Modern and eco-friendly ADU transformed a historic home in Los Angeles

After 40 years in the historic Los Angeles home where she raised her family, Mary Nichols knew she wanted to make a change. She was willing to design a so-called granny apartment—without the clutter connotations.

Nichols, a respected environmental lawyer and former government official on climate policy, needed a bright, modern space that reflected how active she was in outreach to the world.

By converting the attic, a former teen’s rec room, into a self-contained apartment, she was able to carve out her own space while giving the main floors of the home to posterity.

“It was always our idea that my son and his family would move into this house one day, but when my husband passed away in 2016, I followed the conventional wisdom and didn’t make any important decisions,” Nichols recalls. She spent a year alone and realized she didn’t want to leave the neighborhood. “I really wanted to stay home.”

Nichols decided to approach her son and daughter-in-law with the idea of ​​living together and embrace the growing trend of multigenerational housing. At first, she was worried about being seen as a “babysitter,” she said. “I still work and travel a lot.” Last year she was part of a United Nations team of experts articulating net-zero emissions standards. Consulting roles with nonprofits and universities often take her to New York City and Washington, D.C., and she recently returned from Italy’s Lake Como, where she was writing a forthcoming book about her climate work.

To consider what life might be like under one roof, the trio went to a favorite restaurant for dinner and pulled out their checklists. Fortunately, there was a lot of overlap! Nichols says.

The family contacted Steve Pallrand, founder of Home Front Build, a design-build firm that specializes in environmentally responsible remodels. “Converting an existing attic space into its own separate home was essentially a tiny home project, all about living beautifully and efficiently in a small space,” says Baland. “The main challenges were working within current standards, and how to create this separate living area without hindering the grandeur of the home.”

Nichols used to adapt her home to her family’s needs. Over the years, she’s updated the 1918 Craftsman with new bathrooms, a wheelchair lift for her late husband, and a converted carriage house—which she happily relegated to with her rescue dog, Motti, as crews once again filled the house.

The most significant structural addition to the new project was the elevator that now carries Nichols safely from the ground floor to her third floor apartment. “We all agreed it was a good idea, but my son was very adamant about it,” she says. (The only one who doesn’t like it is Motti, who needs a little convincing to jump into the cab.)

Baland found room for the elevator by relocating the basement access, reallocating the butler’s pantry on the first floor, and removing the entire back staircase on all three levels, also giving the Nichols children the opportunity to do some second floor renovations themselves. With new windows and skylights, new insulation, and upgraded electrical and HVAC systems, the bar is once dark and uninspiring sunny penthouse apartment. “I’m self-sufficient here—I have my computer, my TV—and there’s plenty of natural light. Daylight is very important to me,” Nichols says.

“Mary is such an elegant and vibrant lady,” says Julie Karimi, director of design at Home Front Build. “She has beautiful art, clothes, and furniture, and this apartment really reflects it.”

The third floor provided about 750 square feet, just enough space to meet Mary’s specific needs: a comfortable sitting area, breakfast table, kitchenette, and workspace with plenty of storage. “We approached the layout like it’s a great room, making up different areas,” Karimi says.

Removing the back staircase also created a new space that allowed them to design a more private bedroom that fit snugly with ample closets and a bathroom that could be fitted with a separate bathtub and shower and the most unusual of all: a smart toilet.

Eco-design was “a given,” says Nichols. Creamy brought naturally durable cork floors, paints with no or low VOC levels, water-efficient plumbing fixtures, and LED lighting. She also collaborated with Nichols’ interior designer and friend, Michael Blakeney, who returned to help pick colors and reuse existing pieces, including Nichols’ Saarinen dining chairs and her late husband’s desk, a simple wood table.

“I wanted things to be light and bright, but I also wanted things to be small and functional,” says Nichols.

Although the family often dined together downstairs, especially at Saturday dinners on Friday night, the kitchenette provided Nichols with just the right amount of cooking freedom. A convection microwave oven, slimline fridge, and dishwasher drawer are hidden behind cabinetry, and the electric cooktop stows easily on the counter when needed.

And it’s also amazing. “The bright orange cabinetry is a great balance to Marie’s love of blue,” says Karimi, referring to the blue-and-white herringbone graphic backsplash.

“I love color, and I definitely didn’t want this apartment to be completely neutral,” says Nichols. It is anything but. It is authentic, no-nonsense, and as lively as its inhabitant.

Built-in cupboards and bookcases throughout the home keep things tidy and add greater design flexibility by reducing the need for bulky storage pieces. “I tend to stack books and papers, but this is an easy space for me to keep tidy,” says Nichols. It also gave her space to exercise. “After moving upstairs, I started working out at home, first with an online Pilates instructor and then with someone who would come in. It really is a very good space to work out!” And while Nichols would sometimes host large meetings in the larger rooms downstairs, the seating area in Her apartment is perfect for small gatherings.

But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit, shortly after the project ended, that Nichols saw the renovation through a very different lens.

“My family has been my lifeline,” Nichols says. “They did all the orders online. We share the chores. We all took care of each other.”

These days (when she’s home, anyway), she still happily steps in by running errands and showing up to sign for packages.

“I’ve never slowed down and coming home after traveling makes me happy,” she says. “I really enjoy having this private space where I can be completely self-sufficient.” But in the spirit of a true grandmother, Nichols is most excited about the fact that she gets to see and talk to her family so often. And although Moti hesitated about the elevator, she, too, settled comfortably. “She completely owns my place!” Nichols says.

Miley Bingle is a Los Angeles-based writer and former editor at Architectural Digest.

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