Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Shed Of My Own

There was never any question the old backyard shed that came with the house would be torn down, only a matter of when. It was ramshackle, its floor rotting from sitting directly on wet ground. Worse, a low sloping roof rendered it dysfunctional for storage (its sole purpose), and in the end it was just too makeshift and far gone to consider fixing. I will admit to being taken with small buildings whenever they are designed to be seen as well as for use, so it was rather disappointing that my first-ever small building had neither charm nor functionality going for it. But this lack of positive attributes did open the door to a fresh start. A functional shed of some sort was essential for storage of garden and other tools, especially as the house itself came without a basement and only a difficult-to-access attic. And, even a small building would figure large in the garden setting I intended to surround the house with, so something more harmonious than the existing clunker was desirable.

1988, the day after purchasing the house, on a sagging seat on my ramshackle shed

‘When’ came around in 1999, eleven years on and right after restoration of the house's exterior, with the long interval used to sort out just what would replace it. The question of what to build gradually resolved itself into one of how to build compatibly in the existing context, in this case a 1913 bungalow with unique personality. While most garden sheds are primarily functional objects, my small building's proximity to a well-dressed residence suggested it should have an equally worthy look - and if possible, be a garden eye-catcher too. Figuring out how to make new and old compatible led me to develop a more explicit understanding of the design of the main house.

A building so dilapidated that the decision to start fresh was uncomplicated

Thinking more concertedly about shed design was preceded by some impulsive acts of collecting that unintentionally contributed to the shed's look, like the leaded glass casement windows I bought at a local auction for a song. Their sturdy wood frames and diamond-shaped panes - and the passing thought that they could always go into the shed if no other use presented itself - served as a pretext to rescue them. I was struck by the absurdity of anyone chucking such fine objects (likely in favour of vinyl-framed replacements with mock leading) that I began keeping an eye on the auction. Not long afterwards I scored two small stained-glass windows in a deco flower pattern – perfect symbols for a garden building I thought! Suddenly recycling used windows was becoming a primary function of my still-undesigned shed!

One of a pair of stained glass windows that would be recycled in the new garden shed

I resolved to stop this random window-rescue and for a time actually did, at least until I happened upon a striking transom window in a classic fan pattern that proved irresistible. One of a stack of windows in an Ontario antique shop awaiting conversion to mirror glass (a fad at the time), this classy fanlight called out for a better future than winding up as hallway décor in a big-city condo. No one would ever have designed a mirror to look that way in any case, so I gave in to my urge to rescue once more, bought it and shipped it back to Victoria by bus.

A fan-shaped transom in a typical arrangement brings elegance and light to this entrance

As shown above, a transom window often crowns a front doorway and is frequently completed by vertical panels of small-paned or leaded glass windows that book-end the door. This arrangement creates a distinguished entryway for a substantial home while admitting light to the vestibule beyond the door. Unpacking my antique fan transom back at home, I tried to imagine what sort of building it came from and how it may originally have looked.Then the thought occurred that the leaded glass casement windows might just fit beneath it, so I dragged three of them out of the attic and laid them out on the lawn. Using two by fours to roughly space the casements, it was evident that a bank of them would leave just enough room for a frame and trim boards. It appeared I might just have a design for the garden facade of my shed, so I took a photograph of the layout for future reference. This picture was destined to be the sole construction 'drawing' for the entire building.

The shed's garden facade in embryo, the day the possible layout first came to mind

A collection of recycled windows does not, however, an eye-catching building make. It’s much more complicated than that if one cares to delve into it, and I discovered I was tempted to. I’d been doing some reading to prepare myself to oversee the eventual exterior repair of my heritage bungalow, a process recorded in my June Century Bungalow post, when Michael Pollan’s fascinating A Place Of My Own fell into my hands. Pollan's account of creating a writing shed for himself reveals the inherent complexities of even the most simple building process. It taught me that the acts of design and building, while inherently linked, require a continual drawing together and interpreting during the physical process of construction. This may seem obvious, but design is always modified during the act of construction, as ideas on paper are translated from abstractions into material forms. The designer needs to have a presence throughout construction in order to be part of this interpretive process, or the building will be reshaped significantly by the sequence of choices made along the way by others. This was an insight that helped me guide the repair of the main building when its day came, but it also began preparing me to play a role in shaping new construction. I was (at most) an amateur designer who’d have to learn to work through skilled hands in order to achieve intended outcomes.

