Home office

The summerhouse revival could signal an end to the crowded house
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The Independent Culture
The difference between British and French gardens, according to Jeffrey Gold of conservatory company Glass Houses, is that the British are good at pots and the French at places to sit. A few hot summers and increasing Europeanisation have brought the trend northwards, and loggias, pergolas and giant umbrellas are now dotted liberally around the country. The ultimate retreat, however, is a summerhouse, now making a return to the British garden after nearly a century of obscurity.

No serious Edwardian garden would have been without a summerhouse, but they were only "features" - the ultimate garden accessory for a leisured and wealthy age. Today's summerhouses have a role to play as an additional room to an overcrowded house - particularly as they don't require planning permission. "One of our clients installed one as a smoking room," says Clare Warren of Amdega Conservatories. (Smokers tired of being ejected out of the back door in all weathers.) "And many are being used as dining rooms," she adds. Other summerhouse companies confirm this trend. Glass Houses have installed one as a bathroom, with a big jacuzzi, and Amdega report that one of theirs is now an elegant outside WC. The Secret Garden Co of Ware built one to house a model railway, and another as a bonsai studio - with a barber's chair to make bonsai pruning easier. Sewing rooms, spaces to meditate, artists studios and an "expensive lawnmower shed" are other popular uses, along with spare bedrooms or "somewhere for grand- children to sleep". (Although use for sleeping does require planning permission.)

But the fastest-growing use is as a home office, and specialists Courtyard Designs have launched The Office in the Garden, which starts at 10ft by15ft - small enough for a town garden. "We build period-designed timber garages and summerhouses, and were increasingly asked to include offices inside," says Ursula Mason of Courtyard Designs. "But with valuable equipment, you have to think about security. Anyone can hack through wooden walls, so ours have a steel mesh lining. You need full services - electricity, telephone and water - and proper insulation." Jeffrey Gold agrees that the increase in home offices, either full-time or as a back-up, is making the summerhouse the obvious choice: "Psychologically it's good because there's a clear divide between home and work."

If you want your summerhouse as an extra room, then it must be built to current building standards. If you economise with a glorified garden shed, you will freeze in the winter, bake in the summer and it will fall apart in a few years. It should have lined roofs and real windows that open for ventilation. And the wood should be maintenance-free: "Ours last for generations," says Mason. In terms of design, most are variations on the cedar Edwardian theme, which sit well with most British homes, although the Little Thatch Company does a "Tudorbethan" thatched version, often bought, apparently, by those who wish they lived in a thatched cottage. All this may give you enough change out of pounds 10,000 to buy a garden lounger. If it doesn't - well it would cost you that to move.

Glass Houses, 0171- 607 6071; Amdega Conservatories, 01325 468522; Courtyard Designs, 01886 884640; The Secret Garden Company of Ware, 01920 462081; The Little Thatch Company, 01420 84165