Studio ADU for Your Small Backyard: 5 Bold Design and Build Ideas

studio space with Moroccan accents

7min read
by Olesia Chikunova, ADU Specialist.

Accessory dwelling units are a great way to maximize living space and boost the value of your home, but is that possible when the backyard has limited square footage? Yes, studio ADUs bring the dream to reality. They offer flexible designs and versatile layouts with the same benefits as any other ADU type. 

Continue scrolling to learn the basics and unfold exciting details about studio ADUs!

We will cover:

  1. Studio ADU design ideas 
  2. Costs
  3. Permit Requirements
  4. Floor Plans

Studio ADU: What Is It?

ADU studio

A studio ADU — a backyard cottage, a guest house, or a granny flat — is similar to a standard accessory dwelling unit. It is a small house next to your primary residence. The key feature that sets the two apart is the small footprint: a studio ADU is considerably smaller.

An ADU studio can be as small as 150 square feet. It is usually based on an open-concept plan, combining the living room, sleeping area, and kitchen into one space. This makes the interior appear visually larger and facilitates better flow through the small space. 

Most modular ADU builders have rectangle-like studios ranging from 350 to 470 square feet, with a price per square foot starting from $500. If you have unique needs or your backyard has a unique shape, you must plan a custom ADU. Custom ADUs also start from $500 per square foot. 

Studio ADU Design

IDEA #1: Layout 

A studio ADU is a small space that demands an open layout with minimal or no partitions. Equally significant as the focus on creating a visually open interior is the need to include key elements that make the space efficient and functional. 

The interior can have a combined living and bedroom, a full bathroom, and a full kitchen or a small kitchenette. A walk-in, no-curb shower makes ADU studios look contemporary for your adult children and comfortable for your elderly parent. Win-win for all family members.

Those who start their ADU project for rental income should include a laundry nook in addition to the required sink, toilet, and adequate shower space in the bathroom. Your long-term tenants will undoubtedly appreciate it.

A bedroom designed as an alcove will also boost privacy and comfort. A glass or decorative partition is another great option to separate the functions in the limited space.

Make sure to add necessities like a microwave, sink, refrigerator, and cooktop in the kitchen (a hot plate won’t work). 

Mind, your local municipality may have some ideas about what kind of kitchen you need. You may feel a small kitchenette is acceptable, but your plan checker may have a number for a countertop space you must show. An example would be Palo Alto, which requires 36 inches of workspace in the kitchen (even in a junior accessory dwelling unit).

Additional features like an outdoor patio and built-in storage cabinets can add to the practicality further. 

IDEA #2: Lighting 

Small homes can quickly start feeling cramped. The best way to avoid this problem is to incorporate adequate and sizable windows into the layout. Each area, including the bathroom and kitchen, should get its share of natural light and ventilation. This will also help make the studio ADU more energy-efficient. 

Planning and installing an effective lighting scheme also holds great significance. The plan should include all three types of lighting: ambient, task, and accent. The combination of different lighting types allows adequate illumination at all times of the day. 

IDEA #3: Storage 

The occupants should have enough storage space to keep the area organized. Remember, a clean and decluttered ADU will give the interior a more spacious and airy vibe. 

Try incorporating savvy ideas that steal the most out of the minimal area available. Leverage vertical space with floating shelves or bookcases and invest in multi-functional furniture, like ottomans with hidden storage.

Stackable bins and baskets (for linens) in the living room, magnetic strips (for cutlery and spice containers) in the kitchen, and recessed wall niches (for extra towels and toiletries) in the bathroom are also good ideas for your new ADU.

Check out your local IKEA for ideas.

Pro Tip: when you look at layouts of various rooms, find the note that mentions how many square feet the space is. The retailer showcases kitchens and apartments of various square footage.

IKEA minimalistic kitchen design
Photo by author of 105 sq ft kitchen. IKEA, East Palo Alto

IDEA #4: Energy-Efficiency 

Incorporating energy-efficient concepts in the design minimizes the environmental impact and reduces the living costs in your studio ADU. You can install LED lighting to reduce electricity bills and opt for energy-efficient windows and high-quality insulation to reduce heating and cooling costs. Look for energy-efficient appliances and consider installing solar panels to enjoy extra perks. 

