February 24, 2012 9:49 pm

Shed your commute

From huts to gazebos, people around the world are discovering the joys of working out of a backyard hideaway

Around the world, people are discovering the usefulness of garden hideaways, conjuring a value seemingly out of all proportion to their tiny floor area. Whether it be huts, man-caves, gazebos, summer-houses, home offices, or belvederes, sheds (of sorts) are significantly changing the pattern of working lives.

The United States started personal shedquarters in earnest with Thomas Jefferson’s square brick garden pavilion at Monticello, where he studied and wrote in the glow of Virginia sunsets. Two hundred years on, and after a decade of corpulent McMansions with obligatory home cinemas, the National Association of Home Builders in the US is now championing what it calls “right-sizing”. High unemployment and the mortgage crisis mean that scaled-down living and working at home make economic sense. And a modest shed is often part of the solution.

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Small doesn’t have to mean, well, mean. In downtown Buenos Aires, textile designer Rosa Skific has perched a metal container on her house, reached by climbing a stair to an exterior deck with bamboo plants. The precise, vivid red box is a deliberate contrast to the grey sprawl of the city below.

Broadband access, video conferencing and the trend towards cloud computing means global communication is easier than ever before. High fuel costs makes it more attractive for workers to be led up the garden path rather than being driven to financial distraction by commuting.

Alex Johnson is a writer in St Albans, north of London. His 2010 book, Shedworking: The Alternative Workplace Revolution (Francis Lincoln) includes examples from Texas, Seattle, Düsseldorf, Japan and the Netherlands. The trend for home offices is spreading fast. Even so, some countries are yet to catch on. “It doesn’t matter how much I explain the concept,” says Johnson, “Spaniards just don’t get it at all.”

A treehouse office in Austin, Texas

A treehouse office in Austin, Texas, from which Kent Portman operates his massage business

Perhaps there’s a logic to it: hot nations might more naturally take to masonry or mud shelters to shield from the sun rather than pine and glass, let alone a metal box, but time and insulation may change that, as a personal retreat holds a universal attraction for creative writers, artists and musicians. Many composers have created their best work by arranging themselves within a timber tabernacle to their muse. Grieg took to a shed replete with a piano and a view of a fjord. Mahler had no fewer than three huts, though it would be difficult to argue for the cause or effect of this generous array on his epic style.

Is there something more to the fashion for sheds – a collective yearning to return to a more primitive, less encumbered existence? Are we witnessing the next logical evolutionary retreat into the garden since the barbecue rehabilitated man with flesh and fire? We’ve had form here: in the 18th century, the Enlightenment burden of scientific and cultural progress was tempered by wild speculations on the rustic origins of our ancestors as noble savages. Marc-Antoine Laugier’s “primitive hut” of 1755 envisaged how classical temples sprang from a domestic shelter without walls, using for columns the trunks of standing trees: a bronze age gazebo, perhaps, from a land and time that knew no winter.

Speculating on history is one thing, living the primitive dream quite another. Paul Gauguin, who had a hut on the island of Atuona in French Polynesia at the beginning of the 20th century, is among the more famous back-to-nature shedworkers. His hut, featuring relief carvings of lithe inhabitants, was labelled the Maison du Jouir (House of Pleasure). But more illustrative of the mundane realities of Gauguin’s shedlife was the recent recovery from his excavated well of an empty jar of Bovril.

Author Roald Dahl at work in his back garden shed in Great Missenden, Bucks

Author Roald Dahl at work in his back garden shed in Great Missenden, Bucks

The UK is at the heart of the movement, and home to perhaps the most famous of all shedworkers, Roald Dahl, who wrote his children’s classics in his “little nest”, a hut in the garden of Gipsy House, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. Last year, Dahl’s family launched a subsequently abandoned £500,000 campaign to preserve its contents by moving the interior to a museum.

Writer Alex Johnson had a different budget for his home maintenance. In 2003, he needed extra space to work in but faced paying £100,000 for an extra bedroom or study if he moved to a bigger house. Instead, he chose to spend £10,000 for a garden office.

“It was a no-brainer. I bought an off-the-peg office, delivered and constructed, and I was so pleased with it, I started an e-newsletter called The Shed for people who might be doing the same. I wrote maybe a post a week, then it really took off.” He now runs a website and blog, shedworking.co.uk.

The exterior of Roald Dahl's shed office

The exterior of Roald Dahl's shed office

When he researched buying his office, Johnson found barely half a dozen suppliers, and had to ask a neighbour for a recommendation. “Now, there are a couple of dozen specialist designers in the UK, and a couple of dozen more shed companies who offer customised designs. I’m hopeless with a hammer but some choose to build themselves. You’d be surprised what you can do with re-used pallets: the end result tends to have a rustic look.”

