In the world of modern living, maximizing space without compromising on comfort and style is a crucial challenge. Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) have emerged as an innovative solution, offering versatile and efficient living spaces within small square footage.

When you’re working within a limited space like a backyard or a garage, this couldn’t be more critical. We often hear homeowners thinking, “there’s no way I can fit a whole living space in there.” But, with the right design tricks and considerations, you’ll be surprised how much potential your space can hold.

We’ll explore a variety of ADU design ideas that prove small spaces can have a big impact. From clever storage solutions to strategic directional layouts, we’ll showcase how thoughtful design can transform even the most compact ADUs into stylish and practical living areas.

What is an accessory dwelling unit (ADU)?

An accessory dwelling unit (ADU) is a small residential structure that is built as an accessory to the main residence on the property, as the name suggests. An ADU must have everything necessary for independent long-term housing including:

  • A full kitchen
  • Bathroom
  • Bedroom or adequate space for a sleeping area
  • Permanent foundation
  • Insulation
  • All utilities and more

While most people envision ADUs as simple small structures, recent regulation changes have ushered in a new era of innovation and flexibility in the form of modern designs, eco-friendly construction, and advanced amenities.

Still, a sleek design can only go so far if functionality isn’t taken into consideration.

ADU Design Hacks With Intent

A common theme we preach at Maxable is that you don’t have to sacrifice style for function and budget. With thoughtful planning and creative design, you can achieve a perfect balance that meets your practical needs while reflecting your personal aesthetic. Our curated ADU design ideas focus on maximizing space, enhancing livability, and ensuring that every square foot serves a purpose.

#1: Think about expensive square footage vs low cost square footage

ADU Design Hacks

One of the primary reasons we don’t like to use cost per square footage when talking about ADUs is because not all square footage will be priced the same.

Building a kitchen or a bathroom is going to cost much higher than building a bedroom. A kitchen is going to require plumbing, appliances, tiling, countertops and more. The cost of these components stack up fast!

A bedroom on the other hand is just going to require some storage and a window. Why does this matter? If you’re worried about cost, but still want to maximize your space, focusing on adding more low-cost square footage can help keep your budget in check. In our video, we explain how our client opted for a two-bedroom design rather than a one-bedroom in the space they had to work with to unlock a higher ROI. This was an easy edit to the floor plan, requiring just an additional wall and a door.

#2: Take the whole property into consideration

Designing an ADU requires much more than just thinking about the interior layout. The whole surroundings of the ADU make a big impact on how things are positioned within the ADU.

Bedroom Windows: Position bedroom windows to face away from yard spaces or other communal areas to ensure privacy and minimize noise for your tenant.

ADU Entrances: Ensure that the ADU has its own walkway, such as from an alley or a separate path, to provide a clear and independent entry point. In our video example, our client was lucky to have a corner lot, so their future tenant has their own entry from the side of the property.

Aesthetic Harmony: Ensure the ADU complements the main house in design and materials, creating a cohesive look and enhancing overall property value.

Outdoor Space: We highly recommend incorporating some amount of outdoor space for the ADU. Whether that space is shared with the main house is up to you, but that should be determined very early on. Homeowners building for family love the idea of a communal outdoor space for everyone to convene on weekends like this San Diego family. On the other hand, if you plan on renting your ADU to a stranger, it’s best to keep the outdoor spaces separate. This Los Angeles resident included fencing to create a small private courtyard for their ADU. Smart!

With these points in mind, you’ll start to get some ideas of how you want your ADU laid out. With the help and expertise from an ADU designer, you’ll be able to refine your ideas to create a cohesive and functional space.

#3: Natural light is a must, but be strategic

This one may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many times natural light is overlooked. We all know the health benefits of incorporating natural light in a home, but did you know that including sufficient windows also increases your ADU’s value AND lowers energy usage?

According to a study by Zillow, installing long-lasting vinyl windows is one of the best ways to increase the value of your home. Go one step further and use double-paned windows to maintain indoor temperatures, effectively cutting your energy costs.

But, before you start penciling in floor to ceiling windows to your ADU design, you need to think about two things:


As you may have noticed, privacy is a common theme when designing an ADU. While adding windows everywhere may seem like a smart choice, remember that you may not want to compromise on privacy for the sake of natural light. Strategic window placement and thoughtful consideration of sightlines can maintain a balance between openness and privacy in your ADU. After all, creating a space that feels comfortable and secure is essential for both residents and guests alike.

A smart alternative to windows are skylights.


The more windows you add, the more complicated the construction becomes. Along with the increased complexity comes a higher cost. Windows not only require additional materials but also impact the structural integrity of the building. From framing to weatherproofing, each window adds to the overall expense of the project. Therefore, it’s essential to carefully consider the number and placement of windows in your ADU design, balancing your desire for natural light with your budget constraints.

#4: Don’t skip on storage

ADU Design Hacks

When dealing with a smaller footprint, efficient storage is non-negotiable! Limited space demands creative solutions to keep clutter at bay and maximize functionality. While it may be tempting to prioritize aesthetics over storage, neglecting this essential aspect can lead to a cramped and disorganized living environment.

Back to our client in the video, the bedrooms of their ADU were designed with spacious closet space to make up for the smaller footprint. Don’t underestimate the power of ample storage in transforming your ADU into a comfortable and functional home.

These design tips are just scratching the surface of design considerations for building an ADU, but serve as a good baseline to get the ball rolling on your project.

Looking for more design hacks?

As you’ve just learned, designing an ADU is much more than sketching a floor plan. Plus, the design phase is just one facet of the ADU timeline.

After helping thousands of homeowners throughout the U.S. through our blogs, videos, and other guides, we’ve curated all the crucial information you’ll need to get your project from initial ideas to final inspections. Check out our comprehensive e-course, The ADU Blueprint, to learn everything you need to know about financing, construction, regulations, and more from some of the top ADU professionals in the industry. Unlock a free preview of the first two chapters today.