It might have been the inspiration of Michael Pollan’s wonderful journal of cabin construction in rural Connecticut, A Place of My Own, a book I read as a student Architect, but the driving force behind the construction of our garden office was more than likely events of last summer.
While the UK was wrestling with the fundamental question of voting to leave or remain, we were doing the same thing on a domestic scale. SE13 or SE9 was the question we debated, right up until we were at the departure gate, heading out to spend a fortnight with my sister’s family in Spain. It really got close, and had the would-be vendor not sought an extra 5% on our seemingly accepted offer as we boarded the flight, I’d be writing this from a dark, but characterful detached house, thirty minutes’ drive from the daily school drop-offs and pick-ups (not counting the thirty minutes back… each way!). Two hours a day is time we could ill afford, and while it’s better than roasting on the train and tube in the summer heatwave, it is trumped by sitting at my desk with the sound of birdsong after a 10 second commute across the garden, as I do these days.
Living in a typical Edwardian terraced house in Lee Manor, with three children, finding space to both work from home meant dividing our once glorious master suite in two and working in the eaves of our loft conversion. Having already extended the ground floor, save for constructing a basement, the last inches of space available to us lay at the bottom of the garden. After the house move was rejected in favour of staying in our beloved Lee Manor, I embarked on a six-month journey that would result in each of us having a space to retreat from the chaos of the main house, whenever we needed it.
The first issue was the location. We don’t have the deepest of gardens, so the obvious option of throwing it across the back was shelved. The primary driver of this was football and cricket. Having rejected the move to a house with a garden large enough to have a full cricket pitch including run-up, we assured my son that we’d still maintain at least some length, as well as access to the brick wall at the end of the garden to play wallie against. We therefore positioned the building to one side of the garden, running lengthways. It was contentious at the time, but people universally comment on how little of the garden has been lost.
The overall dimensions would be about 5×2.5m. A fair size for two generous desks and a sofa. The only problem was that this corner was occupied by a beautiful cherry tree (and the less than beautiful shed). Having lost a mulberry tree to disease the year before, we anguished over this first decision as much as anything. The tree was large, but being outside the Conservation Area no consent was needed, although we did apologetically inform our neighbours before getting in tree surgeon Russell Busch, a fine example of both tree care and nominative determinism, to carefully remove it. Left with a sizeable stump, it was down to Phillip Green, not the BHS pension plunderer, but the loveliest tradesman on the planet, from P Green & Co, to grind out the stump by wheeling a petrol drivel beast through the house (minimum doorway width 800mm!) to devour what was left of our cherry. My work could now begin.
I researched the options obsessively. Off the shelf; bespoke; fully insulated; part insulated; smug ex-prime-minister approved gypsy cabins; reclaimed & eBay assembled options. All manner of sheds and cabins. I’d helped my friend and neighbour with the planning limitations of his fine piece of found architecture… the Lewisham Pallett Shed a couple of years ago and contemplated doing the same. My mother-in-law would phone in the week to remind me that Channel 4’s Shed of the year was on. I contacted evangelical shed builders the world over and studied their publications, questioning what I saw as poor detailing and absent waterproofing. I needed something to last for decades that I could work through the winter and summer in. So, I did what I was always going to do… I designed it myself.
As an Architect that was hardly surprising. I’d designed multiple timber framed buildings and this was no different. Just a bit smaller and with my family as critical clients… What I hadn’t originally planned to do was build it myself.
Designing a garden room to comply with planning is pretty straightforward. To avoid the need for Full Planning Consent, a building should have an eaves height of less than 2.5m within 2.0m of any site boundary, further than 2.0m from the boundary you can go up to 4.0m. This was telling me that on our site we needed a flat roof…. essentially a box. I decided to complicate matters by chamfering one corner to form the entrance. From henceforth the shed would be come to be known as The Pentagon. This corner would have a large glazed door, accompanied by two large windows. All from Denmark, courtesy of Velfac. The whole thing would be clad in vertical western red cedar, causing The Pentagon to be re-christened The Sauna, by some local wags!
