By Giles Wilson
BBC News Magazine
While some sheds are crammed full with garden tools, and others are shrines to their owner's hobby, more people seem to be opting for full-on luxury sheds - "garden offices" - to help them get better work-life balance.
Pure luxury - but at £16k this shed isn't for tools
In quiet moments at work, software entrepreneur Kevin Grumball stares out of his office window.
"I might see a few ducks and geese wandering by, but over the fence is a field of sheep. We've got 200 acres of farmland all around us," he says before checking his watch to see if it's time for the children to pop into his shed office to say hello on their way into the house after school.
At 10ft x 12ft, Kevin's office is larger than the typical shed. Its 36 power points, insulation, waterproofing, office furniture, computers and security also set it apart from the traditional repository of lawn mowers, rusty rakes and old tins of paint.
But then his work - managing a team of software developers in China via phone and instant messaging - isn't typical shed work either. Living in a Warwickshire village with his wife and five children, Kevin is, however, a pioneer of the office shed movement.
Kevin Grumball's farmland office
The garden shed has long been a treasured symbol of eccentricity. Tales abound of whacky uses people have put their shed to - a shrine to Elvis, a three-seater cinema with usherette, a pinball arcade, a signalling box for a train set. Books such as Gareth Jones's Shed Men are a proud celebration of such idiosyncrasies.
But for those, like Kevin, who have turned their shed into their workspace, this is no mere hobby. And when you get into luxury high-end "garden offices", you suddenly start talking quite large sums of money.
Richard Harvey of Herefordshire-based firm The Garden Escape says some of his firm's customers have fun in mind, intending to use their new room for relaxation or hobbies.
Mowers, tools, paint, slug bait
But about 80% are people who mean business, and that usually translates as working from home. Since the company started two years ago, most of his customers have been within the M25, but the trend seems to be going nationwide, he says. One of his garden offices would set you back about £16,000.
Graphic designer Nicky Blumfield says that, having worked from home since 1985, now working from her garden means her longest commute in 20 years.
"Out the back door, and 20ft down the path. It's hell," she says. "Often when I'm talking to clients, I've got the doors open and the birds are singing. I have been accused of playing a tape of birdsong, but it's all real."
An estate agent has estimated that her garden office in Dorking, Surrey, has added at least the cost of installing it to the value of her house, though she is slightly sceptical about this.
"I'm not sure I entirely agree, but even half of it back would certainly be a more than reasonable return over several years of use. The agent said it has a great 'wow' factor and, as more and more people are looking to work from home (particularly those moving out of London), it would certainly be a great selling point."
She believes the lifestyle appeals more to designers and architects, following in the footsteps of authors such as Philip Pullman, who's spoken about writing from his shed. But shedlife need not be limited to those with large resources - Nicky adds that a friend works as a chiropractor from a more traditional shed which has been "souped-up".
Alongside their suitable-for-lawn-mowers range, even High Street DIY chains are now offering more spacious cabins which, in the summer months, would make not bad work places. Homebase for one has introduced a wider range following queries from customers about using sheds as "additional living and working space".
Technology too can play a part, with wireless broadband being a particular boon. Last year, for instance, cable company Telewest ran a campaign to get "shedheads" wired by building a demonstration IT shed in north London.
Nicky Blumfield: Long commute to the garden
Even before this week's vote in the European Parliament on limiting the hours of British workers, the indications were that politicians were seizing upon peoples' desire for greater work-life balance as a hot issue.
The Department of Trade and Industry offers plentiful advice to enable flexible working, particularly highlighting the gains to attendance and productivity from allowing home-working.
The good news for many will be that planning permission is not usually needed for sheds, though rules apply to larger buildings, those close to the house, or for those in conservation areas.
If a business is to be run from premises, as opposed to its simple use as a home office, then permission might be needed. A spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's department said commonsense is usually applied, but advised anyone considering converting a shed or building to consult their local planning authority for advice. (See internet links for more details.)
One of the big advantages, says Kevin Grumball, is that there is that extra bit of distance between house and office, helping to offset the home-worker's traditional lament their working quarters are just that bit too close to their living space.
Inside: No mowing
"One of the only downsides," he says, "is that as we're in a very rural area, the power can go off unexpectedly. But that would only happen once or twice a year.
"Apart from that, I'm very hard put to find drawbacks."
My shed is a workshop for DIY projects. It's 16ftx12ft including the veranda on the front. Having built the shed I wanted privacy so dug a moat/ pond on three sides and then of course needed a bridge which I built from wood in a Thai style. I can work in the shed and watch birds in the bluebell wood, planted by me, fish frogs and grass snakes in the pond, it's a very relaxing haven.
