Take a look at the following four freestanding backyard studios, all of which serve as the full-time office (and sometime guesthouse) for the designers and architects who designed them. From a converted blacksmith shop to a modernist shed, these designs show just how practical, stylish and creative an outbuilding can be.
Location: Garrison, New York
Size: 400 square feet (37 square meters)
Architect: Annie Mennes of Garrison Foundry Architecture + Decor
Architect Annie Mennes and her family moved to New York’s Hudson Valley around the same time she started her own firm. After working out of their house for a few years, she decided to renovate a dilapidated barn on the property into a home office and guest suite.
Though her plan to renovate the barn became a complete rebuild due to the building’s structural issues, Mennes was able to re-create what had attracted her to the barn in the first place. “It was such a charming size and shape,” she says. “We wanted to honor the vernacular that’s here on the site.”
The new structure’s stucco siding, which was also used on the original barn exterior, nods to the past. Energy-efficient details and clean lines bring the building into the present. The building features warm, natural materials with simple details and clean lines, channeling Scandinavian design. “The idea was to bridge this rustic-modern vibe,” Mennes says.
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Built-ins and organized storage contribute to the clean, functional look. A local builder designed and installed the 12-foot-long floating pine desk. Floating shelves are made from MDF painted to match the room. Plain white binders and boxes store materials and office supplies for the firm. A pegboard wall holds architectural tools, and white filing cabinets offer additional storage. “The idea was to hide everything in the white storage wall,” Mennes says. A leaning ladder with wire trays holds the materials and paperwork for the firm’s current project.
The flooring is bleached oak and does not have radiant heating. “We do have a little Panasonic heat and AC unit in the main office. We tend to not need it,” Mennes says. The new shed’s tight envelope and the radiant heating in the other rooms keep the whole space comfortable.
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Other amenities, including a cushy sofa that folds out, a plush Moroccan rug and a wall-mounted TV, make the den an inviting space to work and for guests to relax. Two-inch-thick hemlock pieces left over from the barn form the built-in floating wall shelf. Spacers a little more than an inch thick create mini cubbies for a record collection, a mini fridge and other decor. Instead of a table, this built-in unit stays tight against the wall. “It’s a really efficient use of space,” Mennes says.
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Location: Hopkinton, New Hampshire, near Concord
Size: 176 square feet (16 square meters); two-thirds-story loft above is used for storage
Designer: Amy Mitchell of Home Glow Design
Soon after Amy Mitchell opened her own interior design firm, she realized her family’s kitchen wouldn’t provide enough space to run her business and host clients — or show off her design skills. Fortunately, Mitchell didn’t have to look far for her next office. A 19th-century blacksmith shop sat on her family’s property, just on the other side of the driveway from the main house. “We had this space and we thought it would be perfect,” she says. “It was being underutilized as a storage shed.”
The redesign started with some minor construction and demolition. Working with general contractor Brian J Barrett, the team ripped up the floors, repaired and painted walls and replaced two windows. Barrett installed antique wavy glass panes, new mullions and new sashes. Lenn Johnson added new electrical and lighting receptacles. “Other than that it was mostly decorative,” Mitchell says of the improvements.
The fabric Mitchell chose for the windows — a faded blush floral print with camel, steel and bronze accents — helped pull the design scheme together, inspiring the room’s color palette and balancing the various styles and themes Mitchell wanted to include. “[It] struck me as feminine cowgirl,” she says.
The vintage Stickley desk is Mitchell’s primary workspace. With most of the furnishings coming from big-box retailers, she wanted a piece that would give a sense of heritage and a timeless quality. “I’m a sucker for really well-made furniture,” she says. An added budget bonus: Mitchell found the desk on consignment. Its wood stands out in the mostly white room, providing a place for the eye to rest.
Mitchell even painted the cork wall she installed behind her worktable the same white as the walls so it wouldn’t draw attention to itself. “I’ve been using it for six months now and haven’t had any trouble with chipping,” she says.
Wall color: White Dove, Benjamin Moore
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Location: Prairie Village, Kansas (near Kansas City)
Size: 120 square feet (11 square meters)
Architect: Christopher Fein of Forward Design|Architecture
Architect Chris Fein designed and built a 10-by-12-foot shed in his backyard originally as an office for his architecture firm, which has since outgrown the space. He now retreats to it to prepare for classes he teaches at Kansas State University’s architecture school. “People love the idea of escaping their house to work while still being at home,” he says. “That’s exactly why I like it.”
The shed’s design was a study in economy. “It was generally an exercise in how cheaply we could build that space,” Fein says. Codes dictated that the shed be no larger than 10 by 12 feet, and Fein kept the roof slope as slight as possible. Choosing a simple rectangular shape and locating the door and window on the same wall also kept costs down. “The overall form and shape were really dictated by budget,” Fein says.
The shed sits in the rear corner of the yard, with its own entrance from the street. It’s close to the fence, 2 feet from the property line, which is the closest permitted by local building regulations. A 15-foot-long, 6-foot-tall wall projects off the front of the shed, screening the entrance from the next-door neighbors’ backyard.
Seven-foot-tall walls house the bookcases and give the shed an intimate feel. “That was an attempt on my part to keep the scale down,” Fein says, to tie it in with the house and backyard.
The room has a cork floor, laid on top of a slab-on-grade foundation. “We love cork floors, because they’re affordable, they wear well and you can put them on a slab,” Fein says.
Desk chair: Maarten Van Severen for Vitra; light blue desk chair: Eero Saarinen for Knoll
The shed’s bright orange front is another impactful, budget-friendly detail that guides visitors to the entry. Inside the main house, all the doors are painted the same orange as a way to tie the two structures together. But Fein also “tried to contrast [the shed] with the house so that you understand it’s a distinct, freestanding folly.”
The structure has a mini split for heating and cooling. Though these upgrades have put the shed’s overall cost at about $18,000, roughly twice Fein’s estimate for the conversion, the studio is inviting and remains at a comfortable temperature year round. It was “well worth the expense,” Fein says.
Orange paint: Daredevil, Sherwin-Williams
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Location: Falmouth, Maine
Size: 384 square feet (36 square meters)
Architect: Kevin Browne
After commuting to his office for an hour a day, architect Kevin Browne turned his sights to managing his one-person-firm closer to home, by building an office on his property. Browne envisioned a studio that felt very New England, but he wanted to explore contemporary materials and energy-efficient building techniques. He didn’t want a 19th-century replica.
The studio’s exterior is covered in CertainTeed WeatherBoards. Browne chose a custom paint for the siding to match the metal roof. Solar panels cover the roof’s south side. They handle the studio’s heating and cooling needs; any leftover energy can be used for the main house.
Browne built the studio using the Zip sheathing system, with a built-in energy-efficient barrier, to minimize air leakage and maintain a tighter building envelope. He used a flash-and-batt insulation method. He also performed a blower door test to ensure the shed was airtight.
He wanted to include a loft in the design — until a friend sent over a photo of a lofted net. Browne took one look and thought, “This is going to be cheaper” — not to mention more fun. Natural light also wouldn’t be affected, since the netting wouldn’t obstruct any of the office’s windows.
Using 4-by-8 Douglas fir beams to frame the 8-by-11-foot loft space, Browne secured a construction safety net using I-hooks and an aircraft cable. He says the net has stretched out a little, but he finds it even more loungeworthy now. (One of his sons is shown enjoying the net here.)
Browne built a small bathroom with a shower in a corner of the studio. Its pine walls make the bathroom feel more like an element within the space rather than an additional room.