Creative ideas for backyard retreats, detached home offices, and reinvented sheds
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
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."
Read more about this backyard office
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.
Take a look inside
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.
Tour the cabin's creative details
This 1920 backyard water tower was built when this property used to be a ranch. Now a residence, the owners needed a home
“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.
More about this project
Owner Connie Featherston overwinters her orchids and raises heirloom vegetable seedlings in this 8- x 10-foot garden shed
in Exeter, California.
“I had to put a clock in there because I have so much fun, I literally lose track of time,” she says.
A 'Cecile Brunner' climbing rose arches over the garden shed entry. The shed features a recycled door and windows that let in plenty of light.
See what makes this greenhouse work
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.”
See more of her garden retreat
Open areas and intimate nooks: That was what landscape architect Tomi Kobara wanted from a makeover of her Oakland, California,
Part of the challenge of the transformation was the backyard's tiny size ― barely more than 1,500 square feet.
When she bought her property, a shed that served as a studio sat in the far corner of the wedge-shaped backyard. In front of it lay a concrete patio surrounded by a large lawn.
See what she did with it
Once this small building was literally for the birds. It was a pigeon coop, abandoned long ago, and it was falling to the
But it had some good points. It sat at the end of the lawn and screened a view of the neighbors’ yards. The family wanted a play area for the kids, so it made sense to save it.
Now there’s room to relax on a daybed with a book, draw on a chalkboard, or play at a kidsize table. Later the family may turn it into a studio, office, or guest house.
See the before and after
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
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.
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."
Read more about this backyard family room
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.
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.
More about this cozy shelter
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.
See the before and after
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.
More about this shed
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.
Learn more about their shed
A shed in the right spot can help define an outdoor dining area or patio, as it did for this DIY backyard makeover.
This cedar garden shed in Seattle, Washington, keeps tools and garden machinery safe, dry, and out of the garage and basement.
"Before the shed, we had to bring the mower up out of the basement every time we cut the grass," says owner Leanne Rubin.
See the before and after
Attached to the outside of the house, this 15 ½-inch deep structure opens to reveal a spacious storage area to keep your garden
tools dry and out of site.
Materials, instructions, and building diagram
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
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.
Tour our cottage project
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.
More: How to create a backyard artist's studio