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Need More Space? Put Up a Cottage

  • This undated photo provided by Cabin Fever shows a prefabricated backyard studio under construction in Cabin Fever's manufacturing plant in Miami, Fla. The cabin was disassembled after this photo was taken, and shipped to Alpine,Texas, where it was reassembled in the owner's backyard. (AP Photo/Cabin Fever, Tim Walker)

    This undated photo provided by Cabin Fever shows a prefabricated backyard studio under construction in Cabin Fever's manufacturing plant in Miami, Fla. The cabin was disassembled after this photo was taken, and shipped to Alpine,Texas, where it was reassembled in the owner's backyard. (AP Photo/Cabin Fever, Tim Walker)

  • This October 2011 publicity image provided by Microhouse shows Ben Staulcup and January Colacurcio and their two children Leo and Francis standing in front of their 800-square-foot backyard cottage in Seattle Wash. The cottage was designed by Microhouse, a Seattle firm that specializes in the design and permitting of backyard cottages. (AP Photo/Microhouse, Bruce Parker)

    This October 2011 publicity image provided by Microhouse shows Ben Staulcup and January Colacurcio and their two children Leo and Francis standing in front of their 800-square-foot backyard cottage in Seattle Wash. The cottage was designed by Microhouse, a Seattle firm that specializes in the design and permitting of backyard cottages. (AP Photo/Microhouse, Bruce Parker)

  • In this undated publicity photo provided by Cabin Fever, a prefabricated cabin is used as a backyard artist studio as shown in Pasadena, Calif. The Zip model by Cabin Fever in Miami, Fla. comes flat-packed and can be assembled in just a few days. (AP Photo/Cabin FeverGayle Zalduondo)

    In this undated publicity photo provided by Cabin Fever, a prefabricated cabin is used as a backyard artist studio as shown in Pasadena, Calif. The Zip model by Cabin Fever in Miami, Fla. comes flat-packed and can be assembled in just a few days. (AP Photo/Cabin FeverGayle Zalduondo)

  • This undated photo provided by Cabin Fever shows a prefabricated backyard studio under construction in Cabin Fever's manufacturing plant in Miami, Fla. The cabin was disassembled after this photo was taken, and shipped to Alpine,Texas, where it was reassembled in the owner's backyard. (AP Photo/Cabin Fever, Tim Walker)
  • This October 2011 publicity image provided by Microhouse shows Ben Staulcup and January Colacurcio and their two children Leo and Francis standing in front of their 800-square-foot backyard cottage in Seattle Wash. The cottage was designed by Microhouse, a Seattle firm that specializes in the design and permitting of backyard cottages. (AP Photo/Microhouse, Bruce Parker)
  • In this undated publicity photo provided by Cabin Fever, a prefabricated cabin is used as a backyard artist studio as shown in Pasadena, Calif. The Zip model by Cabin Fever in Miami, Fla. comes flat-packed and can be assembled in just a few days. (AP Photo/Cabin FeverGayle Zalduondo)

Something small is afoot. Backyard cottages — from 800-square-foot bungalows to Lilliputian studio cabins — are springing up behind houses in many cities, some of which have changed zoning laws to accommodate them.

Often, the cottages are built for aging parents or grown children. Sometimes, they’re rented out for extra income, or are used as studios or offices.

“Backyard cottages increase density in a nice way,” says Bruce Parker, principal of the Seattle-based design collective Microhouse. “They use existing infrastructure and … they’re inherently sustainable. A cottage is the antithesis of a big house on a tiny lot.”

Seattle updated its zoning laws in 2009 to allow for “accessory dwelling units” on single-family lots of at least 4,000 square feet. (Permits are needed depending on the size of the cottage and whether it has plumbing and electricity.)

While Parker had been designing small homes for several years, the microhouse law inspired him to focus on backyard dwellings. Soon, he was teaching classes on backyard cottages with the Seattle firm NCompass Construction.

About 90 percent of his students, he said, wanted to build a cottage for their parents.

“Rather than paying thousands of dollars a month for assisted living, you can have your parents with you and they can help with the kids — but everyone gets their own space,” says Parker.

For other homeowners, backyard cottages are an opportunity for small-scale entrepreneurship.

Bob DiPalma of Burlington, Vt., didn’t set out to run a mini-hotel out of his yard but the project “crept up on me.” While rehabilitating their 100-year-old barn, he and his wife saw the opportunity to convert the space into an apartment above a garage. They drew up designs, hired a contractor and soon had a fully-functioning vacation rental.

“Over the last four years, we’ve had really wonderful guests who have appreciated the space,” DiPalma says.

Sometimes, the need for more space is just a need for ... more space.

“So many people are working from home,” says Gayle Zalduondo, principal of the Miami-based Cabin Fever, which sells prefab cabins. “Rather than going offsite, they’re adding a cabin. People need more space, but they’re not comfortable upsizing to a larger house, especially in this economy.”

Some of her customers want a guest house, while others are artists, musicians and independent service providers — from freelance graphic designers to massage therapists.

Unlike the fully outfitted miniature homes being used for rental properties and mother-in-law quarters, small backyard cabins without kitchens and bathrooms do not require permits in many states.

“We have a model you can build in a weekend,” says Zalduondo. “It comes flat-packed. It’s tight and weather-proofed and you don’t even need to pour a full slab. You can just prepare a lightweight foundation and put the cabin on top of it.”

Seattle resident Isaac Vicknair pioneered a new kind of off-the-grid, backyard living in his quest for affordable housing. He builds simple 8-by-8-foot sheds in exchange for free rent in them for three to six months after completion.

“It’s a great deal for everyone,” says Vicknair. “They cost me about $800 in materials and then I save around $5,000 in rent while I live there. All the homeowner has to pay for is the electricity I use, which is almost nothing.”