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Empowering a Better Affordable Housing Process

Case Study

Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections

An Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) in the backyard of a home surrounded by a fence and trees.
Carpenter building an ADU structure in a backyard.
A diagram illustrating the six-step construction journey for customers interested in building an ADU.

The Problem

Seattle aimed to improve housing affordability by easing the construction of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in single-family zones, with Mayor Jenny Durkan issuing an Executive Order in support. 

Accessory dwelling unit in the backyard of a home

ADUs, like basement suites, in-law apartments, or backyard cottages, are extra living spaces allowed in neighborhoods. They offer cheaper housing choices and suit various household needs such as downsizing or living with multiple generations.

Despite these efforts, navigating the process of getting permits and building ADUs remained challenging, especially for individual property owners and small businesses. Problems like unclear rules, inconsistent communication, and scheduling difficulties slowed progress. 

A diagram illustrating the six-step construction journey for customers interested in building an ADU: Research permit rules and process,

 The six-step construction journey for customers interested in building an ADU

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To tackle these issues, Seattle's Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) aimed to use data to improve clarity, accessibility, and communication throughout the ADU inspection process. These efforts weren't just about making ADU construction easier but also about ensuring a smoother experience for everyone involved.

The Solution

Anthro-Tech in collaboration with the SDCI team, aimed to enhance the inspection process for ADUs by applying a Human-Centered Design (HCD) approach. We conducted interviews with various stakeholders, including homeowners, contractors, architects, inspectors, managers, and administrative staff, to understand their experiences and identify problems. 

A user persona diagram showing a typical scenario for permitting and construction of and ADU

Meet Contractor Charlie, a user persona representing one of the key players involved in ADU permitting and construction. This persona sheds light on their role in the process, as well as their goals and expectations.

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Using customer journey maps and service blueprints, we visualized the interactions and pinpointed issues, connecting customer and staff frustrations. This process allowed us to uncover the root causes of obstacles and inefficiencies, leading to the development of a strategic roadmap for improvement. Through collaborative workshops with staff, we prioritized impactful solutions, leveraging insights from their expertise. As a result, SDCI is now implementing these recommendations to make the inspection process more accessible, smoother, and efficient for everyone involved.

The Impact

Utilizing the Human-Centered Design approach, SDCI is now empowering more affordable housing by simplifying processes for their customers. 

Our approach provided valuable insights for SDCI to better understand and connect with the people they serve. It revealed staff pain points to management, amplifying staff voices and offering clarity on the most pressing issues for both customers and staff. By adopting a human-centered perspective, SDCI not only gained insights from previously overlooked customer groups but also understood staff experiences in their daily roles.

SDCI now possesses a prioritized roadmap outlining various improvement opportunities, categorized by impact and effort, which they are actively pursuing. These enhancements aim to:

  • Empower customers and set them up for success throughout the inspection process.
  • Enable staff to focus on supporting and fostering connections with the public.
  • Ensure the construction of more affordable housing across Seattle is done safely.