How I made my own backyard workspace (or “shedquarters”)

My husband and I embarked on a major project last Spring — we had moved into our new home and took care of all the major to-dos, so it was time to start a “nice to have” project. Our home is in the greater Boston area, so true to New England homes near the city, our home isn’t big by American standards and we have a slightly-larger-than-postage-stamp yard. Space is at a premium, and I didn’t really want to lose an entire room in my home by converting it to a home studio and office space.

Thankfully our backyard is big enough to easily fit a shed, so I decided to embark on creating my own home office and studio space. Some blogs call this home trend a shedquarters (or, for some reason, gender it as a “she-shed,” but that makes me gag a little).

I learned a TON by making my own space, and I’ve been asked quite a bit about what the process is like, so I thought I’d give some real-life tips and pointers from someone who has actually created a “shedquarters.”

An important note: Most pre-fab shed workspaces are NOT equipped to handle cold-weather climates, especially those that get snow!
I loved looking at the gorgeous shed studios/offices in lots of blogs, but there were a few glaring problems with a lot of them that immediately took them out of the running once I got serious about having my own:

  1. A lot of them have flat or lightly-graded roof, which is a completely terrible idea if you live in a place that gets snow. Snow is SUPER heavy and the roof needs to be slanted enough for it to melt or fall off. Even just a few inches of snow on a slight-to-no grade roof could mean damage or even a roof collapse.
  2. The vast majority do not have any kind of wall (or ceiling or floor) insulation, which again is a terrible idea in cold climates. Depending on what you have in your shed space, it may not matter to you, but if you have anything water-based or electronic, it’s a concern. Insulation for a workspace shed in colder climes is an absolute must — many of the prefab companies will offer insulation for a very hefty fee, and in many cases I found the insulation R value (R value = how much insulation it provides, higher number is better) was minimal at best.

When I took into account the requirements for a cold-weather shed and weighed the option of a totally pre-fab solution versus attempting something a bit more DIY (namely retrofitting an ACTUAL shed built to stand New England winters), I opted for the DIY option.

My thinking was something like this:

Pre-fab pros

  • They look absolutely gorgeous and super modern, inside and out
  • You pay money, they do most of the work — in some cases, you come home to a complete move-in ready space

Pre-fab cons

  • They are quite expensive, especially if you add insulation as part of their package deal
  • Most pre-fab work-sheds are really only meant for warm-weather locations. Most can’t handle cold or snow, and the few that do require spend even MORE money to optimize them for cold
  • Many of them will only ship the parts to you and require you to assemble it all, which is not a small effort (no matter what their marketing materials say)
  • Aesthetically the super-modern look would stick out like a sore thumb — New England houses are overwhelmingly Colonial style — as much as I love the California style it would look completely out of place in my yard!

DIY pros

  • Much more affordable by all accounting
  • Structurally sound for cold and snowy winters if you buy from a local vendor
  • Can customize it completely, including adding insulation and ventilation as needed

DIY cons

  • It’s a TON of work!
  • They don’t look nearly as nice — my shedquarters is not going to be Pinterest-ed any time soon

For me, this is a space to work and sometimes make a mess with ink and paint — having a pristine and highly-designed space wasn’t as much of interest to me as having a practical space that I could make my own and scuff up a bit.

Panorama of the shed interior while we were still putting it all together

With that out of the way, here are some general pointers if you decide to give this a go yourself:

Obligatory I-Am-Not-A-Contractor-or-House-Builder-By-Trade Disclaimer goes here. Please do your own research if you’re going to build a backyard shedquarters, and make sure it’s appropriate and safe for your property.

Make sure you get appropriate permits.

Don’t assume a structure under a certain size is OK to build without a permit. Many websites suggest this is the case, but you don’t want to find out that you’re wrong when it’s too late. Check with your town/city first, pull the permit if needed and save yourself a huge headache.

Know what you’re signing up for. Seriously.

Consider the amount of work it takes to insulate, put up walls, fill air gaps, run electric cabling. It’s a ton of work, and you need to plan for it. Make sure you have someone to ask for help if you’re attempting something particularly ambitious, because you *will* run in to something unexpected.
Working on the walls

This project is going to take many, many months of your time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

We started this project in May and I was able to move in and start using my space in October. Granted, we weren’t working night-and-day on this, but there were some immutable time barriers. We ordered the shed in May, but it wasn’t delivered and installed until August. May to August was the time we needed to get the permits and prep the site in our backyard — get it leveled and have a gravel foundation put in place. Only in August could we even begin working on the interior, and at that point it was a race against time to get things done before the serious cold set in.

It was pretty exhausting and we had to add in some downtime just so we wouldn’t burn out. After all, we were still living our everyday lives and working our full-time jobs on top of this!

You will need helping hands, but they don’t have to be in the form of additional manual labor.

If you have friends or family that are particularly handy and volunteer to help you out, do not hesitate to take them up on their offer. You’ll be grateful for it, believe me. If it wasn’t for my father-in-law and our friends, we’d still be trying to finish this project even now.

And if you know someone who wants to help but isn’t too comfortable around a circular saw, there’s plenty of opportunity to make a difference: My mother-in-law was one of the heroes of our weekends: She cooked meals for us. It was wonderful knowing we didn’t need to worry about meal planning on top of all the work we were doing. I really don’t know how we would have managed without her help!

Retrofit a pre-built shed instead of trying to “barn raise” and frame your own structure.

We purchased a sturdy, framed shed from a local vendor that has a great reputation for building great structures that stand up well to what New England weather throws at them — Reeds Ferry. Customizing our own shed from Reeds Ferry was still less expensive than buying a pre-fab “shedquarters” from many of the studio shed service sites (say that three times fast). Plus they installed and built the shed in a matter of hours, which I definitely could not have done!

If you have an old shed out back, that’s great. If you need to have one built, keep in mind that you can’t use a $200 plastic shed from the department store for this. Your shedquarters needs to be a proper framed structure with real studs, the works.  It’s worth shopping around a few vendors in your area to compare prices for them to build this for you.

Figure out what your budget is, and assume you will go over.

I’m so glad I’m not a professional contractor, because making sure we managed the material costs was pretty challenging, especially as we ran in to unexpected difficulties (needing to buy more plywood for the walls, having to replace tools we broke while building). You will need a bit of budgetary wiggle room to deal with this, so plan accordingly. If you are spending your last penny to budget for this shed — don’t.

Know what you can defer, and plan around the seasons.

It’s project management 101: Certain tasks must happen before others. Make sure you know the order in which you must complete certain tasks, and make sure you’re keeping in mind the changing seasons. For example, if you want to use this space before wintertime, you’ll probably want to make sure your walls and ceiling are insulated. But do you want to be dealing with fiberglass batts in the middle of the summer? Flipside, do you want to be painting the walls in the middle of the winter? Make sure you plan around all of this — know what must get done first, and what can wait.

It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Don’t look too closely at some of the wall joints — we’re not master carpenters. We made mistakes. (I’m hoping the paint will hide a lot of it!)

We’re actually not 100% done on the shed either — this spring I need to paint the interior and add built-in shelving. But that didn’t stop me from moving in last fall and using my new workspace throughout the winter. The photo below is messy, I know, but I’d just moved all my stuff in. Once I’m a bit more organized, you can expect an update (hopefully with new white walls and some decor, too).

Just moved in (back in October)

In any case, let me know if you have any questions about making your own “shedquarters,” I’m happy to share pointers from my own experience.  If you do decide to make your own, I wish you the best of luck — send me your photos!