When in England, for many years I worked via the internet out of my "office" in Somerset which was known by my cyber-chums as "the potting shed". It was fully kitted out including wallpaper and carpets - my wife's insistence that I should feel "at home" there. I now live and work from my home in Spain where I have exchanged the potting shed for the roof terrace of our house in Murcia.
Alan English , Murcia, Spain
I purchased two log cabins for my back garden, one of which I have described here. The second cabin was originally a two roomed cabin and I removed the wall to facilitate a single larger room for a 7ft 5 snooker table. The cabin has full electrics with its own consumer unit wired to the main house.
I have a converted garage to an office-work and chill room. Recently had the council round accusing me of having immigrants living in there as they neighbours have seen friends leaving in the early hours, but after inspection all is now ok. I think it was the 1.5m motorised satellite dish on the roof that did it. Highly recommend converting an outbuilding to an office or workshop. Planning usually ok under the Local Development Agreement. If you are doing this, strongly also recommend you look into gas heating. Boilers are cheap and the gas pipe cost £200 to run in and a lot cheaper than electric heating.
Lee Taylor, Stockport
I've built a hot tub / jacuzzi spa in my hot tub shed.
As an avid gardener, I have always had a shed for practical purposes but in recent years its really become part of my life. I now have a TV, radio and all mod cons at the bottom of the garden, but this is more about having somewhere to smoke and relax away from my wife than anything else! Sorry love x
Malcolm Faulks, London
I needed a new shed so popped down local the DIY stores and was horrified with the cost and quality of pre made sheds so decided to take a week off work, order some wood from a sawmill and build my own. It's 12x6 and has full electrics and is a wonderful place to potter about and do a bit of woodwork (Hence I got a bit carried away and also built a chicken house and run).
Simon Whitehead - Worcester
This is a picture of my shed, which I designed and built from scratch in summer 2003. My wife and I are writers and we both have desks inside (the interior is 11' by 8'), wireless Internet access, heating and so on. It's about 100ft from the house and has made a huge difference to the experience of working from home. I'd never undertaken anything like it before, but building it was one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. I had to interview some Hollywood film industry people last year and did so from this shed late one winter's night while the Lancashire rain hammered on the roof.
This is a picture of our garden office. We built it to get out of the house where we used a downstairs, cold and dark room as an office for two years. We designed and built this garden room and now we have a light and pleasant space to work. We are so pleased that we now build them as part of our business.
Mike Cooke, Totnes
My shed at the side of the house started as a place to go to when pottering around with stuff. It somehow snowballed into my own little pub. I have no idea how much I have spent on it but it is well worth it. It has mains power, is totally insulated against the cold, and has all the things that you would expect to find in your local. It houses various bits and pieces that I collected whilst serving in the Royal Navy as well as assorted posters that I have managed to collect. Really great to sit in and have a beer when doing the garden, as well as entertaining people at night time
My shed landed in the garden last year. There was this funny whooshing sound and it appeared. Holds my telescope.
My luxury shed is blue and has a lot of spiders in it; that's why I prefer to look at it from the safety of the office. If we ever manage to evict the eight-legged squatters, I can imagine it would be very nice to work in there, so long as it doesn't rain. The downside would be that we'd have to move everything stored in there to the office.
As you can do doubt tell, it is a traditional allotment shed and as such is full of generations of useless tat including a stuffed donkey and several tins of poison. It is constructed entirely out of knackered wood and has to defy several quite important laws of physics in order to stay reasonably upright.
I built my garden shed two years ago using material from across Canada - spruce 2x4s from Quebec, plywood from Alberta, pine planks from Ontario and cedar shingles from British Columbia. It is crammed with the usual garden tools, garbage cans and wheel barrow. My house does not have any stained glass windows but my shed has three, so my wife likes to ask people if they want to see my church.
Guelph, Ontario, Canada
Here is my shed. I work from it in a village near Appleby in Westmorland. I've always worked from home, but when I moved house two years ago, I needed a new office as the house didn't have any spare room. So I got a firm near Blackburn to build this for me to my specification. It's fully insulated, plastered, air-conditioned, broadband-enabled, and even has satellite telly. Most importantly it's far enough away from the house to allow me to pretend I can't hear the kids when they're screaming.
My neighbour has just a few days back fitted a shed, which looks more like a huge Swiss Chalet than a garden shed. It is so huge it now covers most of his back garden with just enough gaps between the fence for a man to squeeze through. Now we regularly have to put up with loud 1960s music coming from this monstrous shed the whole day. Earlier all we could hear in our peaceful backgarden was birds singing.
Sebastian, Milton Keynes
I know someone who lives with his wife in a shed, at the bottom of his parents garden!
My husband Simon asked me to send in some photos of our very first shed as he is so proud of it especially as he laid the patio base and put the shed together before painting it a lovely duckegg blue! It looks like a beach hut rather than your usual garden shed.
Carla Price, Hampton Hill, Middlesex