This tiny diamond paned window was a choice made during the process of construction

My research also led me to Witold Rybczinsky’s The Most Beautiful House in The World, a great read about a Canadian architect’s efforts to fashion a boathouse that would be both functional and compatible with its rural context. Rybczinsky's boathouse could have taken any form he chose to give it, but after a long process of investigation he opted to make it compatible with the traditional forms of rural buildings in his Quebec township. One idea that stayed with me was the notion that each building speaks a distinct language, and that comprehending its design-vocabulary furnishes the tools for designing other structures compatibly. This is a simple thought but one that's frequently disregarded when new buildings appear next to old and the setting is treated as a blank slate. A more fitting goal, certainly in a heritage context, is to try to establish a respectful dialogue between entities that results in a harmonious ensemble. Armed with this idea, I decided to approach the exterior design of my shed by basing it on the key design-elements of the house it would live alongside. This didn’t mean it couldn’t have novel or even exotic aspects like the transom and stained-glass windows, rather that these elements would be fitted into a fabric common to both buildings.

Every building has a design vocabulary that can be employed to create compatible structures

Siting the new building was an interesting process in its own right, even though the structure was small and had the simplest of footprints. I already knew pretty well where it was going to fit, which was close to where the existing shed sat in the northwest corner of the lot. The old shed, now demolished, had apparently been dragged there from a nearby locale and plunked down rather haphazardly. However, tweaking this rather random placement would allow the new shed to effectively mask a compost heap and other garden operations taking place in the north corner of the lot. So to begin with, the new placement was indicated by prior choice.

A key vantage point in the kitchen affected building placement

Yet there remained things to consider and small adjustments to be made: foremost the goal of optimizing the view of the shed through the kitchen windows. I wanted to ensure it would serve as a focal point that drew the eye and, once the building was electrified, offer a way of illuminating the garden at night. This was a matter of inching the building along its proposed axis and tilting it a few degrees more towards the rear fence. Also important was fitting it comfortably into the oak meadow in a manner consistent with how the land forms and trees run together. I began the process by pegging out a prospective placement with corner stakes, then outlining the rectangle with string, and finally adjusting its dimensions to meet bylaw requirements. I used step-ladders and two-by-fours to guage the impact of various building heights. Finally I dragged out my proposed windows and arranged them in possible walls, so I could visualize outcomes. Consistent with the main house, side windows would descend from horizontal trim bands, while end windows would float freely in siding space. My transom window layout also defined a minimum height and width for an end wall (so it could float in space, just) while setback requirements and maximum square footage under bylaws in turn defined the shed's length.

The new shed sits at an oblique angle to the lot's perimeter and to the main house

The end result of this siting exercise was unusual in a rectilinear suburban world, because the shed as envisaged would angle obliquely towards the fences defining the property’s perimeter (at more or less a forty-five degree angle). Our eyes are habituated to oblongs aligned at sharp right angles, so this choice risked looking a bit eccentric. But not, I rationalized, out of place or in obvious error, as the shed’s consistency with features of the old house would make it feel as though it really belonged. If anything, it would look as though the current rectangular lot had been foisted on a pre-existing layout on more expansive grounds, which had in fact happened when the current lot was subdivided from the original holding!

By employing the bungalow’s design vocabulary, other elements of the shed literally fell into place. The same elegant bevelled siding would define its exterior, while dimensional trim boards would frame its wall panels, corners, and the transitions between windows, doors and soffits. Scaling the trim boards involved choices, ultimately resolved with guidance from an expert carpenter, David Helland, and with close reference to a small addition Hubert Savage had made to the original house. In order to provide a walk-in closet off the main bedroom, he’d simply nestled a half-shed-form up against the rear wall of the main building. Interpreting Savage's leads on trim scaling and adopting the roof angle he’d given his half-gable further defined the shed’s exterior. 

