Sheds up: The rise and rise of the modern garden office
- Credit: Archant
Home-working is on the increase and so too are modern garden offices – also known as sheds. Richard Burton spoke to three people who’ve established their ideal work environment a stone’s throw from their house.
Rail chaos threatened to turn many parts of Hertfordshire into commuting blackspots for a while last year as timetable changes led to overcrowded platforms and passengers unable to board rush-hour trains.
And with the rising cost of fares adding insult to injury, it came as no surprise to learn 2018 was a year when more and more people had opted to join the one and a half million of us working from home, a figure that has been steadily rising over the past few years, according to the Office of National Statistics.
It’s a trend that’s seen an industry expand to accommodate it with leading manufacturers of traditional outdoor rooms reporting sizeable increases in sales as home-workers shun the traditional bedroom study or office-in-the-extension in favour of garden workplaces.
Sheds, in other words - but not the sort used for potting plants, storing lawnmowers or housing the kids’ snooker table.
The modern garden office - where prices can range from around £10,000 to well in excess of £60,000 - often come with all the mod cons you’d find in a traditional workplace, making them tempting alternatives to standing all the way to St Pancras for £25 return.
An early adopter was photographer Chris Frazer Smith, 55, who had his shed built 13 years ago when he and his choreographer wife, Jane, moved out of London and settled in Ashwell in North Herts. At first, he found it hard to break the habit of commuting to his studio in Islington but five years ago he “cut the umbilical cord” by selling it in search of a better home-life balance. It also meant an end to what he recalls as the “horrific” rush-hour trips from Baldock to King’s Cross.
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“I found I was away shooting for days or weeks at a stretch which meant I got used to spending a lot of time doing admin work in hotel rooms so it was hard to justify keeping a studio base,” he said. “Besides, I did begin to think I didn’t want to look back and say I wish I’d spent more time watching my kids grow up.
“It took a while to make the full transition of not going into London. At first, I kept thinking, ‘it’s almost as if I’ve retired’. It was a hard habit to break. But once I did it became a real pleasure. These days, I love having my own space in my own garden. It’s become something of a sanctuary. If anything, there’s a danger that I can spend too much time there.”
Chris, whose work ranges from celebrity book covers to major billboard advertising campaigns, estimates he still spends two days a week in London but always tries to time journeys to avoid peak times.
The office is strictly that; somewhere for admin and post-production work on a PC, rather than anything photographic. But, as he says: “It’s important that, if you work from home, you have somewhere you can go that feels like a workplace.”
Mother of two, Kate Buchanan, 52, worked in the conservatory of her home in the poet’s area of Harpenden when she launched her textile art business. But it wasn’t long before she realised she needed somewhere more fit for purpose.
“It was good to work from home,” she said. “But as the business grew the material became harder to store. Fabric is quite bulky and it was starting to take over. I think the turning point came when my husband found some in the bathroom and he said ‘I think it’s time you had your own space’.”
She had the summerhouse-size room built to order; designed to incorporate the windows she wanted for natural light and heavily insulated to keep in the warmth. There’s a power supply from the house that drives a dozen power points, one of which serves an oil-fired radiator on a timer.
“The big thing was it had to be warm and snug. I couldn’t afford the fabrics going damp,” she added. “And it offered an alternative to looking at the usual four walls and working somewhere where you’d be reminded there was still the washing to do.
“It also gave me ways to develop. It enabled me to invite people round and offer workshops and the business grew from there. I like the idea of creating space for people.”
The workshops are now regular events with small groups of three to six making their way past the chickens and ducks to craft and create twice a week.
A few miles away, in Falconers Field, former nurse Elisabeth Grover, 49, had her circular shed built from a flat-pack and placed in the garden four years ago as a private space for her and her husband to relax away from their four children.
But after a while, the hypnotherapist, reiki practitioner and pregnancy doula, decided there was a better use for the garden sanctuary she had created.
“I did some painting there at one time but that felt a bit indulgent so I decided to retrain in reflexology and this was the perfect place for the sort of treatments I wanted to give. The alternative would have been to hire a room somewhere but that wouldn’t have worked for me,” she said.
She has a point. Clients are able to park on her drive, walk down the side of the house and recline on her Lafuma chair and enjoy therapy sessions surrounded by candles, calming but mystical wall-hangings and grotto-style fairy lights. Above them, branches from an overhanging Maple are visible from a circular skylight window.
“It’s a different beast doing it somewhere like this,” she explains. “Lying here, you could be anywhere. And I thought it was important to do something authentic. This is very much my space. It’s niche but it’s what I sell. People love it. It’s quite cathartic.”
Garden offices are nothing new to Hertfordshire. George Bernard Shaw wrote many of his plays in a small hut built to revolve and follow the sun in the garden of his Elizabethan home in Ayot St Lawrence.
In more recent times they’ve emerged as a strong third option for people needing extra room and not wanting to either move house or put up with the cost and disruption of a traditional home extension.
Most fall within permitted development rights, which means planning permission isn’t needed as long as they don’t stand more than 2.5m high, or building regulations if the internal footprint is less than 15 sq m and isn’t designed to live or sleep in.
There are a few restrictions relating to conservation areas and those of outstanding natural beauty but it’s otherwise a relatively simple experience.
And, of course, they can add value. Not on the scale of a two-storey extension perhaps, but more than enough to pay for themselves.
And there’s another plus. As entrepreneurial businesses are all too often driven out of the high street by punitive rent and rates, home working also ensures local enterprises can thrive and connect with their community.
Chris Frazer Smith is proof of that. He said: “Living and working locally not only means I’ve got more involved in village life but it’s provided a rich source of subjects for my personal portrait portfolio. I’m always looking to find people to shoot in their homes or at work and there’s been no shortage of material right here under my nose.”