Note: This applies specifically to garage-to-ADU conversions in Berkeley, but most cities in the US will have similar rules. Read on if you’re considering turning your detached garage or shed into an accessory dwelling.
While California state law has made it a LOT easier to convert a garage or shed into an ADU, there are still plenty of local rules to consider.
In construction, rules are changing all the time. It can be hard to keep up. Fortunately, New Avenue designer Cindy Lan is an expert in dealing with city officials. Lately, Cindy has been doing permit research in Berkeley. Here, she gives us some critical information on how setback and egress requirements affect garage-to-ADU conversions in that city.
What is a setback? What is egress? Here’s a primer.
Setbacks and egress may sound straightforward (and a bit dull), but they can be complicated. Your designer must fully understand the local regulations surrounding them when creating your ADU. Otherwise, you could end up footing the bill for expensive changes. (This is bad if design has been completed. It’s worse if construction has begun.)
“Setback” means the minimum distance your structure can be from the property line.
“Egress” refers to exits, including emergency exits such as windows.
When converting an existing structure into an ADU, the setback rules may be different from those of new construction. What’s more, there are certain situations where egress and setback requirements clash. Your designer needs to understand how to navigate it all.
FAQs on egress and setbacks for converting a garage or shed to an ADU
There are a lot of FAQs surrounding these topics. Here are the answers, straight from the expert herself.
Can I build an ADU above my detached garage?
It’s possible, but in Berkeley, it might be best to replace the garage entirely. Since an upper level would be new construction, it would need to comply with the current setbacks. Plus, having a 16′ maximum height would necessitate the lowest ceiling heights possible and additional detailing to make it work. (This assumes the garage’s concrete slab is level with exterior grade or even below grade.) You’d also need a “flat” roof, which is frowned upon and limits roof material.
If I completely demolish my garage, do I have to build the ADU further back from the property line?
Currently, if you demolish an old accessory building (such as a detached garage or shed) and replace it with an ADU, you can keep the same setback if you keep the same footprint. But if you make any changes to the footprint at all, the entire structure must comply with current setback rules.
There is a possible upcoming change to the ADU ordinance. The proposed change would allow garage conversions to remain in their existing footprints, and any additions created would be the only portion needing to comply with current setbacks. We could see this change as early as the summer of 2020, but there’s no guarantee.
What about other regulations?
Note that whether you keep the same footprint or not, you’re subject to other regulations, such as California’s solar power requirement, Berkeley’s natural gas prohibition, and egress requirements.
What if there’s no room for egress?
There is a provision allowing an additional 150 square feet to a garage conversion if, and only if, egress cannot be met in any other way. It is extremely difficult to be subject to this provision. (Note that if your building is less than three feet from the property line, windows are not allowed and egress needs to be met in other ways.)
I’m trying to add on to my existing structure. Why is one department telling me I need an administrative use permit and another telling me I can’t get one?
Prior to January 1st, 2020, an administrative use permit could be obtained for continuing a wall with a non-conforming setback for additions less than 200 square feet. As of January 1st, that is no longer the case.
It sounds complicated, but it’s totally doable.
An accessory dwelling will make a huge difference in your life and in the lives of your family, guests, or renters. Though navigating the permit process can be daunting, converting a garage into an ADU is well worth the time and effort.
You can make the process run more smoothly by understanding the basics and hiring a designer like Cindy Lan, who has up-to-date, in-depth knowledge of both state law and local rules.
Still have questions?
Just tell us when to call; a project manager will answer your questions and help you get started with your own life-changing remodel, accessory dwelling, or custom home.