A half-gable leaned against an end wall provided a template

There was never any doubt in my mind that my garden shed should sit as close to the ground as possible. That would make it functional for trucking things, like a lawnmower and bikes, in and out, rather than schlepping them up steps or over a sill to enter. In this location runoff wasn’t going to be a problem, so neither was setting the building close to the ground. My neighbor’s house, a no-step cottage on a pad placed where a grass tennis court had once been, showed just how functional this design could be (minus the sunken living room, which was below grade and filled up when a neighbour's above-ground pool burst!). Also, a building sitting at grade was consistent with the design ethos of early bungalows, reflected in my own home’s garden façade. The simplest, most durable (and most expensive) way to do this would be to pour a concrete pad on the ground and erect the structure on it. This technique, sometimes called slab-on-grade, was often utilized by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright to reinforce horizontality and make buildings appear to rise directly out of the earth.

Running the skirting board just above ground level makes the shed seem to rise from it

When it came time to construct the shed, I informed my accommodating builder (who fashioned most of the materials we would use) that I wanted it framed with two-by-fours consistent with the era of the main house, not today’s second-growth lumber-yard sticks. There being no such beast available off the shelf, David furnished a supply by ripping two-by-sixteen joists from a demolished Victoria warehouse into two-by-fours. This wood was so dense that it dulled table-saw blades rapidly, and in some instances had to be drilled before a nail could be pounded into it. But as framing material, it lent the emerging structure an incredibly chunky and solid feeling, still evident inside as the walls remain unfinished to this day (it is after all a shed). It also gave it bones of old growth fir sawn early in the twentieth century, while taking wood recycling to a higher level.

Recycled wood from a demolished warehouse gives the shed a very solid skeleton

Construction started with the erection of forms to contain the concrete slab foundation. Rebar that would strengthen the concrete was placed on a compacted gravel base that had been capped with a vapour barrier. The forms were raised around the edges, creating a lift to which the shed’s wooden sill plate would be bolted. David built the forms and placed the rebar over several days, and then one afternoon two cement finishers arrived on the job. Shortly afterwards a small cement truck with a mini-pumper began transferring a few yards of wet concrete to the tiny pad. This was a remarkable operation that avoided the huge mess of mixing and wheel-barrowing concrete in a developed back garden. It was fascinating watching these highly skilled finishers draw a firm shape out of the slurry that oozed from the pipe.

A cement finisher puts the finishing touches to the concrete slab the structure sits upon

It took some time for the concrete pad to set and strengthen, during which time it was filled with water to slow its curing and ultimately increase its strength. As it was autumn, this pond quickly accumulated fallen oak leaves that turned it the colour of long-steeped tea (leaving me to wonder if the floor would be stained that colour, which it was not). It was during this interval that many final design details were agreed between David and me, there being no design or construction drawings to work from apart from the picture of the proposed transom layout. One important detail was a design for the shed's door, to be placed on the wall most visible from the main house.

A door that copies the rear entry to the main house adds to feelings of compatibility

Here I opted to reinforce the visual connection to the main house by having David copy its rear door. Of course it had to be rescaled for the new building, but its features were reproduced. Twinning the back door further catalyzed the dialogue we were hoping to establish between the two buildings. It also seemed entirely fitting to reproduce it, as it appears to be an original design (perhaps devised by Savage himself) making it a novelty in an era when doors were typically factory-made. This door is unusual in having a slim interior compartment that serves to contain alternating glazed or screened panels – a clever idea that enables ventilation without having to keep the door open or add a screen door, which is highly desirable in a country place where the mice want to come inside. 

Casement windows enable ventilation on hotter days and animate the garden facade

Once the concrete was fully set, construction of the structure could begin in earnest. Placing the windows in real time involved some precise decisions about trim, most of which I’m very satisfied with to this day. However, if I could go back and do it over again, I’d probably modify the arch above the transom to make it follow the window’s elliptical shape more closely – but that’s a fine point and the choice in place is not discordant. 

