Shed Life, or Have You Built a Home Office Shed or ADU?
April 25, 2021 2:20 PM   Subscribe

After they sent everyone home for the pandemic, my employer got wise to the cost savings inherent in having a work-from-home workforce, and I expect to be more or less permanently remote. Additionally, my partner just accepted a remote position, and a lot of the potential roles in our fields are remote. However, our home is does not have room for two (2) home offices. We're looking at setting up a shed or 2 as home offices. Has anyone done this? Advice (other than patience, as everyone is trying to do this now) on this?

I have a yard that is large enough to put in a single or a couple of smaller shed/ADUs (think 10 x 10, 10 x 12). We considered buying a larger house, but I would have to take out a big mortgage and move farther away from the town's central core and I'm not excited about any of that. I love my neighborhood and my house's location.

We do not really have any DIY skills (unless you count being a flat pack furniture wizard, which I don't) so we would have someone qualified install and set up. We would have electricity but not water. It would essentially be a box with a desk. I'm looking at places like Studio Sheds and Modern Sheds.

My sense is that this is cheaper than adding on to the house - based on the way the house is situated on a slope, we would need to essentially add two stories for any additions. The back yard is flat enough for a shed though. There is also something frankly appealing about having the office space separate from the house.

What should I be considering? Have you done this? What were your key learnings?
posted by jeoc to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of climate do you live in? Climate control would seem to be the biggest potential complication to me.
posted by gideonfrog at 2:43 PM on April 25 [5 favorites]

You might be able to find a small camper that would be easy to use. They come up on craigslist, sometimes old ones need refurbishing and are free or cheap. If you won't take it on the road, it won't matter if it isn't roadworthy.

Lowes and Home Depot have sheds of all sizes.
posted by theora55 at 3:11 PM on April 25 [1 favorite]

Consider a concrete pad. For heating/cooling, you can go mini split or baseboard heater paired with a window air conditioner (mini split is pricier). Spray foam insulation works well for these buildings.

Be mindful of the maximum size she’d you can build without requiring a permit, in your area.

Search for higher end custom shed fabricators in your area. There are also some pre-fab home office companies that will deliver, but this can be spendy.
posted by walkinginsunshine at 3:18 PM on April 25 [5 favorites]

In my "real estate area" there are companies that specialize in exactly this sort of thing -- I'd first look around to see if there any in your area, because ADUs are subject to a lot of nitpicky little rules in some regions, and you really do not want to build one only to discover you've missed a rule.

...and these local companies are typically (IME) quite a bit cheaper than Studio Shed and their ilk.

Also, if you can tolerate each other, you'll get more bang-for-your-buck by building one larger ADU (subdivide it if you need to) instead of two small ones (only one main electrical connection, more efficient use of insulation per enclosed volume, etc.).
posted by aramaic at 3:53 PM on April 25 [3 favorites]

Most of the sheds I've seen that are "wood" are made of particle/composite board that is largely composed of very aromatic glue. I would not want to breathe that.

So, do take a serious look at the actual materials the shed is made of. Just because it says "wood" doesn't mean it won't give you headaches. After all, I think a lot of the sheds on the market aren't meant for human habitation; the ones that are might be better, but I'd still check carefully.
posted by amtho at 4:07 PM on April 25 [5 favorites]

First stop is your local planning/permit office or website, to learn what is legal in terms of shed sizing, setbacks, maximum lot coverage, and so on. A true ADU (ie, that someone could live in) is a more serious endeavor (because it would have plumbing, might have parking requirements, etc) but would probably add the most to your house value.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:01 PM on April 25 [2 favorites]

An ADU must be a fully-contained apartment: kitchen, water closet, sleeping room. You are building a shed with electric hookup.

