Backyard ‘office sheds’ gain in popularity with Minnesotans

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Technically, the 10-by-14-foot building in Lars Leafblad’s backyard in Shoreview is what’s termed an accessory structure.

But Leafblad, a small business owner and father of four, prefers to call it his search shed, serendipity shack, coffee cave, networking nook or fortress of solitude.

“When everything shut down I moved from my office [in St. Paul] to a corner of my bedroom. My kids, who are with me every other week, did distance learning for a year,” he said. “The pandemic brought the commingling of parenting and work to the forefront. I needed a new solution.”

After rejecting a move to a new house or a home addition as too disruptive and expensive, Leafblad struck on the idea of building a tiny office.

It took six months from drawing board to completion, but Leafblad is settling in behind a desk that overlooks a soccer goal, rhubarb patch and fire pit. Outfitted with a minifridge and coffee pot, can lights and a ceiling fan, the standalone structure is steps from the back door of his 1979 split-level.

“The idea was space that was close by but separate, comfortable with a lot of light. I don’t need plumbing, just heat and A/C, power and the internet,” said Leafblad.

Turns out Leafblad wasn’t the only one with an interest in such a backyard build. As he documented the construction process, Leafblad developed a social media following with 70,000 views on LinkedIn and a long string of comments from other workers who were inspired by — or envious of — his new space.

“I think this hit a nerve,” he said.

Up until recently, a freestanding structure in a Minnesota yard would likely have been a tool or storage shed, screen porch building, sauna or ice fishing shack waiting for winter.

But in the space-starved, work-at-home, post-pandemic era, outbuildings may be constructed or designed for work rather than for leisure, hobbies or safekeeping possessions.

“From a trend perspective, this is an interesting development. Workers are putting down roots in this new lifestyle that started with COVID-19,” said Tim Barlow, who follows home trends for Gartner, a global advisory firm.

“The first wave was adapting home offices with treadmill desks, room dividers, trying to extend the usefulness of the footprint they’re in. Building out workspace is the next phase of that,” he said.

Barlow thinks a tiny office holds appeal for those seeking balance in their new remote work reality.

“A designated space has boundaries and is removed from the distractions of day-to-day life in the house, but it has no commute,” he said. “At the same time, your work isn’t spread over the dining room table where you can’t get away from it and be fully present with your family.”

Refuge and rest

Hopkins residents Kristin and Cole Johnson were early adopters of working from home, both holding remote jobs for the past eight years. They were accustomed to parking themselves in coffee shops when they needed quiet.

But the shutdown of public spaces combined with the birth of their third child created crushing new space demands.

“We had nowhere to go to get away from the kids for a call. We took turns squatting in the playroom,” said Kristin.

With an eye to their budget, they ordered a 10-by-16-foot “shell of a shed,” as Cole put it, from a Wisconsin company that usually sells to hobby farmers. Johnson cut down a few trees on their large Hopkins lot and built a retaining wall for the structure to sit on. He insulated it, sourced four double-paned residential windows for more light, laid a floor and worked with contractors to install electricity.

“We have Wi-Fi-enabled heaters we can turn on from the house and a timer to control the temperature,” he said.

The Johnsons estimate they spent around $10,000 on their “office shed,” not counting Cole’s labor or the cost for the TV, kitchenette, water cooler and fold-out couch.

“Sometimes it’s for whoever didn’t sleep the night before and needs a nap,” Kristin said. “Kids don’t come here. Sometimes when we have a sitter we walk over and have a drink and plan the week. It’s our refuge and place of serenity, which are not words we use to describe our main home.”

Now Cole has started a new business, Company North, to consult with other working parents who crave their own office getaway.

“We learned a lot about furniture and fixtures that are right for small spaces,” he said. “A lot of people are interested in a place that feels removed but is within the baby monitor’s range.”

Shipshape

Some remote or hybrid workers are giving second lives to shipping containers.

With a business that started during the pandemic, Latitude Studios has repurposed the sturdy steel containers as saunas, off-the-grid living spaces and bunkhouses to expand sleeping capacity for cabin owners.

Andy Berg, founder and president of the Ham Lake-based startup, has delivered 10 units designated as backyard offices; nine have landed on suburban lots and the other went to a homeowner in Minneapolis.

“It’s common to do shiplap walls. Fireplaces are popular. We’ve done some custom interior work building what can be a desk in the week and a bar for the weekend,” Berg said. “A shipping container takes up a lot of space on a lot but you can use the top as a rooftop patio.”

Berg figures it takes at least two months to design, insulate and build out a shipping container, but delivering the finished unit that’s ready to use is a one-day process. The smaller containers are 8 by 10 feet and cost $30,000; the larger, more popular version is 8 by 20 feet and starts at $40,000. That price does not include clearing the space for the building or putting in a slab, pad or grading, which could cost an additional $2,000 to $5,000.

“People are willing to make this investment because they’ve made a permanent change in how and where they work,” Berg said. “They like the ability to take this with them in the future if they move homes.”

Paying off

Because Leafblad’s tiny office is fixed in place, he checked with his real estate agent about how the structure might impact his property value.

“He told me a lot of buyers want flexibility. Even if they don’t need an office, in this home-centric era he thinks space just out the back door that could be used for yoga or a studio for a musician or podcaster would be a plus.”

Leafblad’s office, customized, insulated and installed, cost around $50,000, but it’s money he thinks he will recoup in fairly short order.

“I was paying $22,000 a year for office space; that was rent with no equity. Now I have an asset to my property,” he said.

As he begins using the space, he hopes that clients invited for one-on-one meetings will be charmed and intrigued by the originality of the office.

But most of all, he’s excited to see how his working in his backyard will integrate with his domestic and dad duties.

“I have the ability to drop my third-grader off in the morning, be around to meet the bus or take kids to after-school activities without running back and forth to the office,” he said. “I can jump in and out, be close but away. It’s my nearby nest.”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based writer and broadcaster.

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