Boat Shaped Sheds

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

In the last few years there has been a boom in less traditionally-shaped sheds – if you want something egg-shaped or spherical for example then your luck’s in.

Pictured is the attractive Armadilla, designed using traditional boat building techniques by father and son team Archie and Ross Hunter who are based near Edinburgh.

They describe the shape as a spherical rectangle. It’s built with an integrated steel frame enabling it to be readily lifted by forklift or crane and does not need foundations (Archie says it also meets the criteria for being considered a “caravan” for planning purposes which means in most cases it will not require planning permission).

Shed of the Year

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

Every year organises the Shed of the Year competition and members of the public, as well as celebrity shed champions such as Sarah Beeny, vote for their favourite in a range of categories.

The 2012 winner was John Plumridge from Shrewsbury and his Woodhenge Pub Shed. John has spent four years converting his shed which now boasts a beer bottle collection of more than 500 real ales and 110 ciders. “It’s a great venue for our family and friends to party in,” he says, “and the good thing is we haven’t got too far to get home.”

John’s pub shed won the pub shed category and then went on to beat off stiff competition from the winners of the seven other competition categories including Normal, Eco, Garden Office, Cabin/Summerhouse, Workshop/Studio, Unique, Pub and Tardis. Entries last year also included a floating shed, a mini post office museum and an eco friendly solar shed.

Disco Shed

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

There are no limits to how you can customise your shed. The completely mobile Disco Shed , brainchild of DJs Patrick ‘Peepshow Paddy’ Bickerton and Aidan ‘Count Skylarkin’ Larkin has been a popular feature of many music festivals over the last few years such as Reading, Latitude and the Big Chill.

The DJs say it “takes the best elements of modern clubbing but disguises it amongst all the stuff you‘d find in your Dad’s old shed”. Now in its second Dr Who-like incarnation, the original Disco Shed - a converted 8 x 6 ft Billy Oh  garden shed - also has residencies out of festival season at various London venues.

Build Your Own Shed

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

There is certainly no shortage of people keen to build their own sheds. Chris Routledge is a freelance writer, editor, and academic based near Liverpool who built his shed in 2003 after a visit to the Alternative Energy Centre in Wales.

“Before then I was thinking about buying a basic ‘off the peg’ summer house and customising it with insulation and proper roof materials,” he says. “But our visit to the AEC, which had buildings on display to show how they were made, inspired me to do it myself. The design is basically my own. I took the ‘post and beam’ approach that is common with American wooden houses, though in my case the posts are bricks, and tried to make it look at least a little like the small wooden structures you see in towns in the American West, the one-room shacks where miners and farmers lived in the 19th century. The actual building was a lot of fun and a real challenge.”

Massage Treehouse

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

Built in a 100-year-old Texan pecan tree, this treehouse in Austin was designed and owned by Kent Portman who sadly passed away in 2010. From its boughs he operated a Swedish deep tissue, and sports massage business. The floor level is 12ft off the ground with access via a spiral staircase.

Inside is a very pleasant working environment with air conditioning, heating, a heated massage table, sound system and skylights. “When people ask why we put so much effort into the design and construction, I tell them we weren’t just building a treehouse, we were building a temple, a sanctuary of healing,” he told me. “And I believe that’s exactly what we achieved.”

Using small shedlike buildings in mainstream healthcare has also become more popular at hospitals in the UK who are using them as patient relative rooms, consultation rooms and rehabilitation rooms.

Haddon Airstream

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

There has been increasing awareness of the delights of small spaces thanks to recent television series fronted by George Clarke and Kevin McCloud which have showcased less traditional shedlike buildings in back gardens. Such as Chris Haddon’s 1963 Airstream Globetrotter from where he runs his brand and advertising business Media Pie.

“Ever since I can remember I have loved American trailers so I started looking around at the possibility of buying an Airstream and converting it into my work space,” he says. “I found one on ebay in Connecticut USA. It was perfect and after a lot of effort trying to convince the owners that I wasn’t a crazy English guy, that I was totally serious and I really did want to ship it over to the UK, it finally arrived at Southampton and after a couple of months of hard work I had converted it into my design studio.

