Want to find yourself? Try the garden shed

A playroom, a gym, an office, a retreat - today's shed is much more than just a place to store the lawn mover, and building one can help to mend your soul. By Richard Phillips
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Overnight it seems that the humble garden shed has been blasted into the realm of philosophical speculation, in the wake of a book by an American, Michael Pollan.

A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder has set the chattering classes humming, as the author grapples with existential doubts and finds himself through the simple act of building his own shed. Some of his tome may have claims to a place in Pseud's Corner, the column in Private Eye, but no one would deny that the dream of a garden shed has a powerful allure. A little haven of tranquillity at the bottom of the garden, it's an easy symbol of the good life, miles away from the ethos of B&Q, where, as a spokeswoman puts it, "A shed is a shed, isn't it?"

So if you feel the urge to raise a structure at the end of your garden, what are the pitfalls to look out for? And can a shed be more than just a place to store the garden tools? Can it really be a retreat for the adults of the house, away from the spouse and the kids?

Roger Trapp, a journalist based in Dulwich, south London, turned this idea on its head when he converted the shed in the garden of his house into a playroom for his children. "The kids helped decorate it and they spend lots of time out there, especially in the summer," he says. "And it cost hardly anything to convert, including putting in a couple of windows."

Others have turned their shed into a gym, or a home office. More sophisticated uses such as these will almost certainly require an electricity supply and possibly a telephone line and running water as well, and these will push the price up. Labour costs will suddenly become an issue and if you want something elaborate, so too might a bill from an architect.

A basic shed should, however, be within reach of those with basic DIY skills. One bonus is that it will almost certainly not require planning permission. Contact your local planning department to check, but as a rule of thumb, a new structure that is less than 4m tall and less than 300sqft in area does not usually require consent. However do, as a matter of course, consult your neighbours, especially if the unit may affect any boundary conditions or be joined to a party wall. If they have grounds to object and get in touch with the council once it is erected, you may find yourself forced to take the whole thing back down.

Building a shed can be a creative exercise, from choosing materials to deciding on design and the shape of the structure. DIY companies such as B&Q have a range of products, aimed mainly at the gardening end of the market. However, its Apex Chalet, which measures 8ft x 6ft and costs pounds 499.99 is sold as "an attractive leisure building ... making an ideal retreat".

There are companies with altogether more ambitious plans. Courtyard Designs, based in Suckley, Hereford and Worcester, saw a gap in the market for home office rooms and launched its first design a year ago. Its buildings come complete with power and telephone sockets and all the technological aids required to run a modern office. The company eschews the word "shed". "It can conjure up images of cheapness," says Ursula Mason, co-owner.

Importantly, Courtyard rooms are designed to be secure. They have an iron grille as one of five wall layers which makes breaking in through the walls virtually impossible. The exterior is treated Douglas Fir and the French door locks meet insurance standards. Each also has a proper slate or clay tile roof. A basic 20ftx10ft room with a height of 12ft 6in costs approximately pounds 17,000. Each is made to order, and there is a degree of freedom for the customer to specify individual requirements. The room is delivered in sections, and assembled on site.

You could, however, consider building your own shed. For a timber-framed concrete-based structure measuring around 20ftx10ft, you should be able to find a builder who will quote between pounds 12,000 and pounds 15,000 including the design specifications. Make sure you pay careful attention to insulation; if you are going to use it as a home office, you will need to work there at all times of the year. Check with your builder that he can insulate the building to a high SAP rating - the industry standard for insulation.

As the quality of style and furnishings goes up, so too does the need for good security. Burglars often break into outside sheds to steal tools as an aid to breaking into the main property. There is also a thriving market in stolen lawn mowers and a decent set of gardening tools will fetch a reasonable price second hand. Needless to say, any burglar is going to be delighted to find a PC in the garden shed.

For this reason you must extend your buildings and household contents insurance to cover the shed and what you have in it. If you use it as a home office, you may need to consider obtaining business premises insurance - a high street insurance broker should be able to advise on suitable policies.