Outer Sanctum: Why we love to step outside the box to think inside the shed

By Adrian Higgins
Sunday, September 19, 2010; W16

When I was 16, I decided I would pen a novel that would alter the course of Western literature. But where to write it?

I lived in a small house that was filled with love. In 1970s England, it was also filled with people: my mother, my father and three of my five siblings. The answer lay in a wee garden shed whose concrete floor was cluttered with horticultural implements and strewn newspapers. I cleared a space, set up a desk, and was soon tapping out the masterpiece on a manual typewriter. I wrote by a candle. The air was filled with the odor of a kerosene heater, which tried but never quite succeeded in chasing away the damp. The walls were whitewashed brick but dusty and full of cobwebs and earwigs.

For all its mess, the space did work a kind of magic.

I was within the comforting orbit of the family home but isolated from the distraction of other people's lives. I was able to write the book, even if it would forever lack one essential element: a publisher. The point, though, is that the shed, makeshift and musty, became an incubator for creativity.

Rooms have their own spirit, and in sensitive souls, that essence can be felt deeply. Garden sheds seem to have a special resonance, when you think about their role in the lives of various artists. Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote some of her best poems in a bare-bones shack in the woods. Dylan Thomas had his "wordsplashed hut" on a Welsh cliff, where he wrote "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." George Bernard Shaw, ever the eccentric, had a writing shed that could be swiveled to follow the English sun. Then there was Mark Twain, who found his muses in a vine-clad garden pavilion, his "cozy nest."

In Northwest Washington, the novelist and journalist Christopher Buckley works in a writing shed converted from a one-car garage that is just big enough, he figures, to accommodate a Model T Ford. His father, William F. Buckley Jr., "was fond of a Spanish word, querencia," he said. "It's a bullfighting term, the part of the ring where the bull feels safe. It also denotes a loved space. So, it's my querencia."

Perched in a corner of his garden, at the end of a lane, the shed was rundown when Buckley came to it in the early 1990s. He renovated it after giving up his home office to his growing family. He had the floor tiled, basic heating and air conditioning installed, and a porthole window added. Nowadays, he could return to the house, but the shed offers that vital psychological separation. It is quiet and breezy. Jake, the Labrador, lies across the threshold while the writer teases words from the keyboard. A desk fountain adds soothing white noise.

Of course, you don't have to be a writer to realize the value of creating a familiar, quiet place of one's own. Woodworkers, gardeners and other hobby tinkerers have known the value of the shed for generations.

That same cossetting quality turns the shed into a sanctuary for anyone willing to think outside the box but very much inside the shed. In his book "Men and Sheds," Gordon Thorburn shows us the transforming powers of the simple larch hut: a stargazer in his observatory, a bishop in his chapel, a fellow who displays 4,000 milk bottles. Or take Gareth Jones's "Shed Men," where the reader is introduced to Brian, whose mock Tudor shed is a loft for racing pigeons.

These men and their sheds are in Britain, where ordinary blokes lead lives defined by peculiar interests. Case in point: a shed pub called The Gardener's Arms, where three guys named Dink, Robbo and Prem gather amid the seed trays and potting benches to enjoy the pub experience. Bans on smoking in actual pubs have driven a number of smokers to their own bars at the bottom of the garden. From the outside, The Gardener's Arms is nothing more than a wooden box with too many windows and not enough paint. Inside, it's a place where Dink, Robbo and Prem quaff home brew, put flame to their Nicotiana tabacum and discuss the relative merits of carrot varieties.

It seems reasonable to suggest that sheds developed their dual role as utility space and hermitage at a time when houses were smaller, families were bigger, and the shed occupant found a refuge that was cheap and available. Why then, in an age of small families rattling around in big houses, are sheds still so alluring? In the United Kingdom, at least, aficionados have even entered the language, as "sheddies."

"It's going a bit mad," said Andrew Wilcox, a 38-year-old Web developer and, avocationally, the UK's Sheddie Supremo. He rattles off the defining attributes of his own shed in South Wales. "Chair, electricity, radio, dog."

Wilcox (nom de hut, Uncle Wilco), who is the brains behind the Web site We Heart Sheds, launched National Shed Week and began a competition, Shed of the Year, that in its second round went global.

'The passion for the shed'

The 2009 winner of the spinoff International Shed of the Year contest is an architect from Silver Spring, Chuck Witmer. His shed functions as a hangout, a workshop for himself and a painter's studio for his wife, Jessica, who works in The Washington Post's information technology department. The shed is also a shrine to the notion that scrap wood and other castoffs can look really sharp.

Witmer, who created a firm called SCALEhouse design, blends high design with a green sensibility, and it's not until you look closely at the shed that you realize how humble is its fabric.

