This New Tool Tells You If You Can Build A House In Your L.A. Backyard

A startup called Cover is smoothing the process of building backyard homes by helping with the permitting, design, and construction.

If you live in Los Angeles, a new digital tool will tell you if you can build a small second house in your backyard, and how much it might cost. It’s a solution that the designers think could help backyard homes quickly scale–and that could help the city address its housing crisis.


After decades of underbuilding, the city has a housing shortage. The average one-bedroom apartment now costs more than 60% more than it did in 2011. Nearly a third of residents spend more than half of their income on rent, and homelessness is growing.

[Image: Cover]

The city government believes that building backyard homes–also known as granny flats or accessory dwelling units (ADUs)–could be part of the solution to add new housing units. Roughly half a million backyards in L.A. could potentially be put to use, without dramatically changing the character of neighborhoods. A new state bill, supported by L.A.’s mayor, removed some barriers to building the new units, and after it went into effect in 2017, the number of permits for backyard homes increased 1,851% from the previous year.

But the process is still complicated. The new tool, from a startup called Cover, could help more homeowners actually decide to build. “Right now, understanding what you can build in your backyard, where you’re allowed to build it, and what that might cost, is a very time-consuming and painful process for homeowners,” says Cover CEO Alexis Rivas. “Usually, it either involves spending thousands of dollars to a professional–someone like an architect or an engineer–or it involves spending hundreds of hours doing zoning research, understanding the building code, and understanding what you’re allowed to build.”

With Cover’s backyard home planner tool, by contrast, someone enters their address, and answers a few questions about what they’re interested in building–whether they’d like to have a kitchen, for example. Then the tool automatically determines the zoning requirements for their lot and where a backyard house could go. If a yard isn’t suitable for a granny flat, someone will know that in five minutes, at no cost.

[Photo: Cover]

The startup, which launched in 2017, handles the whole process of designing and building a backyard home. If someone decides they want to build, Cover’s algorithmic software designs options for a custom house that uses prefab parts, for a minimal fee. The company then handles all of the architectural and engineering work, goes through the permitting process, manufactures parts in its L.A.-based factory, and then puts everything together.

The city is also working to make the permitting process easier, and worked with UCLA’s Citylab research center to create a simple guide for homeowners. But solutions like Cover’s could make help homeowners move forward at the scale needed; the city government is aiming to add at least 10,000 new backyard homes by 2021 as part of a push for 100,000 new housing units overall.


“We’re using technology to streamline the entire process, and we’re the single point of contact for homeowners,” says Rivas. “That just means a much smaller time commitment, a much less confusing and unpredictable process. I think those are things that are key for adoption on a wider scale.”


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.