• ADU Competition Winners
    Most Innovative Design, by HiWorks. Both the design and the construction of the 4-U-ADU System are intended to minimally impact a home’s existing outdoor space. - image by HiWorks

Last October, six winners were recognized for their innovative designs for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), also known as casitas or in-law suites, as a part of a design competition hosted by the City of San Antonio and local design firm Able City. Applicants were asked to envision end users who could benefit from owning or occupying an ADU and, subsequently, to develop a design for them. 

Nataly Lopez, an architecture student at the University of Texas at San Antonio, received the award for Most Accessible Design. Her unit was configured to address the challenges her family faced in accommodating her grandfather’s age-related mobility limitations. “I’ve seen firsthand how hard it can be to accommodate someone [who is wheelchair bound] in your house,” Lopez shares. 

Anne Englert, a property tax consultant and career coach, took home the Most Cohesive Story award. As a student at Texas Tech in Lubbock, she benefitted from the affordability and convenience of renting an ADU. “When I was in college, I lived in a backhouse in Lubbock at Texas Tech,” says Englert. “It was only 222 sf. I lived there for six years … and it was my own little oasis.” Since that time, she had looked forward to the opportunity to build one on her own lot. Her submission documents the design of an ADU that she recently finished constructing. “San Antonio has a housing shortage, and I wanted to do my part to provide affordable housing while also supplementing my dollars to pay for property taxes,” writes Englert. 

The design competition was part of a larger citywide campaign to educate residents on what constitutes an ADU and how these can benefit individual residents, families, and neighborhoods. The campaign was made possible through a partnership with Able City,  whose mission is to make cities more walkable, sustainable, and equitable, and its nonprofit affiliate, City Makery. Seema Kairam, a design lead at Able City, collaborated with the city to apply for an AARP grant in 2023 to fund the competition. The submission was ultimately awarded $15,000 for the project. Together, the City of San Antonio’s Neighborhood & Housing Services department and Able City, who donated their services, began to facilitate resources for a citywide campaign.

This competition provided the perfect venue to develop a roadmap for how the city should be investing its resources. “Before starting new initiatives, it’s important to engage with the community to hear what they need,” says Kairam. “What types of ADUs would they want? Who are they trying to house, what resources do they have available?” 

This public outreach effort was led by Siboney Diaz Sanchez, the community engagement administrator for the City of San Antonio. “We reached out to community leaders, neighborhood organizations, city council districts, libraries, schools, colleges, and senior centers … to distribute information and engage with communities to expand discourse on ADUs and create curiosity about the competition,” explains Diaz Sanchez.  

These efforts proved to be incredibly successful. Nearly two hundred proposals were submitted for the competition. Forty-five percent of the applicants were K–12 students. “What’s remarkable is that groups that are often missed in public information campaigns, specifically children, were strongly represented in this competition,” says City of San Antonio redevelopment officer Krystin Ramirez.

Over the last several years, city policy has been modified to address San Antonio’s housing affordability needs while minimizing displacement due to gentrification. In 2018, the city passed legislation to make it less expensive to build housing for residents with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income and easier to build ADUs.

Still, many residents want to ensure the benefits of ADUs are shared by community members rather than investors. “Some of the biggest fears we heard from our community through the code amendment process was the short-term rental,” says Ramirez. To address this, the City requires that the owner of an ADU must live on the property where it is built. Within the citywide design competition, few applicants expressed interest in short-term rental income. Rather, submissions largely focused on ways ADUs can allow residents to age in place, provide space for family or guests, or supplement income through long-term rentals. 

Building on the momentum catalyzed by the design competition, the city plans to initiate a solicitation process to receive permit-ready ADU plans this spring. From these, a shortlist of the best designs will be posted to its website. “The hope is to have an online library of permit-ready plans so residents can select their favorite, connect with designers to customize the plans to their needs, and receive guidance through the construction process,” says Ramirez. Long term, the city plans to expand incentives for ADU development based on income qualifications, and they will continue to compile resources on their website to address the most common issues people face when building an ADU.   

Allison Peitz, AIA, is an architect at Lake|Flato Architects in San Antonio.

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