About six years ago, Chelsea Hadley left her job as a fundraiser for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and started running a small arts foundation from her house.
In theory, the idea was a no-brainer — she had two school-age children; her husband, the film scorer and hip-hop musician Justin Reinhardt, already worked from home; and the flexibility was seductive. Practically, she discovered one hitch: Her house, in a canyon in Los Angeles, wasn't designed for that kind of lifestyle.
"We live in a 1950s midcentury modern post-and-beam house, which is, like, very L.A.-feeling, but it's one big, open space," Hadley said. "So we realized really quickly that with him working at home and me working at home and having two young kids, I was never going to get any work done and neither was he."
Adding a room would have blasted through their budget and changed their home's footprint, but they did have an 8,360-square-foot lot and a back yard that needed updating. The answer to everything was a $60,000 luxury shed by kitHAUS, a prefab maker that has created sleek spaces for clients including comic actress Amy Poehler.
Backyard sheds long ago morphed from dusty storage shacks or scroungy domains of gardeners and grandpas to swoonable spaces that let people fulfill needs and fantasies for a fraction of what it would cost to trade up or remodel.
They are the heart of the yard and sometimes the home, serving as offices, meditation rooms, writing nooks, bars, saunas, guest suites or crafting cottages, and sometimes a combination of the above.
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Deep down, the appeal of the backyard shed, and the many ways the space has been interpreted, can be explained by that primordial need for intimate, secluded snugness, said Debra Prinzing, author of Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways.
"It goes back to our visceral memories of having a little secret place," she said. When she used to ask people about their dream sheds, the answers "were all over the map in terms of architecture." But they all evoked the "excitement you had as a child, putting a blanket over a card table and climbing underneath. You had your own little space. I think that's what everyone is going for."
The popularity of the units is evidenced in the growth of shed companies. Business at Modern-Shed has increased 20 percent per year for the past six years, said Tim Vack, general manager of the Seattle-based firm. A mix of factors is driving demand: Awful traffic and the rise of flex policies means more people are choosing to work from home.
Construction and real estate costs mean it's hard to move or remodel, he added. An unfinished Modern-Shed typically starts at $18,500 to $25,000 (not including delivery or installation). He estimated that a room addition would cost four to eight times that.
People with 3,000-square-foot villas aren't his typical clients — it's those that live in "tight but wealthy" urban areas such as downtown San Francisco and Seattle.
Jeremy Nova, co-founder of Studio Shed outside Boulder, Colo., said there's a key advantage to building small: The structure might not need to be permitted, depending on local building codes. "We've done installations in very small back yards," he said. One yard in San Francisco was so tiny the builders had to carry panels in through the house.
Studio Shed has averaged year-over-year growth of almost 50 percent since inception in 2008, Nova said. He and other shed builders have clients across the United States.
The backyard shed as retreat is far from a North American concept — they've been a fixture in Great Britain for decades and they're the crux of a social movement in Australia.
While they come in many styles and prices, from mass-produced or customizable units in the low four figures to architect-designed showpieces, high-end sheds tend to use durable and ecologically responsible materials, and have bespoke details that help them match the main house, such as custom paint or curated lighting. Adding a bathroom or kitchen can send costs up, in part because of permits.
Tom Sandonato, who co-founded kitHAUS in 2004, said coveted upgrades blend inside and outside: Outdoor kitchens or showers, hardwood floors that transition into decks, open air passages connecting enclosed spaces. His business has grown about 5 percent yearly in the past two years, he said.
Clients of the real estate start-up Cover are also asking for hybrid spaces: a pool house/guesthouse, a sound editing room by day and a lounge after hours, said its co-founder, Alexis Rivas.
The company, whose investors include General Catalyst, is trying something new: Clients answer 50 to 100 questions online, and an algorithm designs their space. Cover trims costs by automating manufacturing and design. Its units cost $55,000 to $400,000, including permits and installation, Rivas said.
Another innovator is Austin-based Sett Studio, which started selling flat-pack DIY kits in August. They start at $6,800, not including tax and shipping. "Hopefully, that's the next thing," said Danielle Hritsko, an administrative assistant there.
These days versatility rules, Sandonato agreed. He built Hadley's studio, a roughly 190-square-foot rectangle with ipe floors and exterior walls and glass doors on two sides that sits in the corner of their frond-filled garden, in 2012. Since then it has morphed into a space that fulfills several of the family's needs. Houseguests sleep there. When they have parties, they slide open the doors and let people mosey between the yard and the studio. Their daughter, 14, is lobbying for the shed to become a hangout zone when friends come over.
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Hadley works exclusively from the studio, and she steals minutes to marvel at hummingbirds in her garden.
"I 100 percent believe that it did change my life," she said. It gave her a separate space to focus, uninterrupted and inspired — especially valuable for a work-from-home parent, she said.
There's something about modern houses that has made people turn to backyard sheds for comfort, said Mitchell Parker, an editor and writer at Houzz.
"These open floor plans are so popular these days, but people are struggling to now find private, walled in spaces in which they can have some quiet time and feel like they're in a comfortable, almost isolated space to get work done and close out the world around them," he said. "People are looking for walls now."
Nova said his clients are expressing the same sentiment: "We found in talking to our customers that so many people's homes are no longer a sanctuary," he said.
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Katharine Harer, a poet and English professor, spent years trying to create such a sanctuary. First she bought a weekend cabin in Gualala, a coastal outcrop in Northern California where ocean meets redwoods.
She worked at the dining table but felt she needed something more "intimate." In July she had an 8-by-10-foot writing shed installed. She describes it as "monastic." It has big windows and insulated maple walls. Outside, all she sees is green. It cost around $16,000.
Harer always found ways to be productive: "I've worked on back porches, in corners of rooms." But with a dedicated space, she immediately focused better. "Now, I have the dream."
Jim Doti, a professor of economics at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and, until last year, the university's president, also finds that walking some 40 feet from his house, in a semirural part of Orange County, to his shed spurs his creativity. "It does something with your mind," Doti said in his shed as chickens roamed outside on a recent afternoon. "It allows you, you know, to get in sync with whatever you're going to be doing that's different from what you do over there."
He uses his 12-by 14-foot studio for one purpose: turning wood bowls. It's his private oasis, where he can withdraw and spin hunks of heavy olive and lustrous ambrosia maple into svelte bowls he gives to friends or donates to charity auctions.
Doti thought of carving out room in the garage, but his wife worried his hobby would send sawdust all over her Porsche. So a shed it was.
In a sense, it's a throwback to the classic tool shed: Filled with drills, a lathe and a workbench. But it has upgrades, including an air filtration system and customizations, down to the window geometry, exterior colors and the sconces he handpicked to match his house. In all, the space, by Studio Shed, cost around $30,000.
When Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways author Prinzing lived in Thousand Oaks, Calif., her homeowner's association forbade sheds. Pool cabanas were allowed — but she didn't have a pool. "The irony of it all," she joked.
She recently moved to near Seattle, and she has plans for a "half-shed, half-greenhouse" where she'll write and start seedlings.
She may call the space the Seed House. "I just don't know yet," she said, and stated one of her cardinal rules of shed ownership: "You have to name it."