All of this detail was a long way off though, as I toiled over weekends and holidays, excavating the pentagonal base and constructing the formwork with my limited manpower and carpentry skills. As the job progressed, both factors improved, and having taken 30 bags of top soil out to the tip, it was now time to carry four tonnes of sand, aggregate and crushed hardcore through the house. Fortunately, this was all done before injuring my back taking the hired compactor (to compress the hardcore) out of the car, which was already starting to look and smell like a builder’s white van. Selco receipts flying around the dusty footwells. All that was missing was Talksport on the radio and a rolled-up copy of Britain’s favourite redtop on the dashboard. My hands were changing too. Blisters and splinters turned to callouses. Above all I was sleeping very well at the end of each working day.
Casting the in situ reinforced concrete slab entertained the children. Loading and emptying the concrete mixer. Pouring the concrete slab, having first emptied out the neighbourhood’s go-to cat litter tray (12.5 m² of crushed grey aggregate), felt like a major achievement. What I’d been quoted as £2k worth of work had been begged and borrowed to come in at a tenth of the price off the back of my own labour.
Next it was time to turn my hand to brick laying. I hadn’t laid a brick in 20 years. The last time I’d done so was at the University of Edinburgh, building a 1:1 detail of my diploma project. I’d left this small structure in the Department of Architecture car park to set, only to return to find a University works van had reversed into it. I never discovered if my mortar mix had the requisite strength. As this timber-clad structure would be timber-framed, the stall riser need only be one course of bricks high, so I felt confident enough that I could do it. I’d you tubed tutorials on bricklaying and, safe in the knowledge that Transit vans were unlikely to be in the vicinity, laid my first and only course of bricks.
Each process continued in this vein. Starting each process unsure of if and when I’d need to call in the professionals, I had my drawings to refer to, but zero practical experience, often watching YouTube tutorials while working. Every now and then I’d get an insight into the mindset of a building contractor, asking myself if the guy that drew this detail (me) knew the difficulty it would cause on site. Things were tweaked here and there, but corners (the fifth side of the pentagon excepted) were never cut. I have, however experienced the temptation that builders face. In some respects, the process has increased my empathy, if not sympathy for my builders.
The biggest onsite change came at my wife’s request. Once the timber framework had been erected, she panicked that it was too high, despite complying with Permitted Development parameters. I then spent half a day reducing the height by 150mm, only to be told to take it back up, again entering the mindset of the harassed contractor. Soon though, the building was clearly visible. Insulated and clad in OSB panels (the type you see hoarding off building sites), all with the help of the children, measuring and templating, while I did the cutting (after a quick double check). The Western Red Cedar would follow the windows, sourced from SpaHaus, who build timber cabins themselves and import Canadian FSC Cedar, literally by the boatload.
The next part needed an outside contractor, Christian at Skyroof & Build. I’ve used them for a few extension projects, although they are primarily a fibre-glass roofing company. As the roof was to be invisible from the ground, fibre glass would do. They also installed the children’s favourite toy… the remote-controlled skylight… essential today as the mercury hits 34°.
The electrics also required the expertise of an outside ‘contractor’… my father-in-law, helped with running the cables (first-fix). Electrics are one area where you need to know what you’re doing. That said, a garden room of under 30m² does not require Building Regulations, although any electrical installation will do. I did, however take advice from my friendly Structural Engineer, Stacy Benson of CSDS, more to minimise the rafter size to maximise the floor to ceiling height. The structure itself is fully timber framed. The only steel is the mesh reinforcement to the concrete floor. Although timber, it feels and is solid. Building it myself I probably used twice the number of fixings a contractor would. The remarkable thing is how wobbly the frame is until the OSB gets screwed on. I was swaying up there putting the roof deck on, sure that I was a gentle breeze from ending up in the neighbour’s garden in a heap of firewood. As soon as the panels were screwed in place it felt like a real building. Given the number of fence panels we’ve had to replace over the years, this is reassuring. Having previously lived in the South Pacific, it’s also reassuring to know that timber framed buildings are the safest form of structure in an earthquake. They are also buildable by your average practical person.
