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‘Clearly when times are tough, you need that creative outlet.’

COVID-induced cabin fever fuels a reimagining of what home and work life should be.

Artist Julia Powell paints while sitting on the floor of the studio she added above the garage of her Cambridge home during the COVID lockdowns.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When stay-at-home orders were issued in March 2020, artist Julia Powell found herself feeling trapped inside her Cambridge home. At the time, her daughter was a few months old, and venturing out into the world wasn’t a risk she was willing to take. She tried to continue operating business as usual — creating dreamy landscapes from her dining room turned studio — but painting and parenting in the same space proved tough.

At the same time, people across the country were also taking a good, hard look at their own four walls. While the economy shrank by 3.5 percent, spending on home improvements increased by 3 percent in 2020, according to a study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. For Powell, this meant a huge influx of customers.


People “wanted to have nice art for their homes,” she said. “All of a sudden I had an additional windfall that I did not anticipate.”

Her customers’ cabin fever helped Powell cure hers: She decided it was the perfect time to build a studio and gallery space above her garage. On one hand, it’d give her a proper space to work from, and on the other, it could serve as a gallery where people could eventually come to admire her newest pieces.

The only problem? Her garage was a decaying outbuilding from the 1970s, complete with a broken deck and leaky roof. So Powell hired architect Lynn Osborn to help renovate the building and top it off with the art studio of her dreams.

Powell’s vision — a light-filled room with a cathedral ceiling, lots of windows, and plenty of space for painting and relaxing — came together in a matter of months. A highlight is its custom storage system for drying paintings.


Racks of paintings, some finished and some in progress, dry in a custom rack. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“From the beginning, I knew I wanted a state-of-the art storage system, because I constantly have wet paintings, and [before] they were always sort of haphazardly lying around my old studio,” Powell said, explaining that some pieces took two to three weeks to dry. It wasn’t an ideal layout for a curious baby or dog to stumble into. “Now the shelves — they’re just gorgeous.”

She also ensured the space had a kitchenette: first, so she could wash her paintbrushes easily, and second, to serve as an area to enjoy wine and cheese. To top it all off, Powell selected sculptural overhead light fixtures that drench the space in warm light.

“In New England, in January, February, and March, it’s so dark and can be depressing and cold,” Powell added. “And with these, you come into this space and the light is incredible, even when the sun sets at 4:30 p.m.”

The studio is filled with light, which can be a mood lifter on dreary New England days. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Taking things out back

The turbulence of 2020 helped others realize their renovation dreams, too. For architect Sara Ross and her family, the pandemic offered an opportunity to build spaces dedicated to their hobbies. “We’ve always had a garden, and my husband has always wanted to build a greenhouse,” Ross explained, so they started watching DIY videos online. In April 2020, Ross’s husband set out to build a greenhouse within the footprint of their existing garden.

Constructed of wood and corrugated plastic, the greenhouse in their Hingham backyard is now a thriving home to lettuce, beets, zucchini, pickling cucumbers, Brussels sprouts, snow peas, eggplant, and more. Ross shares many of the veggies with her neighbors, and when it’s nice out, her daughter sets up a beach chair in the greenhouse, opens her laptop, and works in the warmth.


Plantings prosper in the greenhouse they built during the COVID shutdown.Joshua Ross Photography

Next to the garden, the Ross family also built a batting cage for their son, using 2-by-4s and netting. A pitching machine at one end helps him practice hitting and catching.

“When the city of Boston shut down, I was working 100 percent remote,” Ross said. “What that opportunity gave me was to toss baseballs to him and help him practice in the backyard. And I would have never really gotten that opportunity between my work schedule and his school schedule to actually spend that quality time with him.”

The Rosses created a batting cage in their backyard so their son could practice hitting and catching.Joshua Ross Photography

The backyard projects offered more than just outdoor fun, according to Ross.

“Clearly when times are tough, you need that creative outlet,” she said. “I think for the whole family, we were able to get our mind off things and focus on something else — something that brings joy.”

Springing for an ‘ADU’

On the North Shore, homeowner Vanessa Ford, like Powell, had overutilized her dining room. Her husband worked from the large table there while she set up shop in the basement. It wasn’t long before they realized their work-from-home setup was not, in fact, working.

Ford decided to invest in an accessory dwelling unit, or an ADU, to serve as her home office. “When we moved into our house, we knew the backyard would have space to expand, but we didn’t pursue it until the pandemic hit.” The backyard office, purchased from a company called Studio Shed, measures 10 by 14 feet. It’s air-conditioned and makes room for a large desk and a sitting area.


“We knew we could either move and buy a bigger house or expand what we already had,” Ford explained. “We have our dining room and the entry to our house back! I have a nice commute to the backyard and a much better setup for my home office than what I had before.”

The studio shed is air-conditioned and offers enough room to fit a large desk comfortably.Vanessa Ford

Back in Powell’s studio, the commissions continue to roll in. Creating her dream studio had been percolating in her mind ever since she became a painter full time, much like how Ross’s husband had been daydreaming of a greenhouse. COVID, for all its suffering, kickstarted some cabin fever-fueled creativity.

“To be a part of [the projects] with my family as a creative outlet, it’s really something I’ll always remember as we get out of this pandemic,” Ross said.

Madeline Bilis can be reached at madelinembilis@gmail.com. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Twitter @GlobeHomes and Boston.com on Facebook.