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Three ways ADUs Go Easy on the Environment 

Homeowners thinking about adding freestanding ADUs (accessory dwelling units, a.k.a. in-law apartments, granny flats, or cottages) tend to focus on creating much-needed space without knocking down walls in the houses they’re living in, the addition of rental income, and other practical considerations. The political can also come into play: ADUs provide low-profile, distributed housing, quietly preserving a street’s character and avoiding the ire of neighborhood associations. 

In addition to the practical and the political, a third factor plays a role – or least should – in the ADU calculus: the environmental. The environmental advantages of ADUs sort themselves into three broad buckets. The first involves the efficiency of the finished ADU itself; the second is about the benefits of a smaller physical footprint; and the third support greater housing density the distributed, smaller footprints of ADUs enable. 

Efficient from the ground up

Freestanding ADUs tend to be much more efficient than the single-family homes they augment. ADU building envelopes typically include above-code insulation and weatherizing with such features as Zip System wall sheathing, OSB with rubberized membranes, and ultrahigh-efficiency doors and windows. ADUs comply with strict building-code standards, which demand that additions and new homes – including ADUs – have enough solar panels to achieve net-zero energy consumption. In addition, ADUs boast tankless water heaters as well as highly efficient mini-split HVAC systems that handle both heating and cooling, and appliances tend to be both right-sized and Energy Star rated.  

The high-volume, factory-based production of ADUs also enables a strikingly precise alignment of inputs to outputs. In fact, the waste from the onsite construction of a modular ADU is measured in garbage cans, not dumpsters. That same precision and scale can also enable the efficient recycling of metals and the composting of clean wood waste.  

Taken together, a well-built ADU is built tight and runs lean. That translates directly into low utility bills; indirectly, it allows our built environment to tread more lightly on the planet.  

Physically (and environmentally) small

When it comes to environmental footprint, a structure’s size matters. A detached ADU of 700 square feet is estimated to have just half the long-term environmental impact of that 2,262-square-foot house. 

There are knock-on benefits to going small too. There’s less room to store the stuff that accumulates into the clutter that Marie Kondo has made a career out of curating. Less room means fewer, more deliberate purchases, and less shopping means less embodied energy in the products themselves and, later, less landfilling. As I prepare to move into a 1,000-square-foot prefab home with my family of four, I can attest unequivocally that space constraints modify shopping behavior – for the better, in my opinion. 

Low-profile density

ADUs are a thoughtful way to address growing populations. While development on urban fringes consumes open space, reduces natural wildlife habitats, increases air and water pollution, and brings greater risk of mass destruction from wildfires, ADUs in yards closer to downtown translates into less need for cars and more opportunities for public transit.  

A 30-mile commute at 23 miles per gallon yields about 2.5-ton annual carbon savings per ADU from commutes not taken. Together, that’s about 42 U.S. households worth of emissions. 

There is no shortage of greenwashing in the construction industry, with bold claims about the sustainability of certain materials or techniques that don’t stand up to deeper scrutiny. The environmental advantages of living smaller and more thoughtfully, however, are undeniable.  

Backyard studio spaces for work, creativity, or living allow us to extend the life of our existing homes to work in more modern ways. Prefab construction at scale results in meaningful reductions in waste and degradation of the environment. An embrace of these structures at the municipal level will be a key element in solving our housing crisis in a way that results in more livable communities that tread ever more lightly on the planet.  


Jeremy NovaJeremy Nova is co-founder and creative director of Studio Shed. A longtime professional mountain bike racer who competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics, Nova built the first Studio Shed to store his many wheels. His passion for smart design, efficiency, engineering, and architecture has buoyed Studio Shed’s growth into the only ADU maker that ships nationwide for installation by a comprehensive network of certified installers. 

Is an ADU or home office a good option for your property?

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began almost a full year ago, Americans have spent more time in their homes than ever before and the immediate merging of work and personal spaces has been a challenge for many. Our households have never felt so crowded. Across the board, there has been a unique need for more space in the home.

