When James and Meg Wilson began working from home in March, they realized their house in Oakland would need a proper home office in a hurry. James Wilson, 36, works in finance, and Meg Wilson, 36, is a nurse practitioner engaged in telehealth.
“And we have a little guy at home,” James said, noting that work can be a challenge when their 1-year-old son, George, is running around. “For a few weeks, we were just all on top of each other, trying to juggle working from the dining room table and his bedroom.”
They thought about building an addition but knew that would be disruptive, expensive, and time-consuming. Browsing online, they found what seemed like a better option: an inhabitable shed from Studio Shed, made of prefabricated panels, which could be built, shipped, and assembled in their backyard in a matter of weeks.
After exploring the options on Studio Shed’s website and talking to one of the company’s designers, they settled on a 100-square-foot model with an angled, flat roof, a glass door, transom windows, and charcoal-colored, fiber-cement siding. Inside, the shed would be finished like a house, with insulation, drywall, electrical wiring, and laminate flooring — yet it was so small that it wouldn’t require a building permit.
The components were made in Louisville, Colo., shipped to Oakland and assembled in a few days on a pier foundation by workers from Blue Rock Home, one of Studio Shed’s general contractor partners, who also dug a trench to run electricity from the Wilsons’ house.
“From the time we hit ‘order’ to the time the shed was installed was a little over four weeks,” said James, who put the total cost at $31,000.
The Wilsons have been using their home-office shed since late April and expect to be working from home, at least part of the time, well into the future. “It’s given us a lot of flexibility. I can make calls from here late night or early in the morning,” he said, without worrying about waking up their toddler.
Of course, the Wilsons aren’t alone in trying to find work-life balance at a time when both work and life now happen at home for many. Millions of people are in the same space-constrained situation, where it’s often difficult to find a dedicated space to focus on work. As a remedy, a growing number of people lucky enough to have a backyard are finding their way to companies like Studio Shed, Kanga Room Systems, and Modern Shed, which build small stand-alone structures that promise a little separation.
Since the pandemic struck, Studio Shed’s sales have taken off, said Mike Koenig, the company’s president. “Things just got really fast after COVID-19.”
In March, he said, “We beat our forecast and easily doubled our sales over last year. In April, it was four times over last year, and May was even more than that.”
To keep up, he said, Studio Shed expanded its workforce from 28 to 38 people. The company’s units start at about $10,000 for a basic shell and increase in cost based on material choices, interior finishes, and installation.
“When we started, we wanted it to be like Legos for adults, where you wouldn’t need any special machinery to get it into your yard,” Koenig said. “We’ve had units that have been helicoptered into a remote island in Alaska, and we’ve done rooftops in Chicago and New York, where it goes up the freight elevator.”
Kanga Room Systems, in Waco, Texas, which manufactures both prefabricated, shed-size units and full-size cottages, has seen a similar uptick in interest in its smallest units, which it calls Kwik Rooms. The units start at about $5,000 for an 80-square-foot, assemble-it-yourself kit, and rise in price based on size, finishes, features, and installation.
“We just started getting a ton of inquiries starting in late April and May,” said Jason Ellis, an owner of the company and its chief designer.
Before the coronavirus, “we were selling five or six of those units a month,” he said, but since April, Kanga has sold 15 to 20 each month. “And it’s continuing to increase every week.”
Ryan Grey Smith, a founder of Modern Shed, in Seattle, said his company had experienced a roughly 25 percent increase in sales since the coronavirus swept the country. “We’ve always offered this very simple solution, because you don’t need to tear up an existing house, and you can just add it to your backyard,” he said. “It’s this little structure where you can feel like you’re working miles away, even though you’re only 30 feet away.”
Smith said he believes the pandemic is fueling a larger trend that was already well underway.
“With the gig economy, people can do a lot more in a lot of different places,” he said, which resulted in more people establishing home offices and studios in recent years. “This additional momentum in 2020 is another step in that direction. You’re hearing businesses saying, ‘How many people are going to permanently work from home?’ "
Holly and Harper Ewing, who live in Dallas, beat the rush when they ordered a 120-square-foot Kwik Room from Kanga last fall. It was installed in late 2019.
“It was more of a studio, but then, because of COVID, it became my home office,” said Holly, 36, an interior designer with architecture firm Perkins and Will. “Now I’m in here 40 to 60 hours a week, so it’s a room that I use all the time.”
Harper , 35, a photographer, has claimed the garage, she said, and turned it into “his man cave.”
After studying Kanga’s customization options, Holly selected charcoal-colored exterior siding with cedar details, wood-paneled interior walls and ceiling, a dark laminate floor, recessed lights, a fan, and an air-conditioner. The total cost was roughly $20,000, and she finished out the interior herself, using Tiptoe brackets and an IKEA tabletop to build an affordable desk.
Now she has trouble imagining a nicer place to work.
“With all the craziness going on in the world, I’m lucky that I have a place to retreat to and continue working,” she said, noting that the perks include getting to spend more time with her dog, Hugo, and garden on her lunch breaks. “I have a barefoot commute, a great view of the sunset out my windows, and, most important, a place for focused creativity without interruptions.”