150 sq ft studio

IDEA #5: Outdoor Space 

While the studio ADU layout is crucial, the outdoor design deserves the same attention. This includes building an appropriate entrance, depending on how you use the ADU. If it is for personal use, a covered walkway or breezeway that connects it to the main house will work. For studio ADUs being rented out, a separate entrance would be a more convenient option for the residents. 

To define the ADU as an additional yet coherent part of the home, landscape the area with a combination of trees, flowers, and shrubs. This will also enhance curb appeal and give the occupants a space to relish and enjoy outdoor gatherings. 

Remember to provide adequate parking space as per the local regulations. Some Bay Area locations, like Menlo Park, do not allow overnight parking. This makes a parking spot allocation a must in your backyard ADU plans.

Wondering if it is possible to live in a 150 sq ft studio ADU?

Here is 120 sq ft space design by IKEA.
IKEA cabinets in 120 sf
Photo of 120 sq ft space by author in IKEA, East Palo Alto. September 2023.

Permitting Requirements for a Studio ADU in California

The specific permitting requirements for building a studio ADU in California depend on your location. The permitting process is unified across the State of California.

There are a few essential elements that are required in most areas. 

  1. Complete set of construction plans
  2. Building permit application
  3. Approval from the Fire Department
  4. Additional utility connections
  5. Waste Management Plan
  6. Business license for your GC to operate in your location

However, California’s 2020 state law exempts ADUs under 500 square feet from impact fees. Double-check your local ordinance for little tweaks regarding the zoning laws, permitting requirements, and building codes beforehand.

Let me give you a couple of examples. If you live in Los Gatos, you may find that your city specifies where a doorbell should be and requires accessibility features for backyard cottages. Suppose you are building an in-law unit in Menlo Park. In that case, you must ensure your HVAC exterior unit is located away from the property line and makes little noise.

All cities will expect you to match the exterior finishes of your main house. However, if you main house is of classic design, while you are a fan of modern design, you may work around this rule by purchasing backyard structures from modular ADU builders with state-approved plans. 

Small Space can show a lot of style!

Have you ever been inspired by hotel decor? Great ideas for a studio!

Average Cost of Building a Studio ADU

A studio ADU is built on a smaller land, so the total cost will be less than a standard ADU. The final price comes down to different factors, such as the site conditions, the quality of materials used, your area’s labor costs, and any specific design choices included in your plan. 

The average construction cost of a studio ADU in California ranges from $175,000 to $350,000. More technical aspects, like the need for site preparation, the permitting and impact fees, and the foundation type, further impact the final charges. Obtaining formal quotes from architects and local ADU builders can help you work out a more accurate budget with the updated costs in your country.

Home WiP offers estimates after in-person site visits (our paid service).

Studio ADU Floor Plan 

Studio ADU floor plans are super flexible, allowing them to be altered to the specific needs of different homeowners. Though the vast options for floor plans make it easy to choose the perfect one, guiding and inspiring your choices with practical ideas will ensure a successful project. 

One of our favorite studio ADU ideas — that is also perfect for tiny backyards — is an interior that goes with an open-plan layout. The living room and sleeping area are combined so that the lounge uses multi-functional furniture, which can be doubled as a bed at night. The kitchen has a stove, sink, and small refrigerator, and the bathroom comes in a 3/4th design featuring a sink, shower, and toilet to allow for privacy and convenience. The entryway includes hooks for coats and a shoe rack, and sliding glass doors are installed to maintain a strong connection between the indoors and outdoors. 

This studio ADU floor plan will serve as a fully functional home in a backyard as small as 300 square feet — and there’s definitely no harm in experimenting with the floor plan to create something that suits your usage requirements better. 

Ready to Make Use of Your Small Backyard?

Studio ADUs are the perfect option for additional living space in a tiny backyard. With the essential design considerations in mind, the approved building plans, and the budget allocated, you can build a mini version of your dream home! 


studio space with Moroccan accents

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