Bite the hand that bores you

Building the Backyard Office

I’ve never built a shed. I’m moderately handy; I’ve framed a wall, and I’ve run electricity; I can hang drywall, and use a level. I’m going to keep a log of what I decide while learning how to build a shed that won’t fall down in my back yard. Perhaps it will be of use to someone other than me. I’ll write about the design process, build-or-buy, legal and technical issues I run into, and if appropriate the whole build process. There are scads of interesting books on this subject, and I’ll include my notes on them as well, and annotated links to building sites and other blogs.

Why build a shed? Our house is small enough that I have to give change back from the cost of the nickel tour. With my wife and I both working at home and a baby napping, building an office shed/greenhouse in the yard is a dream come true.

The Site

Our yard runs east-west in a protected valley on the north slope of Bernal Heights, in San Francisco. The ground rises away in every direction except north, which means a view toward downtown and the bay. This is a fairly urban environment, but the steep hills have meant that this neighborhood doesn’t encourage development. Our house uses a small part of the lot, with the result that our back yard is perhaps 70’ by 25’. It’s level east-to-west, but slopes downhill to the north, across the narrow dimension.

The best location for the shed is at the back end of the yard on the south side, facing north across the yard. There is an approximately 11’ space between a brugmansia and a plum. I’m not sure how close to those I can practically build.

In San Francisco, an ancillary structure not used for habitation can be built without a permit so long as it is less than 100 square feet and not on a permanent - that is, poured concrete - foundation. This square footage isn’t defined anywhere, but I’m going to assume it’s the roof area. This means I can put a 9x7 or 10x8 structure easily under that limit, even with a generous eave over the entrance side.

The Structure

San Francisco isn’t the warmest place. The site has sun throughout the day, though later in the year less so due to the bulk of the hill rising to the south. My original vision was of a greenhouse I could work in, so it features a lot of glass — but I don’t want to cook, and I do have neighbors. Making the large northern wall largely glass means a lot of consistent indirect light. The back wall faces a retaining wall, so can be largely opaque. I’d hoped to have at least part of the roof transparent, too.

The west wall faces a neighbor’s house, and so will be largely solid; the east wall faces my house, and will have windows or glass.

I’d like the front to open for sunny days – ideally entirely, but perhaps I could get by with less. I’d like to be able to fit my desk, some shelves, and a chair or pillows.

I like the look of post-and-beam construction, to the extent that that matters for a building this small. I’d prefer the size and placement of windows wasn’t dictated by 16” OC studs, and therefore may avoid ‘stick’ style building. I’d like exposed roof joists, too, to create an open feel without needing too tall a structure.

Buy or build?

This is a whole other subject, which I’ll cover soon. Kits seem to be split between ‘dark potting shed’ and ‘architect’s fantasy’, with prices to match.

A side note on permits: I’ve got nothing against getting permits; I’m a big fan of building standards and code. I’m very happy that my neighbor’s bad wiring won’t ignite my house. In this case, though, permits are a huge expense (a percentage of the overall cost, but with a minimum that is quite high for a cheap structure) and a lot of vagueness for a structure that is a glorified potting shed. So, I’m going the unpermitted, temporary structure route. I understand that in most of California, this allows 120 sqft - but here in San Francisco, it’s 100.