Shed? It's a Modernist office with a view

If you're sick of the commute or cramped at a desk in your bedroom, imagine the joy of an outdoor workspace. Jay Merrick is seduced by designer cabins

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:58

We commute more or less willingly. We drive to work on increasingly busy roads. We log-on in office cubicles or anonymous meeting rooms smelling of stale coffee and even staler ideas. Despite improvements in office design since the open plan tundras of the 1960s, the 21st century vibe of our workplaces is still not so very different in spirit to TS Eliot's poetic vision of thousands of ghostly jobsworths crossing London Bridge in the brown fog of a 1920s winter dawn to get to their offices in the City of London. What if we shedded instead?

Or to put it another way, how many of us think that the quality of our work and lives, would be significantly improved if we were able to settle down to work in a very small, conveniently situated designer bolt-hole?

There's nothing necessarily fogeyish or kitsch about the notion. Two giants of modernist architecture, Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, designed small but utterly iconic glass houses in the 1950s that are clearly the conceptual precursors of the ultra-pure forms of contemporary sheds by suppliers such as Kithaus and Loftcube. Le Corbusier, arguably the greatest and most influential architect of the 20th century, built his tiny 3.6m square wooden Cabanon to relax in while in the south of France. When the structure was put on show at the Royal Institute of British Architects last year, it was swamped by admiring designers.

For some, these small salons privée have been crucial to creativity. The father of existentialist philosophy, Martin Heidegger, was happiest in his wooden hut on the slopes of the Schwarzwald in Bavaria; rapper Snoop Dogg wrote hit songs in his garden shed; William Harley and Arthur Davidson assembled their first motorcycle in a backyard shed; and the sculptor Henry Moore was so addicted to working in sheds that he had several.

Yet sheds tend to get a bad press. Let's face it, they're usually perceived either as the fundamentally fusty domains of people who fidget with lawn mowers and plant cuttings; or as the rickety lairs of eccentric sociopaths who wear their ties outside their sweaters. But that hackneyed perception may be about to change with the publication of a new, rather engrossing book called Shedworking.

It reveals a vivid cornucopia of architecturally innovative sheds and sets out everything a shedworker manqué might want to know about building regulations and planning permission, tax implications, garden office suppliers and how to build one. There's even a further reading list, though you may need to apply liberal quantities of Lynx Bullet Dark Temptation before reading Manspace: A Primal Guide to Marking Your Territory.

Shedworking's author, Alex Johnson, has cabin fever: he's positively messianic about sheddy virtues – and it's hard not to feel a frisson of anticipatory pleasure at the thought of settling down to work in, say, the Penthouse shed designed by Eco Green; or in a svelte, super-modernist OfficePOD; or in one of Room Outdoor's frightfully posh Cuberno garden offices. And here's what the anonymous blogger known as Man In A Shed had to say about his Damascene – and faintly politically incorrect – shed moment: "About five years ago, I found myself away from home, in a hotel room, for the first time since we had started a family. I suddenly realised I could hear myself think again. In short, I needed somewhere to hang out, a wooden cave."

A wooden cave is the least of it. There are a wealth of architecturally interesting shed designs; indeed, some are quite radical. But just as significant is the fundamental reason for shedding – that the workplace status quo is becoming the status woe. If an international corporation as vast as HSBC can commit to a strategy that will eventually see half its staff working mostly from home, could that be the tip of an iceberg of future outworking? And if it is, those who can't quite rustle up £20,000 for a beach hut at Southwold, may find that it is cheaper and far more architecturally interesting, to take the shed route.

Johnson lines up a flood of factoids to support the case for shedworking. To cherry-pick three: a report from the mental health charity Mind suggests that workplace stress is the second biggest occupational health problem in the UK and that office environments are a key factor; in an experiment for computer giant Hewlett-Packard, the cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis tested staff performance in typically cramped office conditions and in a free-range environment; productivity rose by 400 per cent in the latter, stress levels were halved and blood pressure dropped; and in the UK, the Equal Opportunities Commission's report, Working Outside the Box, reports that half of us want more flexible conditions.

For some, then, working outside the box might actually mean working inside a very special kind of box, aka one's very own shed. Consider the case of Justin Knopp, who runs his artisan letterpress printing business, Typoretum, from a shed in Essex. Here, within a Conservation Area, he designed and built a timber clad micro-barn; and in it, closely surrounded by drawers of type and metal-framed 'chases', he hand prints greeting cards and stationery on a four-ton 1888 Wharfedale press.

His shed is not architecturally iconic, but it is broadly typical of today's chic sheds, which tend to reflect something of the Arts and Crafts movement, with a more than a dash of environmental design. The Garden Studio made by Cob, a Cornish supplier, features the use of cob, a thick mulch of earth, straw, sand and water. Lumps of it are pressed together, by hand, to form walls 2ft thick. The material is said to have particularly impressive thermal qualities – internally cool in summer, relatively warm in winter. Straw is also being used in shed design. The material, perhaps most famously used in the uniquely innovative Straw Bale House designed by architect Sarah Wigglesworth, is the key ingredient of the Strawdio, a small music studio built by Piers Partridge.

The less-is-more modernist spirit is never far away, though. The architect and designer John Kingston took a starkly minimalist approach when he designed his garden office, which is, in effect, a wooden box covered almost seamlessly in large, asymmetric metal scales. The Moonroom, made by Roomworks, hovers between the modernist and the au naturel, a fusion of rectilinear metal, stained timber and a flower-flecked turf roof.

But this approach seems dubious when shed design is pushed too far into the high tech zone. We can admire concepts such as the Australian-designed TS1, a cleanly detailed, mirror-walled shed that can be demounted and moved from site to site; and we can look ahead, with ironic amusement, to the Fab Tree Hab, designed by architects Mitchell Joachim, Lara Greden and Javier Arbona-Homar, which resembles a sci-fi concept album cover from the early 1970s. On the other hand, designs such as Microsoft's SoGO garden hideaway and Diarmid Gavin's garden office seem precious and over-egged.

Will shedworking become commonplace? Le Corbusier said modern man only needed a monk's cell in which to exist. But Mark-Antoine Laugier, who championed the idea of huts composed of tree-trunk pillars, branches and leaves, put it more charmingly.

"The primitive hut," he wrote in 1753, "is not only the origin, but also the very personification of all that is right in architecture." If Alex Johnson is right, the not so humble shed may also, for an increasing number of people, become all that is right about working conditions.

Shedworking, the Alternative Workplace Revolution, by Alex Johnson, is published by Frances Lincoln Ltd at £16.99. To order a copy for the special price of £14.99 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit

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