what would I want if I lived here," she said.
Just past the desk down a short hallway lies the minimalist bedroom. The high ceilings continue here, along with an ample closet. The bathroom has a high window, streams of light and a glass-enclosed shower. The sink is one piece of white quartz on a custom-designed cabinet with two drawers cut around the under-the-sink pipe to maximize storage. A stacked Miele washer and dryer are tucked next to the shower with storage above. There's also a white screen that can be pulled down to conceal the laundry nook. Again,
Ousterhout made decisions by asking, "Who will be living here? What do they want when they come home?"
Ousterhout said she zeroed in on the idea for a living unit on her property several years ago, around the same time the city of Palo Alto was making it easier for property owners to build extra living space.
"As I was embarking into my older years, I had two thoughts: I might eventually need help close by, and I might need the additional income," she said. "As life goes on, it's not a bad idea."
A surge in backyard cottages
Ousterhout isn't alone in utilizing her property for additional living space. Local interest in accessory dwelling units has surged in Palo Alto in recent years. In 2015, the city received only 10 permit applications for these structures. The number climbed to 75 in 2019 and to 78 in 2020. In 2021, it soared to 136, according to a 2022 city report.
Ousterhout said she did her research, meticulously reviewing each requirement in the city's ADU handbook.
The ADU, however, didn't happen without challenges, she said.
Ousterhout said she started the project in early 2020, just as the world shut down because of the pandemic. That meant she could only meet with city planning staff by phone or over Zoom rather than in person.
Another early hurdle was complying with state and federal flood zone restrictions, and relying on the planning staff to discover and correct a surveying error, which would have mistakenly required her new dwelling to be higher than her original home.
After the plans were approved, the permit issued and the unit nearly complete, the city over-looked an installed utility box that was placed outside the unit. It turned out the box needed to be placed inside to protect it from the weather. Hence, the box was reinstalled inside, on the back bedroom wall, covered by a colorful quilt.
Ousterhout said despite a few unexpected challenges, building a secondary housing unit on her property has been worth it. Her next task, she said, will be carefully advertising her unit to the right tenant.