Essentially if you can measure and cut wood and handle a power screwdriver, there’s no reason anyone can’t do this themselves…. If you have the time! A build that would take three weeks, took me six months, including Christmas and the lead time for the windows. October- March, which some might consider the worst times to build. In terms of daylight that might be the case, but I’d much rather be slogging it out in the cold than sweltering in the baking sun in June. Of course, it helps that I design such structures for a living, but anyone is welcome to contact me for advice on the fabric build up that I used. Although the building doesn’t need to meet regs, the insulation I’ve specified exceed the regs by 12% in the drawings, and added even more on site. I don’t want to freeze in winter! For really cold days we have an electric radiator.
Even without the sense of achievement, of having built something, a shelter, a place of your own for your family to enjoy, the construction of a garden room always made sense. Rather than complicating our lives with a move further out, away from a fantastic community and within walking distance of schools, shops, parks, clubs and friends, we got that extra room. Other than working, we’ve used it for parties and film nights, a focussed, quiet homework space and reading, as well as a neutral space to withdraw to with one of our three children when they fall out with the other two.
It’s even rather beautiful, with the warm glow of the Cedar and the vibrant colour of the door and windows, which arrived after a 10 week lead, shipped from the factory Finland to the pavement in Lee, and no further. Getting them into place was testament to neighbours, friends and family. The you look fantastic though and worth every (pretty) penny.
We lost the cherry tree, but gained a view of a bluebell wood courtesy of a full wall print from Happywall, lending further depth to the garden. The vibrancy of the doors and windows is matched by the lime green vinyl floor by Forbo. We wanted rubber or resin, but the cost proved prohibitive as contractors weren’t interested in such a small job. In the end I fitted it myself, again courtesy of a YouTube tutorial. After everything, what is remarkable is how little space we lost. We replaced an existing shed and the tree and lost a difficult (owing to the shade of the tree) flowerbed. We lost some lawn, but this was transferred to the opposite side of the garden, losing another bed. The children and their friends still play football and cricket and we no longer need replant dead flowerbeds every year. The remaining beds are more contained and better stocked.
Garden rooms (definitely not man caves!) are springing up all over our neighbourhood. As an Architect designing primarily for families it seems to be the next progression. When your children are young you want to be in a grand open space. A kitchen/ dining/ family room. As your children become older, you each need space away from each other. There seems to be something healthier, more definitive about placing that space away from the house. Shedism has a long history, mainly dominated by men, as depicted in Gordon Thorburn’s authoritative work Men and Sheds. However, these spaces are ideal for families who have run out of space to extend into. With an uncertain housing market, with astronomic figures for stamp duty alone, I’d say that this is the time to examine what more your garden can give you and your family. If you lack the skills or enthusiasm to carry out the project yourself, there are plenty of tradespeople able to deliver bespoke options for a fraction of the online prices for basic boxes.
In researching this I found that the equivalent, with similar fixtures and fittings and of similar specification, size and design came to between £16,500 and a whopping £28,000, depending on overall quality (both design and construction). One of the shed gurus, Dominic Jones, winner of the Shed of The Year, Garden Office Category (2010) built his garden office for £3,000 (about £3,700 today). It’s not big and the insulation wouldn’t comply with today’s regs, but it is doable. I just wanted to do mine differently. His guide to how you can follow in his footsteps is available online.
So how much did I spend? More than I needed to. The cedar cladding was £1,600, the electric rooflight £1,000, the Velfac windows £2,600, the roof £1,800, so I’m already well beyond what Dominic spent, without the concrete, structural frame, insulation and interior finishes, but I imagine I’m looking at around £10,000 all in. Of course, I had to build it myself, but that was the best part of it for me. Working outside, building something for the family. Apart from the one mishap with my back, I was fitter and healthier in body and mind than I’d been for a long time as a result.
Now we’re finally in, I’ve spent less, but more productive time at my desk, not being tempted to work up until bedtime, or as soon as I get up and I’m less likely to check emails and do ‘just one thing’ last thing at night. If I do choose to work late, when I finish, I can just close the door on everything. We’re also closer to the kitchen so there’s less of the ‘who’ll blink first’ when it comes to the tea run.
Neel Dakshy RIBA
Neel Dakshy Architecture
 Pollan, Michael A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder. Penguin, 1997
 If a Tree Preservation Order is in place or you live in a Conservation Area and the trunk diameter is greater than 150mm, Planning Consent is required to carry out work to, or remove a tree.