This Garage-Turned-ADU Is the Bonus Space One Family Never Expected to Have
Accordion windows make it feel at one with the garden.
Published Dec 22, 2023 1:45 AM
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A blue kitchen that always had a homemade cake on the counter; a Hollywood-style bathroom perfect for makeup lessons; a juicy orange tree that nourished neighborhood kids—these were just a handful of the memories the previous owners’ daughter had of this L.A. 1940s Spanish Colonial, which she inscribed in a letter given to Colleen Clark and her husband, Pip, when they bought the place in 2018. The simple piece of paper was both a reminder to honor the past 50 years but also for the then newlyweds to leave their own mark—and that they did in the most unexpected way. They set their creative sights on the largely unused detached garage in the backyard.
For starters, neither Colleen, lead content design at YouTube Music, nor Pip, XYZ Films’s senior vice president of sales and acquisitions, need a covered spot to park their car (Colleen swears they always find a spot on the street). And unlike the former family’s father, who fancied himself something of a mechanic, they immediately envisioned transforming the 440-square-foot space into a guesthouse. “It’s bigger than any New York apartment I ever had,” Colleen says, laughing. After a decade of living in Brooklyn, she was guilt-stricken that the garage basically served as a glorified storage unit, especially given it was roomy enough to host friends and extended family, most of whom hail from the East Coast. “I was like: Oh, my God, fill it up! [It’s] so wasteful. People could be living here,” she says.
But with every dollar funneled into fixing the “unsexy things” in the main house (you know the culprits: electrical, roofing, and a new HVAC system), the Clarks realized it would likely be another five to 10 years before they got around to the ADU. Then the pandemic hit and Colleen lost her dream job at Airbnb. “It was a huge blow,” she recalls. Surprisingly, there was a silver lining: “They were very generous with the severance, and I happened to be lucky enough to get a new job really fast. Instead of putting this into savings, which would have been smart, we thought: What if we did this project that we didn’t think we were going to get to do for years?”
In July 2020, plans were put into motion. An old roommate connected them with an architect at Rfrm Collective, and as an interiors obsessive herself, Colleen dove in headfirst. “We talked about all kinds of insane things,” she shares. Perhaps they could squeeze in a swing or a twirly slide for their now 4-year-old son, Finn. “I just wanted to do something totally silly and delightful,” Colleen adds.
That sentiment took on greater meaning when, halfway through the project, the Clarks lost their newborn daughter, Penny, in June 2021. “We got to hold her for a few hours…and coming home, having my own body be wrecked and having all of our yard dug up, it just felt like this bomb had gone off,” Colleen shares. “We had pictured doing this for our family long term, of having two kids running around the yard. I was totally paralyzed by grief. Picking sconces felt obscene.” Tack on an unreliable contractor who would eventually ghost the Clarks, supply chain issues, and finicky inspectors—at one point, Colleen daydreamed about striking a match and setting the whole place ablaze. “I wanted to walk away from it. But after [a few] months, money was due, choices had to be made. I just started dragging myself through the motions,” she says.
At first, she stuck to small decisions. “I anchored myself in something simple like, ‘Oh, the texture of this mug is nice. This rug feels like a fluffy little cloud. This chair looks like the marshmallow man from Ghostbusters,’” Colleen says, pointing out she could handle the sort of things that didn’t come attached with big emotions. “It was a lifeline for me. A creative place to focus my energy when everything else felt out of control,” she explains. “I just kept thinking of the word joy when designing the space—I wanted to believe we would feel it again.”
So she poured herself into playing with paint swatches and splurging on a Noguchi lamp for its playful polka dots. “I started picking stuff that felt good,” she aptly says. “I started throwing color after color in—this was a bonus space we never expected to have. I didn’t want to be precious about it.”
Doubling down on fun, Rfrm carved out a lofted bedroom where there was formerly an empty vaulted ceiling. While lovingly referred to as the treehouse, the space holds a queen-size mattress, making it accommodating for adults. When not in use, the ladder sits flush to the wall, but its steps extend out for an easier, less steep climb. Below, the multiflex space is complete with a living room furnished with a velvet sleeper sofa, a full kitchen, and dining nook, plus a two-toned zellige bathroom with an IKEA vanity dressed up with Reform fronts. Made with the same natural oak wood and integrated handles from the Danish-born brand, the kitchen cabinets seamlessly merge into a storage bench–slash–window seat and four-door closet, visually anchoring the room.
Another magical moment Colleen loves: The glass walls are actually accordion windows that can be pushed aside, allowing uninterrupted views of the citrus trees and lavender garden. “We thought we’d do French doors,” Colleen remarks of the original plan. However, that would have meant losing valuable storage space. A hidden shade can also be fully drawn over the glass, doubling as a movie screen (there’s a projector hanging out on the opposite wall).
But what truly sets the tone that guests are about to have a good time is the disco ball hanging from the pergola at the entrance (a bar cart right beyond the front door also helps). To Colleen, it’s a kind reminder that she chose to be happy time and time again—it’s one of the first things she scooped up at her lowest point. “The disco ball is a reminder of my carefree, Brooklyn dance-party self, but also my current even-a-quiet-family-dinner-is-magic self,” she says. “When that sparkle falls on my son’s cheek or a friend’s glass of wine, I remember that this little life of ours is a privilege and a party.”