How a struggling single mom built an ADU without killing a 60-year-old tree

Little did she know when Chantal Arnoult moved to France with her family in 2008 that she would be returning to Los Angeles four years later, divorced and unable to afford the home she and her then-husband bought in 2002 for $395,000 had bought.

“I was broke, had two kids and no job,” she said. “I had a long-term tenant, so I stayed with my sister and then rented another apartment. When I refinanced the house, I still couldn’t afford the mortgage, so I rented my house through Airbnb for five years. My children and I have moved seven times. It was constant juggling.”

When a new set of California laws were passed in 2017 to make it easier to build secondary housing units, or ADUs, Arnoult decided to move home, withdraw her retirement savings, and build a 650-square-foot income property in her Mar Vista backyard.

A two story ADU with raised windows to maximize privacy and light.

Raised windows maximize privacy and light.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

As conceived by her sister, Venetian architect Isabelle Duvivier, the ADU plays out as a case study in efficient use of space and a thoughtful approach to treetop preservation.

“We’re losing our tree canopy due to development,” said Duvivier, who is a member of the city’s Community Forest Advisory Committee. “People sacrifice every ounce of free space to make these big boxes. It’s okay to build, but to build with Nature. Ninety percent of our tree canopy is on private property. Trees provide shade, clean the air, collect rainwater and connect us to nature. As our city gets hotter, saving trees is even more important. I’m a building designer, but I feel like a building without a connection to the outside world is meaningless.”

The home is also an inspiration for anyone trying to balance the economic struggles that come with trying to live, work, and raise a family in Los Angeles.

A living room photographed from the kitchen

Sunlight streams through the ADU’s windows and French doors.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

“I’ve worked hard to make it affordable,” Duvivier said of the ADU, which was completed in 2019 for about $225,000, including paving, landscaping, fencing, and an attached garage conversion that shares one wall — and also rents can be. “Most of my ADUs cost more than $300,000. This one is the cheapest I’ve ever built, partly because Chantal made the cheapest bid. But I think it’s a nice unit.”

ADUs are complicated, Duvivier said, because they’re on small lots and “everyone wants a rooftop deck and two bathrooms in a tight space.” They’re also complicated by things that people often don’t take into account, like the fact that new homes need to be five to two meters horizontally away from power lines. “ADUs are often closer to the power lines so you have to get approval from the LADWP and they are overwhelmed with ADUs at the moment. New buildings used to have to be 15 feet from power lines, but now it’s five.”

A woman sits on a couch with a tree visible through the window behind her.

Architect Isabelle Duvivier looking at the Chinese Elm she kept over her right shoulder.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Though the ADU is two stories tall, it is dwarfed by a giant 60-year-old Chinese elm tree that the sisters have worked hard to preserve. “I like to use two stories because you can never get the land back,” Duvivier said. “We had to slowly cut back the Chinese elm and then when we were finally ready to build we trimmed it neatly. Now it enhances their garden.”

It also enhances the ADU, which is airy and bright thanks to its southern exposure and soaring 18-foot ceilings that make the interior feel larger than its floor plan. “It feels bulky even though it’s tiny,” Duvivier said. “I pay attention to the orientation of the sun to ensure buildings maximize the free energy they receive from the sun and stay cool with south-facing windows.”

Concerned about the privacy of her neighbors by Arnoult, Duvivier designed the building with raised windows overlooking the Chinese elm and other trees, providing light and privacy. “You don’t look out, you look up,” said Arnoult. “Actually I call the ADU ‘Window Onto the Trees’. The beauty of those tall windows is that you get light and nature.”

A Chinese elm tree is visible through the square windows of a living room.

A Chinese elm tree can be seen through the windows of the ADU’s living room.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Another eco-friendly touch from Duvivier, whose own Venice home is LEED Platinum, is the addition of a 400-gallon cistern at the back of the house so her sister can use treated rainwater to irrigate the lush landscape. “We always collect rainwater on site and collect more than the city needs,” she said. “I’m trying to incorporate it into the design so that people can actually use it and not just have rain barrels because the city needs them for new buildings.”

The rental unit has two small bedrooms upstairs including one with a half wall that overlooks the living area. Downstairs there is a bathroom, laundry room and kitchenette (with cupboards and miniature Ikea appliances) opening onto the living room. Oversized French doors let in more sunshine and provide easy access to a private patio and garden hidden behind a fence separating the two houses.

Interiors have concrete floors that are durable and pet-friendly (hence perfect for renters), and Arnoult estimates she’s on the verge of paying off the ADU with proceeds from short- and long-term rentals. She simply furnished the space with an Ikea sofa bed and daybed with built-in storage; bar stool found on nextdoor; a statuesque fiddle-leaf fig; and accessories from junk sales and Wayfair.

A kitchenette with miniature appliances.

The kitchenette features miniature appliances.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Looking back, Arnoult said she regretted hiring the contractor with the lowest bid because she ended up having to hire subcontractors to install central air and heating, rain gutters, landscaping, stair rails and fences, and fit out the kitchenette. “It might have been less stressful if I’d included everything in a higher bid,” she says now.

A sink, toilet and shower

Even the bathroom offers a view of the trees.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

And while she has no regrets about building the ADU, she admits she was surprised when her taxes went from $6,000 to $9,000 a year. She also thinks it’s important that people understand LA’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which governs rent increases and evictions in a city where rents are among the highest in the country.

Due to COVID-19, LA landlords are barred from increasing rent on rent-stabilized units through 2023. “People considering building an ADU should be aware that if their house was built in 1978 or before 1978, the housing department will turn their home over into an RSO, either as the main house or the entire lot, depending on configuration [rent stabilization ordinance] Property. That should become more transparent.”

View of the living room from a half-wall bedroom/loft.

View of the living room from the bedroom on the second floor.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Like many LA stories, Arnoult’s ADU is a saga of economic hardship intertwined with valuable real estate.

“I don’t know if I could have kept my house if I hadn’t had the extra income from my ADU,” she said. “I feel so lucky to own this house. I will not sell it. I have two children and now I have two houses. If something happens to me, my two children will have a place to live. I don’t think my kids could afford to buy a house in LA.”

Realizing how difficult it is for so many people to find affordable housing in Los Angeles, she said the renovation left her humbled and grateful.

“When I was at plan review, I was lined up with single moms and retirees who were building ADUs because they needed the extra income. Short-term rentals are changing people’s lives. It gives them the financial freedom to live in Los Angeles. I was lucky. I owned a house. I had money in the bank. My house saved me.”

A bed and side table.

Elevated windows in each room overlook the trees.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times) How a struggling single mom built an ADU without killing a 60-year-old tree

Russell Falcon

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