Backyard Eichlers: An Extra Room Without the Permits

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An article in the most recent issue of CA-Modern (see PDF below) gave us a brief rundown on a range of backyard sheds that fit with the mid-century modern aesthetic. Of those, one in particular piqued my interest because they're local, a member of the Eichler Network, and focused on exactly the kind of architecture in which we're interested. The company is called Backyard Eichlers, a fairly self-explanatory name. They make outbuildings in the style of Eichler homes, with post-and-beam construction, large windows, and Eichler-styled eaves.

The pictures on Backyard Eichlers' website made it obvious enough these buildings fit with the Eichler aesthetic, but I wanted to know more about why their manufacturer decided to target Eichler owners and fans, and what he thought the benefit of these miniature Eichlers would be. So I asked him.

"I lived in an Eichler for four years and enjoyed the style," Backyard Eichlers principal Scott Balser told me. "I live close to Terra Linda, where there are close to 1,500 of them. I know the Joe Eichler story and I admire his simple architecture, so I decided I would try and build an Eichler-type house."

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But Balser doesn't build homes. He builds structures the size of a bedroom that take on the hallmarks of the Eichlers they append. The point, he said, is to give homeowners a way to gain a little more space without going through a costly formal permitting process.

"It is difficult, certainly in Marin County, but other places in the United States, to build things without great cost. However, there is a provision in the uniform building code that you can build a 120-square-foot structure, called an auxiliary structure, without a permit and without a foundation."

Essentially, the buildings allow homeowners to use some of their backyard as indoor space. Many create home offices; one family with teenagers uses theirs as a video game room; another of Balser's clients uses hers as a sewing room. "We set up windows so they would shine light on both sides of her sewing table," Balser says.

The small scale of the operation means Balser can create structures based on his preexisting designs that match his customers' homes. "I've found that though the site has certain set designs, and I'm happy to build those designs, every one that I've built in Eichler backyards have wound up having features to match that Eichler—in other words, they're custom built."

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On the Backyard Eichlers website, one series of photos shows one of Balser's structures built adjacent to an existing home. I asked him if you really could abut the buildings and essentially add a new room without pulling a permit. No, he told me. "The one structure I did have permitted was against the house. But the other ones that I've done have not had a permit."

The specific rules vary, depending on the city and neighborhood, Balser said. "Some allow them only to be storage, some allow them to be insulated, some allow electricity only with permit, some no electricity at all. Some homeowners associations will only allow them to be 8 feet high. There's a great variance as to what's allowed and what isn't, and I advise people as to what that is."

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