My advice is to get your permits started ASAP if you want to actually use it in the next few months.
posted by flimflam at 7:58 PM on April 25 [1 favorite]

What about putting a shed in that is a bedroom? It wouldn't even necessarily need electricity. It would be offline, no TV, which is how we are all supposed to sleep anyway. I don't know if you need heat. I heartily agree with upthread that you need to get a shed that isn't off gassing.
This way you can turn the house bedroom into one office and the second office in the living room.
Then you could get creative and build a covered patio, this is where you would have guests over.
This is our set up and I love it. Have to go in the house to use the bathroom, but don't mind.
Have been working from home for years like this.
I put a day bed in my office this year so I can take a nap there. It's awesome.
posted by cda at 8:26 PM on April 25 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Quick note that the size I’m looking at won’t require permitting - already looked into that. Our current bedrooms are inhabited by children, and putting them or us in a yard is a no-go. Believe me, if I had an extra bedroom just sitting around for guests that would have been converted to an office a year ago.
posted by jeoc at 8:56 PM on April 25 [1 favorite]

IDK your jurisdiction but have you considered a short freight container? and getting it fitted out. An architect friend has a 20' one but she has an employee and a A1 printer in it with her.

Advantages, no foundation, just use dunnage, or tie it down to helical piles. Easy to move, and remove. Comes with ply floor, line with drywall - glue studs to body (leave nuff room for insulation).
posted by unearthed at 9:06 PM on April 25

This really depends on your local climate and exact backyard setup. If you're used to centrally cooled and heated buildings, climate control is going to be a surprisingly hard task.

I lived in an ADU with minimal insulation when the covid pandemic started, in a place nationally known for a mild climate. I could not work in my living room for the whole day. It simply wasn't possible with the temperatures & air flow in that building. Partially because of where the building was relative to other buildings & property features. Partially the lack of insulation. Partially because of how portable/window heating and cooling is, even when the systems are individually powerful.

Computers generate a lot of heat on top of the ambient temperature, so that's also something to think about.
posted by Ahniya at 9:44 PM on April 25 [1 favorite]

So I know this isn't answering your question but what money is your employer willing to throw at this? I think it is completely bullshit for an employer to expect you to build a separate brand new workplace to work from home. Please, please, before you decide to do this, look into getting reimbursement from your employers. If you have to provide your own office space, at your own expense, you are effectively taking a pay cut from your employer. We need to collectively as society not let this happen.

As for your question, has either you or your wife ever spent long times working in a shed small enough that it wouldn't need a permit to be built? You're talking really small space, somewhat exposed to the environment, that I imagine would be very isolating. I would hate for you to spend a bunch of money building a shed to work in, only to find out working in a shed is awful. I personally would try the work from home thing in your current space before investing a lot of money in a shed, and then finding a bigger place that would accommodate your work from home needs. I worked from home long before covid, and I liked not having to commute but I got very lonely at home. I would've been completely unproductive in a private shed. Obviously YMMV. Also, what about the weather? Do you really want to traipse across the muddy, snowy yard to your shed / office? I'm from a place where measurable snow is a risk from early November to mid to late April, with its accompanying Mud Season. Working outside the main house during times like that would be not pleasant, especially to go into the bathroom a few times a day. The sheds I've been in don't have insulation, so it would be cold in the winter, hot in the summer. Shed kits are not designed to be lived in. I feel like if you started bringing in utility type things to make the space more functional, you would trigger notice from the building inspector. Gosh, the more I think about it, the worse this idea sounds.
posted by DEiBnL13 at 10:21 PM on April 25 [1 favorite]

Shipping container might also be a way to go-- they can be commonly found as short as 20 feet long, and standard width is 8', standard height 8'6". You'll lose some of that dimension as you put up insulation and wallboard, but you can also cut in windows/doors where you want, for light and air. One of those wall-mounted A/Cs will be great. If you really have a yard, you can combine more than one container--side by side, attached at a right angle, whatever.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:48 PM on April 25

