The Backyard Bookshed Project.


I am definitely getting the camera out this weekend! We’ve got it all going on in the garden now – including potatoes, scallions, broccoli, and nasturtiums starting in the last two days! Not to mention almost-edible radishes and joi choi. In about two weeks I should be taking a bit more than chives out of the garden and I can’t wait!

I thought today I might write about our studio project today because backyard structures – sheds, home offices, living rooms – are all the rage these days among homeowners and we just completed our own version just as planting season started.

Our backyard, fall 2009.

When we moved into our house last spring we got our priorities in order right away: 1) Put a suite in the basement, and 2) do something about the collapsing garage in the backyard. So while I got a small garden going last year, we were mainly focused on the basement suite which took over our lives until August when it was finished (and our finances drained).  Flash forward to this December when I was fortunate enough to sell my half-duplex on the Sunshine Coast with enough money to turn towards our second priority project out back.

As far as it went, there were three obvious options to our sagging garage: tear it down for more yard space, fix it up to be a garage for our car which I’m just as happy to park out front, or turn  into more liveable space. While the first option would have been the cheapest… we don’t have a huge living/dining area in our house… so the temptation was there to go for the third option (which incidentally is the best way to add resale value to a property in our overpriced real estate market). With that in mind, I put together some drawings (not professional ones by a long shot) that turned the garage into an outdoor living room with a sleeping loft and a storage room instead.

Fortunately, my partner is willing to find and deal with workmen, because I positively *hate* doing that part of the project since most men in the biz tend to treat women pretty badly (patronizing, often sexist, sometimes bullying…..). As soon as the sale on my house was inked and we knew money would be coming in, he got on the phone and contacted a contractor who had sort of been referred to us, plus called up an electrician we had used before and really liked.

Debris pile covering the patio.

And so we got started. Although the foundation was still sound, the rest of the garage in bad shape, having been built sometime in the 1950s and never taken care of since.  Peeling paint, leaking roof, rotting siding, support beams crumbling – we had originally hoped to use some of the original shed in our rebuild, but in the end the only piece we saved was the hand painted street number which we put aside to be reaffixed. The tear-down created a huge mess in our backyard in the middle of February – and between that and the muddy days, I found the whole scene really depressing to come home to.

But as soon as the giant pile of debris was taken away I started to feel a bit better, and the studio/shed started to take shape. The basic building is 220 square feet, divided into two rooms – one that is sixty square feet and entered through a utility door in our alleyway, the other that takes up the rest of the space and is entered through french doors that open out onto the patio. We put a ceiling on the “shed” portion at seven feet, which gave us a small sleeping loft (sixty square feet, four feet high at its apex).

The finished product.

Because we were already in for the expense of the project, I wanted to go for the most durable exterior materials possible so we wouldn’t be faced with having to re-side or re-roof anytime during our ownership of the roof. On my Dad’s advice we went with a tinted Hardie plank which has a guaranteed life of fifty years and is composed of concrete and waste wood fibre. It is a siding product so it doesn’t look exactly like wood, but it makes a much nicer look than vinyl. Roofing material is a black tin product stamped to look like slate.

If I was ever going to re-side our house, I would definitely go with the Hardie material again – the finished product looks really good. I understand it’s not super easy to work with because it’s heavy, but once you get familiar it goes on like regular wood siding.

We decided to go with wall sconces rather than pot lights because the ceilings ended up being really high in the main studio portion. When we were working out the height we didn’t factor in that the foundation is dug about two feet below ground because of the slope in our yard – which gives the space a

The studio & loft at finishing.

much “roomier” quality than we anticipated. So much the better because a lot of light is captured from the French doors and the single side window and the light paint colour we chose really helped the airy effect. Flooring is bamboo for reasons of environmental efficiency and economy.

As a final touch, we built-in bookshelves out of finished birch plywood (cut into 9.25 inch planks for me at home depot), designing them slightly taller than the loft floor to provide both privacy, and the security of a railing.  These cost about $150 in building materials and took three hours to put together (not counting varnishing time) – which is way cheaper than you could get anyone to build shelving for you. My next woodworking project for May is to build the ladder up to the loft which requires some fancy knowledge of angles that I’m just not sure about.

So. Two hundred square feet of living space and what did we create? A living room with a fold out bed for two, a comfy reading chair and a table for serving food on. An extra sleeping or storage space up top, masked by the extra-tall bookshelves. A space for a single-person sauna which we have yet to purchase. More room for our ever-increasing book collection, and sixty square feet of garden-storage.

Installing the bookshelves.

The total cost was approximately $18,000 in material and labour using all high-end supplies and up to current building code which included all the demolition, wiring and clean-up. Judging from what we see in real estate in our neighbourhood, a finished garage (home studio, office etc.) can add as much as $60,000 in value to

a home price. If properly done, it really does add significant, useable square footage to a home – so I guess that just makes sense. When we were looking to buy, a finished garage or shed was something we wanted but everything that included such upgrades was *way* out of our price range.

Last weekend, we had our first real test drive of the studio when some friends came over for an early spring BBQ. We really *wanted* to hang out in the yard, but the intermittent, light showers suddenly turned into rain forcing us to move our dinner inside. Instead of heading into the house though, we simply relocated to the studio and left the french doors open to the spring evening while we ate and drank together. Half-inside, half-outside – it makes a beautiful transition space for early spring or late fall – as well as a changing area for the hot tub we installed on the patio closer to the house. A few years ago, this was the type of space I dreamed about having in my life – a little garden house to retreat to and entertain in…. I am so glad we took the plunge on this project!

(I note that I have no photos of the interior with furniture and books. I will take some this weekend along with my garden shots and also post here.)

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