Creative ideas for backyard retreats, detached home offices, and reinvented sheds
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Backyard home office
Martha Mendoza’s days are filled with deadlines, after-school commitments, and other pressures. Yet the celebrated journalist, teacher, wife, and mother―who won a Pulitzer Prize at age 33 for an investigative series on the Korean War―leads a surprisingly balanced life.
Her secret? This tiny home office, housed in a converted potting shed in her Santa Cruz, California, backyard. Here she can steal away from her domestic responsibilities to write, study, and pursue breaking news stories for the Associated Press. "Being detached from the house is key."
An old garden shed a few steps away from her back door gave homeowner Kathryn Allen a solution to a pesky problem. “Our master bath had only a slender shower stall, and I was desperate for a bathtub,” she explains.
In a moment of inspiration, she saw Cinderella potential in the 9- by 11-foot backyard shed. Kathryn and her husband, David, cleaned and painted it, put in a new terra-cotta tile floor, added schoolhouse (awning-type) windows, and trained Boston ivy on the outside walls.
Gail and Mark Dupar’s shed looks like a cozy vacation cabin, or something out of “Hansel and Gretel.” But the cordwood structure is really the nerve center of the couple’s kitchen garden on Decatur Island in Washington’s San Juans.
Here they start seedlings, arrange flowers, raise tomatoes, store tools, and dry freshly harvested shallots on the warm brick floor.
This 1920 backyard water tower was built when this property used to be a ranch. Now a residence, the owners needed a home office.
“The first time I saw it, it was very close to falling down, but I thought it was fantastic,” says architect Geoffrey Holton. “It was like a little piece of history on a typical suburban lot.”
Builders stabilized the tower and added flashing to make it waterproof. They restored the windows and added a ring of transomlike windows at the base of the tower. After finishing the interior, the old ranch water tower is now a cozy home office.
Lisa Phipps has a knack for using found materials in fresh ways.
She started recycling in earnest when she moved to a small farmhouse in Port Orchard, Washington. Like Virginia Woolf, Lisa wanted a room of her own. Money was tight, so she and her husband, Frank, used salvaged materials to build a shed.
The more you recycle, the more the ideas flow, Lisa says. “You just have to loosen up and have fun.”
Lin Su, a Taiwan-born artist who lives in Los Angeles, California, added a 124-square-foot artist’s studio to her postage-stamp-size lot.
Here she’s free to paint and do art projects without cluttering her little home’s living room.
Clerestory windows and glass doors fill the space with light; tall bookcases along one wall hold books. And there’s ample space for her easel and canvases.
10 of 20John Granen
Summer living room
Although it is new, the structure looks old, thanks to recycled wood and comfortable furnishings. Painted platters and an old chandelier give the room a funky elegance.
"This space appeals to the little kid in all of us who always wanted a tree house," says designer Carleen Cafferty. "It's a cozy space, not a formal room. The denlike spaces are the rooms people gravitate to."
Dave and Terry Maczuga of Bellingham, Washington, devised a trail system through their landscape that leads to their airy glass-and-wood shelter tucked among conifers.
“We love to come here with a bottle of wine and sit and enjoy the birds,” Dave says.
12 of 20Alex Hayden
A healing place
It's more than just a place for plants: For Sheila McConnell, the little shed in her backyard in Bellevue, Washington, became a quiet, healing room where she recovered from breast cancer. "Out here I don't get caught up in the pace of life," she says.
The handsome retreat was designed and built by stepson Andy McConnell, who heads his own garden-carpentry firm in Seattle. "It started off as a toolshed and then it just blossomed," he says. Instead of lawn mowers, the 8- by 12-foot structure houses books, a TV and stereo, and an L-shaped counter for orchids and crafts projects.
Evan Sagerman and Marci Riseman needed extra space for a guest room and entertaining area, and they found it in an unlikely place: a tiny, ramshackle shed in the backyard of their San Francisco Victorian home.
The project became an exercise in preservation and space planning.
A storage shed can be as attractive as it is functional. This one ― a 220-square-foot rectangle inspired by a Polynesian dwelling ― complements the tropical landscape in Bobbi and Gene Hirschkoff's Encinitas, California, backyard.
In need of space for basic yard storage at their Seattle home, Ahna Holder and Ryan Smith decided to design and build a simple but fun 10- by 12-foot garden shed.
They used Hardipanel, a cement-based exterior siding material, to cover the standard, uninsulated, 2-by-4 wood frame in an elegant grid pattern, and gave it a sloping galvanized metal roof, which creates the impression of a lid being lifted.
Need a little more room? We partnered with San Francisco-based prefab firm Modern Cabana to create a pared-down modular project that provides a bit more square footage without the need for an over-the-top home addition.
The resulting guest suite and home office function separately as highly flexible bonus rooms. And combined with the outdoor entertaining areas, they offer a compelling model of minimalist living.
Looking for a space that would foster her creativity, Seattle artist Kristie Severn decided to build it in her own backyard. Local architects Jim Graham and added a modern, airy art studio onto an existing shed in her yard. Then she hired friend and landscape designer Brandon Peterson to plant a garden full of meadowlike grasses. “It’s a perfect place to relax with friends—or a sketchbook,” Severn says.