Clients are impressed when they come round for meetings and it’s a good marketing accessory. During the summer I have air-con to keep cool and for the winter months a large chocolate lab can be found sprawled in front of the cast iron wood burner relishing the heat. It really is my perfect space.” Chris is also the co-author of the book My Cool Campervan

Shepherd Huts

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

After many years of being largely overlooked, the shepherd’s hut is enjoying a huge revival in popularity, even appearing in a special section at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show. Once upon a time shepherds had to spend so much time out in the fields that they needed somewhere to have their lunch, enjoy a snooze and even spend the night.

There are several specialist companies catering to modern hutters including Dorset-based Plankbridge run by Richard Lee and Jane Dennison who use locally-sourced materials, traditional corrugated iron cladding, tongue and groove internal lining with 100mm mineral wool insulation, solid French oak floor, and hand forged ironmongery with reproduction cast iron wheels to original patterns made in the county.

Optional extras include bunk beds, solar panel light system and handmade woodburners. You can take a video tour of their workshop here.

Tiny Houses

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

While the boundary between shed and house is usually a pretty conspicuous one, the Tiny House Movement in the US is attempting to cross that line, led unofficially by Jay Shafer and his Tumbleweed Tiny House company. Shafer is an architect and lecturer in the US where he has taken minimalist living to a spectacular level, designing and building houses which are fully functional but, frankly, titchy. The homes are built to last and with environmentally-friendly materials to boot. So, for example, the lovely XS House, complete with tiny wheels, measures just 11’ x 7’ x 11’ (the porch and awning fold up neatly).

Inside the 75 square feet of the XS Jay Shafer has installed a retractable table, a real desk, a cathedral ceiling, a six gallon water heater, a shower, a lavatory, a stainless steel counter, a refrigerator, a sink, a heat stove, and a double burner. And a vented sleeping loft for two. Custom Built Surrey is doing something similar in the UK.

Literary Sheds

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

Scotts of Thrapston has a range of literary shed-inspired buildings produced in collaboration with the National Trust.

The Writer’s Retreat is inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s writing hut which comes with a Chalk Blue finish and an upholstered, full-width day bed; a nice touch. There is also a foldable desk and galvanised corrugated metal roof. Best of all, it can be fitted with a rotating base as was Shaw’s writing hut.

The Reading Room takes its lead from the revamped potting shed at the bottom of Virginia Woolf’s Sussex garden at Monk’s House in which she wrote various masterpieces including Mrs Dalloway and The Waves (despite being distracted by husband Leonard sorting apples, children from the nearby school, bells from the nearby church and her dog, not to mention the cold which forced her inside during winter). It is a similar size but made from oak and has a drop-down day bed, writing table and bookshelves with period ironmongery. It cost £157 to build.

Cob Buildings

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

You can pick whatever building material you choose for your garden building. Cob, for example, is a very old building technique which combines earth, straw, sand and water in a sturdy way to form lumps or ‘cobs’ which you then press together to form walls up to two feet thick which have impressive thermal capabilities. As long as it’s not too rainy, you’ll be fine and many people live in cob homes in the UK, especially in Cornwall and Devon. And of course it’s extremely eco-friendly.

Clayworks is run from Helston in Cornwall by Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce who design and construct new cob and strawbale walls and buildings, as well as write books on the subject.

You could also consider building with straw. The Strawdio is a music studio built of straw in the south west of England. Owner Piers Partridge has documented the build in an excellent online journal and also included detailed costings and plans. The foundations are concrete block and natural stone with a reclaimed pine board floor and underfloor insulation provided by straw bales sawn in half and wedged between the joists. Straw bale walls are finished with three coats of lime plaster inside and out and the whole thing is six bales high at the front, seven at the back.

Outpost Pod

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

Simplicity is at the heart of shedlife - it relies not on the latest architectural fad or newly-discovered construction technique, but on a return to the garden itself and a more effortless way of living. The shed represents everything that the million pound towerblock gherkin does not.

A good example of this is the appealing Oswestry-based Outpost Pod with its Western Red Cedar cladding and weatherproof screens which zip open and clip neatly to the inside of vast portholes on the side walls. Pods are made to order using locally sourced FSC timber from renewable woodlands with a roof of felted bitchumen-coated board and green roof option.

If you like portholes then The Hobbit back garden astronomical observatory, owned by Peter Bowers ,is a must see– it has nine, built by reusing the tops of plastic plantpots.

Capsule Teahouse

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

Garden shed architecture has evolved so quickly over the last decade that it is tempting to imagine that alluring designs such as interdisciplinary environment designer Kyu Che’s Lifepod project will be how sheds might evolve.