Colorado-based Studio Shed offers one of the most sought-after solutions during the pandemic: an easy-to-install, affordable detached studio in the backyard. The company’s Signature Series designs, often used as backyard home offices, are typically 10×12 feet, easily designed online and delivered flat-packaged as a kit.

At a time when scheduling and finding high-quality contractors is not always possible, Studio Shed’s extensive network of contractors is available to execute a quick and easy install, or homeowners can choose to install the sheds themselves.

A recent CRAFTSMAN Built@Home survey reported more than 1 in 5 Americans learned to use a drill for the first time in the onset of the pandemic and 76% said they or someone in their household worked on at least one home improvement project in 2020.

For more space, Studio Shed also offers the Summit series models or Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) which homeowners are using to add a wellness studio, guest room, in-law suite, or granny flats to their backyard. An ADU offers an easy solution without the hassles (and costs) of a traditional remodel and simplified permitting and construction logistics.

Curious if an ADU or home office is a good option for your property Jeremy Nova, co-founder and creative director at Studio Shed recommends homeowners consider three key questions to get started:

1. Do I need a permit?

Most counties allow for the construction of one 120 square foot structure without applying for a building permit. Be sure to check local regulations before ordering, however, as some municipalities have more stringent requirements. Some questions to ask the building department:

  • Is there a certain size/square footage where a building permit is required?
  • What is your zoning and allowed building forms?
  • Is an engineer-stamped plan set required to pull a permit?
  • Is there a limit to the number of structures you can add to property?
  • What is the max lot coverage for all structures?
  • Any wall or roof height limitations?
  • What is the required distance between structures on your property?
  • What are your setbacks (distance off the property line to the new structure)?
  • Any special easements (utility, cable, access roads, open space, corner lot) that impact where your shed can go?
  • What about my community’s HOA?

2. Does my county have ADU regulations?

Legislation is changing to make it easier to build ADUs – leading to a boom in interest and trending growth in certain markets.

The volatile housing market (especially during the pandemic) and rising cost of building materials means alternative housing methods (for current homeowners and prospective renters) are booming. The Denver zoning map is available online and specific descriptions for each zone are included.

3. How do I want to use the space?

Detached backyard structures and larger ADUs provide flexible space for a variety of uses. Depending on your needs, a Studio Shed can be used for the following scenarios:

  • RENTAL UNIT – ADUs make great rental units on your property. Homeowners will find that they serve as flexible housing solutions and provide supplemental income.
  • GRANNY FLAT / IN-LAW SUITE – Many customers are looking for at-home options for assisted living for their elderly parents or relatives. ADUs provide the benefit of keeping loved ones close while giving them their own space.
  • PERSONAL SANCTUARY – Find an escape in your own backyard with an ADU. Whether you use this space to practice your daily yoga, an art studio or as a quick escape from the kids, you can find peace and quiet in your personal sanctuary, just a few steps away from your back door.
  • GUEST HOUSE – If you love to entertain and host friends & family, an accessory dwelling unit makes for the perfect backyard guest house. ADUs can be fully equipped with electrical and plumbing as an all-in-one solution for your hosting needs.
  • HOME OFFICE – Our modern world requires that we work in new ways. A backyard office is a place you can commute to in seconds. Unlike a dedicated room within your home, a prefab backyard office shed provides a detached space away from distractions of home, so no more worrying about the doorbell ringing or your dog disturbing your video conference. Your new commute across your yard provides both the separation necessary for focused work and the convenience of working from home.
  • MULTI-PURPOSE ROOM – The beauty of an ADU is that it provides a multi-purpose space for almost need. Depending on the season of life you are in and what your needs are, a well-built and designed ADU can meet them all. Convert an ADU into a guest house during the holidays or use it for supplemental income as a rental when needed. The possibilities of how you use your ADU are endless.

Visit Studio Shed at for more information.

Jeremy Nova is the co-founder and creative director at Studio Shed.