Trim over the transom could have echoed its line more closely

During the framing process, I asked David to inch the stained glass windows southwards along the side wall, so the one facing the kitchen wouldn’t be hidden by the massive oak standing beside the shed. This allowed their pretty flower pattern to show fully at night when backlit by an interior light. Finally, after all the walls had been framed but before the siding went up, I found myself asking David to incorporate a small diamond-paned window into the rear wall, which until then had been left blank. This was an architectural whim, perhaps a bit much in a shed with windows on three sides already, but I happened to have just the tiny diamond-paned window for the location, and it added disproportionately to the building’s emerging personality.

The framing shows this window was added as an after-thought

The siding went up over a few days, an act that truly marked the transition from an assemblage of materials to built object. Finally the new door appeared and was hung with a drip ledge attached to it to cast moisture away from the building. Construction drew to a close with the installation of a shingle roof, wooden gutters and metal downspouts. For a time the new shed sat starkly in the garden, dressed severely in its white undercoating, with only a tiny hint of the prior lives of its windows still visible in their divergent colours. 

The door has just been hung, the building now awaits the painter's finishing touches

Shortly afterwards it was painted identically to the main house, and magically the little structure appeared to have always been where it now sits, a close relation of the original building. Today it serves as a beautiful ornament anchoring the garden composition while providing a focal point for daily views from the kitchen, which is certainly the most-used room in the house. It also serves storage functions capably, being high enough to allow tall people to move around inside without bumping their heads. This little building that’s done up like a much bigger one elicits no end of positive comment from viewers, and to me it brings real delight. Creating this small structure was an entirely satisfying personal process, in large part because of the skilled people who worked so enthusiastically on it and invested so much care in its construction. 

Sitting in the landscape like it's always been part of the scene

Later I took the opportunity created by the new building to meet the need for garden lighting by recycling a couple of outside lights originally on the main building. These were simple moulded glass shades from a prior era that I’d chosen to replace with a couple of the more elegant metal lanterns available today. These inexpensive shades fit perfectly under the corner eaves on the garden façade, providing welcome illumination of landscape contours at night. This adds real dimension to the evening from within the house, and it provided a further opportunity to reuse a piece of the site's past.

A glass shade recycled from the old house lends authenticity

To me, this shed represents a sincere attempt to build respectfully in a heritage context, something I'd adopted as a kind of mantra after becoming involved  in heritage advocacy around Victoria. At one level, the problem of preserving heritage buildings is simply that of keeping them in good repair, and failing that, of restoring them when they've deteriorated so that the interventions are imperceptible. I was having the experience of returning an older building to a state of good repair with the 1913 bungalow, but the prospect of adding a new building to the setting represented an opportunity to address another heritage dilemma. When adding to an historic context, the challenge is one of ensuring that new construction doesn't compete with what preceded it. This is more difficult today than may be thought, because western societies have given the modernist mainstream permission to erect new buildings next to old, or additions to them, that either confront or outright contradict them. Novelty and statement tend to trump respect and dialogue. There is the further challenge of working through a modern building culture whose unexamined assumptions can skew the outcome one is seeking.

A stone apron gives the entry way a bit of a rustic look

Failure to respect the design parameters of individual landmarks or ensembles of existing structures can quickly do a disservice to the past.  In the case of my shed, an honest functional structure could have been inserted without detracting much from the whole - but attempting to render this shed compatibly was an experience I personally wanted to have. I was acutely aware that the main building was one of a kind, so making an addition to the site fit in with it seemed appropriate. I'm personally very satisfied with the results. Once put into the same colour scheme as the main dwelling, my little eye-catcher immediately began conversing amiably with its surroundings. 

Mowing the lawn in spring's lush growth refreshes the landscape around the building

After more than a decade of glimpsing this shed in every season and in all weathers, while working around it or from inside the house, I am still enamoured by the way it models the changing light of the moment in its seasonal moods. Here are a few samples of that varying play of light on structure:

Especially lovely in a light carpet of snow illuminated by warm winter light
A break in November's blahs returns the sunlight, soaked up by lichen on a sodden roof

Serving as a focal point from the north side path, made lovelier with fresh snow

Western light reflects from diamond paned windows in May

Austere but encouraging late January sun, towards the end of day
October adds a carpet of fallen oak leaves to the greening landscape