The Lifepod is a portable, off-grid mini-capsule for living inspired by both the traditional Mongolian yurt and mammals: the structural system is a “quadrupedal fuselage” with adjustable footings for uneven land. All the modular bits and pieces fit into a 40ft container. But just as lovely is Kyu’s capsule tea house, pictured. True, it doesn’t have the traditional number of walls. But if you’re looking to make a statement in the garden, this could be just the job.

Hut on a Roof

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

Don’t have a garden? Don’t worry, you can still have a shed. Hut Architecture was set up by Andy Whiting and Scott Batty and is already a big hitter in the world of design, with interesting furniture, interactive installations, travelling exhibitions, and events as well as buildings under their belt.

Their compact ‘Hut-on-a-roof’ is a marvellous timber shed on an 1890s Clerkenwell rooftop where you can pretend you’re in Mary Poppins at the same time. Nice touches include a sliding glass roof, solar panels, wood-burning stove and sheep’s wool insulation.

The external cladding is rough sawn green oak, cut from a single tree. They describe the result as “a new kind of urban building, derived from ideas of tree houses and the sanctuary of the suburban garden shed”. Be careful though, Boris Johnson got into trouble with the planners for putting a shed on the balcony of his London home…


Play Sheds

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

Nothing can beat the delight of our first building experiences as children, whether they be forts, treehouses, wigwams, big cardboard boxes, sheets stretched over chairs, or lean-tos against walls. I loved spending time in the playshed in the garden my parents helped to make using old bits of wood lying around, including the back of a bookcase.

I vividly remember the first time I stayed out there during a rainstorm, revelling in my spectacular luck at being able to read Tintin in my own little hideaway and not get wet.

Things have changed a little since the days of Vitruvius who famously wrote that a building should have ‘firmitas’, ‘utilitas’, and ‘venustas’, in other words it should stand up, it should be fit for purpose, and it should look good. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the delight in a traditional shed structure, such as this one from Taylors Garden Buildings which comes with a green roof and a nice round window.

Shedworking: The book

Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

One of the most common reinventions of the shed is as a garden office, part of the evolution of the office workplace as people increasingly look to work from home. A small shed which once only housed lawnmowers and pots can now be insulated from the cold, fitted with its own electrics, and can link you to anywhere in the world. Physically, it’s easier to prevent – or at least restrict – your children, spouses and pets invading your work space if you’re based in a garden office.

Psychologically, shedworking marks a clear difference between where you live and where you work. And finally, and to be honest the clincher for many shedworkers, garden offices are just plain more fun, adding a certain pizzazz to your working life.

Shedworking: The Alternative Workplace Revolution  is an inspirational illustrated handbook which no shed owner will want to be without. The book features shedworkers and shedbuilders from around the world including the graphic novelist turned author and screenwriter Neil Gaiman whose shed (which he calls a gazebo) is pictured here. The book also looks at why shedworking is a greener way of working, improves work-life balance and accelerates your productivity.


Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

Festival goers and woodland dreamers tend towards the more hobbity home than straight shed; somewhere in which you can hide away from the real world while the smoke from the woodburner stove curls out of the chimney.  Of course you could build your own from fairy moss …..Or there’s this fantasy made real by Gnarlyoak

Every gnarlyoak home is completely different as its shape is determined by the four supporting tree trunks at each corner.

Outside there’s a veranda under which you can shelter from the rain, a living wildflower roof and every house comes fully wired.  Inside is warm in winter and cool in summer and all houses come finished with a hard floor, double glazed windows, chimney and woodburning stove.

All the wood comes from a British sustainable wood and gnarlyoak say they will build a hut anywhere on mainland Britain.


Words & Pictures: Alex Johnson

Some of the finest shedlike structures are actually hotel accommodation. The Treehotel  in Sweden (in Harads, near the River Lule, 100km from Luleå airport) is a series of treehouse rooms suspended up to 6m above ground, including the remarkable Mirrorcube. This is a prefabricated cube – you climb a ladder that goes straight up from the ground into the middle of it.

The Mirrorcube is entirely encased in mirrored walls so reflects – or hides in - the surrounding forest. All the lovely rooms - cosily insulated and with underfloor heating – were designed by the region’s leading architects and have smashing views across the Lule River valley and forest.

Treehotel is also very proud of its green offerings - the electricity is supplied locally from green hydroelectric power, every room has modern, eco-friendly combustion lavatories, and all wastewater is collected in a container that is emptied daily.