Rusticity is achievable by all. But primitive innocence is, in the end, unrecoverable, and the modern shed movement is fundamentally about two things: economy and sanctuary.

Shedworkers contribute £6.1bn to the UK economy. This staggering estimate comes from a 2010 poll carried out by communications specialist Twelve Thirty Eight. It found that more than half of shed-based businesses in the UK (61.3 per cent) are run by sole traders, with 32.3 per cent employing between two and five workers. The average turnover of a shed-based business is £76,449, and the creative industries seem to thrive among the hydrangeas. Johnson reckons that his website generates 40 per cent of his total income as a proselytiser of the cause: from advertising and sponsorship, plus book sales and commissions, to writing about working from home.

A treehouse office in Sussex, England with a 20m rope bridge

A treehouse office in Sussex, England with a 20m rope bridge

Nicola Brown runs her successful Shropshire graphic design business in a shed and calls her company In The Shed. London-based photographer Andy Fallon is another shedworker, as is reiki therapist Chiara Irvine of The Healing Shed in Reading. The usefulness of a shed is clearly what you make of it. The poll estimates that 80,000 workers are based in garden buildings in the UK, although the figure could be much higher.

The potential turnover is more impressive when the reduced overheads are factored in. Walking 20 metres to your office means a drastically reduced carbon footprint. But the really impressive statistic is time saving: shedworkers regain three-quarters of an hour of their day from an average commute (almost 200 hours per year, according to the TUC), saving half a working day per week.

Clearly, these benefits could suit employers. In 2007, Michael Geoghegan, then chief executive of HSBC, said: “I’ve challenged us within seven years to have 50 per cent of [HSBC’s UK headquarters at Canary Wharf] empty, to sublet to someone else. I don’t think we’re a really progressive, perceptive company if 8,000 people have to get up every day at an unearthly hour and then go back again.”

Where will masses of homeworkers find space in smaller houses and apartments? Emma Jones, chief executive of Enterprise Nation, which helps people start and grow businesses, canvassed homeworkers in 2009. The answers ranged from a spare room (48.2 per cent) to the kitchen table (3.6 per cent), with a garden shed/garage at a measly 7.6 per cent, just below the count for living rooms. (The category “other” scored 20.8 per cent.) Jones, nevertheless, believes there is a growing trend for garden offices, claiming that one will typically increase a property’s value by an average of £25,000. Shacks stack up.

It takes little talent to put up a prefab but some thought and creative flair can go a long way. A ground rule of any architectural education is that buildings have negative space (passages, stairs, closets) and positive space (where people do things). The triumph of sheds is that they’re virtually all positive space, dedicated to thinking and doing. In a small building quality materials, proportion, detail and lighting will all count.

I should by now have admitted that I’m writing this in my own garden office. It’s built from salvage, a 12ft wide by 8ft deep and 8ft high confection of architectural bits and bobs: sash windows, recycled roof slates and a foppish Regency pediment, filled with books, much crockery, candles, oil paints, more salvage and an armchair. It’s a wonder I get any work done.

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A shed for business

Really grand and original sheds are custom-built but, for the time poor, here are a few off-the-shelf alternatives, writes Leke Sanusi:

UK

Plankbridge, Dorset

Plankbridge’s shepherds’ huts are made to an original Victorian design. They come with double-glazed windows and insulation throughout. The floors are made from oak.

Measurements: The interior of 12ft huts are 6ft wide by 11ft 6in long. 9ft and 14ft long huts are also available.

Price: £9,450 plus VAT.

www.plankbridge.com

Garden Affairs, Wiltshire

Garden Affairs provides a range of “posh” sheds. The Prima Fifth Avenue garden is a popular choice.

Measurements: 6ft by 6ft

Price: £1,775 (self assembly) or an extra £600 if you want Garden Affairs to assemble it.

www.gardenaffairs.co.uk

Rooms Outdoor, London

Rooms Outdoor oversees the design, manufacture and installation of thousands of garden rooms. The Cuberno, inspired by architect Le Corbusier, is the most popular.

Measurements: available in various dimensions.

Price: £22,000-£33,000.

www.roomsoutdoor.co.uk

US

Neoshed, Maryland

Neoshed’s Type 03 shed is available as a turn key installed package or do-it-yourself kit for self assembly. It comes with a 5ft wide steel French door.

Measurements: 10ft by 12ft

Price: From $9,500

www.neoshed.com

AUSTRALIA

TS1, Melbourne

“Fully transportable and relocatable”, TS1s are made from lightweight steel beams.

Measurements: 3.2m high x 3.5m long x 2.9m wide

Price: A$29,000 (£20,000)-A$38,000

www.ts1now.com.au

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