Lesson earned: Be very wary of DIY packages of garden sheds. We were in the market for some extra storage space and in the research it became obvious that the DIY package of a shed may be short a few screws or even vital parts. There are pages of complaints. We opted for a professional installer and couldn't be happier. One of my sons-in-law prepared an excellent site - which the pro praised - and the pro was finished in practically no time. He even did some extra finishing, possibly because of the well prepared site. Know your limits, and what is "penny wise but pound foolish".
posted by Cranberry at 12:21 AM on April 26 [2 favorites]

I put in a few similar structures last year, jeoc, also to get more working space during covid. That said, I'm on a rural farm and I'm on the opposite end of the DIY skills spectrum.

Pre-fab sheds: I first considered buying some pre-fabricated sheds like those from big-box hardware stores. However, as a few people here mentioned, I found them all to be of poor build quality, and overpriced.

They mostly used 2x3s instead of 2x4s, which meant very little room for adding insulation or utilities. The construction was sloppy, the roofs looked like they would start leaking within a couple of years, and they used a lot of materials which would outgas or produce VOCs; they clearly weren't meant for human habitation and would be a poor start to retrofit something habitable.

One thing that is not obvious at a glance is that these prefab structures tend to be incredibly noisy inside during a rainstorm. Like, so noisy that you can't have a zoom call or even a phone call.

Shipping Containers: Some have suggested a 20' shipping container or sea can. We actually installed a 40' high cube at our place last year for tools and storage.

They are very durable, and relatively inexpensive. But I would never try to put an office in one. The temperature swings in a shipping container are huge. In the summer, we actually use it to heat-cure our onions, and we installed extra vents it to keep it from overheating and just cooking the onions.

Retrofitting a shipping container requires metal-working skills as well as carpentry. It worked fine for us, but I also have an oxy-acetylene torch, a MIG welder, and a bunch of experience. I wouldn't want to start with a bare shipping container in your situation.

Pre-build ABU or Tiny House: We considered this, too, but frankly they were really expensive for what you get, and due to supply chain issues the wait time was 6 months plus. I was also concerned that the build quality wouldn't be high enough.

Custom Construction: I ended up just building what is basically a tiny house, by myself, from scratch. It's 8' x 12' and as tall as possible under building regulations. It has an open room below and a spacious sleeping loft up top.

I put it on screw-piles instead of a concrete foundation; screw piles have a much lower carbon footprint, and make it easier to insulate from the ground temperature, moisture, and noise. I likewise designed a roof and soffit structure that would minimize wind and rain noise.

The result is a very quiet and cozy structure. It's actually more insulated from environmental noise than even our house. I love having that space to work in, I'm so happy I built it, and I use it every day. And for me, it actually ended up being much cheaper than a pre-built option.

I'd strongly recommend hiring a local carpenter for a custom build if that's possible.
posted by mcbaya at 4:34 AM on April 26 [9 favorites]

I have a shed outside that's got a finished room, and there's a couple big lessons learned for me:

- Mesh wifi was the winner for how to extend wifi out to the shed. Regular old wifi extenders didn't work as well as I'd hoped.

- Do not try to DIY a mini-split climate control unit. The step where vacuuming the lines and releasing the freon becomes necessary requires you to know what you're doing as a licensed HVAC pro won't touch a unit they didn't sell you and install themselves. The "last mile" problem for these units is a real one.
posted by GamblingBlues at 9:21 AM on April 26 [1 favorite]

Adding On: as mentioned, box-store pre-fab wooden sheds are terrible material quality. For a similar price a competent carpenter could build something from scratch with much better materials.

Also note as mentioned that most any shed could get pretty warm in the summertime. The alternative for hot days is to just move outside under shade (if your laptop screen cooperates). Literary "writers writing" trivia: Aleksander Solzhenitsyn wrote much of his work outdoors: typing at a picnic table under a tree any day that wasn't cold or rainy.
posted by ovvl at 10:40 AM on April 26 [1 favorite]

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