The facade has a studied asymmetry about it, with a projecting red pillar on the left of double doors, each with a diagonal handle that meet at an apex. The pillar is clad in Hardie board, a synthetic, cement-infused material; the entrance handles are inch-and-a-half iron pipe; and the doors are formed from recycled floor joists.

Witmer incorporated a lamp on top of the pillar, encasing the bulb in plexiglass that he frosted with a sander. The sides and rear of the shed are clad in recycled materials including stained tongue-and-groove pine board and corrugated plastic. Montgomery County sheds with minimal building requirements are limited to a floor area of 200 square feet; Witmer's is 196. A small footprint for man, a giant leap for man caves?

The roof joists project over the entrance, and the roof itself is edged in a horizontal railing of nylon straps. Together, these details relieve the inherent boxiness of the shed and on sunny days create shadow patterning that embellishes its visual interest. He laid the concrete floor in early 2009, and the shed was constructed from May to June of last year.

The walls on the east side feature panels of translucent etched glass, which were made as shelves but which Witmer turned into windows by framing them in wood. Inside his shed, Witmer designs and builds furniture.

"It's a big shed, but it has been a lot more to us than that," he said. "I'm in here three nights a week."

Andrew Wilcox was on the panel that adjudged Witmer's shed the best in the world. "Some of the other judges looked for architectural merit, the quality of build; I look for the passion for the shed," he said. Witmer "put so much effort into it," Wilcox said.

The shed, which has a loft, rises to a towering 12 feet, though its flat roof drops eight inches in a bow to both drainage and attitude. Like a cocked hat, there's a jauntiness about it.

An antiquarian atmosphere

On the surface, the shed that Doug Dupin has built in Palisades is entirely different from Witmer's. Wooden boards, silvered by the weather, form a square beneath a pitched roof of corrugated steel. In winter, wisps of woodsmoke tumble from the chimney and catch the nostrils. It seems like a 19th-century shack you might find on the nearby C&O Canal towpath, instead of a 21st-century offering in the midst of a city lot. Within, Native American artifacts and a few fossils forge an even stronger link to the neighborhood named for its perch above the Potomac River. Here, Dupin, who spent the past few months working temporarily for the Census Bureau, has established the Palisades Museum of Prehistory.

Display cases and shelving house dozens of spear points and arrowheads, flint implements and pottery shards that he has collected literally beneath his feet and elsewhere in Palisades as touchstones to a human society and way of life along these shores that today is rarely considered. Some of the objects date back nearly 9,000 years, but with the help of archaeologists and reference books he has dated most from 1500 B.C. to 500 A.D.

"It's not the Smithsonian, but for the neighborhood it's a great record of what used to be here, a pretty active spot for Indians," he said. Many of the pieces he excavated are of a rock called rhyolite. This is native to the Catoctin Mountains, suggesting that the people who fashioned these weapons moved south to the Potomac annually for fishing or trading, Dupin said.

Dupin's shed, for all its antiquarian atmosphere, has strong links to Witmer's. Built by and for the sheddie owner, it is fabricated from simple or recycled materials with the environment and the purse in mind.

The siding is wood from rough-cut oak pallets normally used as shoring for construction. "I ran it through a table saw," he said, and the exterior seams are covered with three-sided strips of wood to form a classic board and batten construction. The roof, in part, is a green roof of plants, the chimney is fashioned from rebar, and the joists came from old lumber removed from his house when it was enlarged.

Dupin seems to have intuitive powers of scale. The shed has delicious exterior proportions, the width, the height, the pitch of the roof, the depth of the eaves and the placement and size of the windows all come together perfectly to reinforce the feeling of rustic beauty. Inside, that same serendipitous golden mean comes into play. You could spend an afternoon in here in relaxed conversation with friends, forget the passage of hours and consider it time well spent. Much of the comfort derives from the organic nature of the space. The interior walls are, simply, burlap sheets doped with paint, spackle and iron oxide. Track lighting brings a modern touch. On my first visit, with February's snow still thick outside, a small potbelly stove radiates warmth.

My eye is drawn to a bizarre wheeled contraption that dangles above a hatch. On the side of the hatch, I can see the top of a metal ladder that has a nautical character. The ladder is difficult to negotiate but leads to a cellar below the shed. After I get over the shock of landing in this unexpected space, I feel the cocooning embrace of the earth, in spite of the block walls, hanging photos of petroglyphs and old sofa against the wall. The stone floor is scarred with a narrow, meandering channel of water, gently flowing in spite of the freezing weather outside. The air is cold and moist. Talk about a man cave.

This is clearly the origin of Dupin's shed journey.

He started it around 2003, digging in a spot well away from his house but close to the street. His first plan was to construct a subterranean wine cellar. The work was hard and long, and amid the clay soil were huge rocks that needed prying out. He also began to unearth the Indian arrowheads -- actually "projectile points," he says, as they predate the bow and arrow in North America.

Then a hurricane blew through, collapsing the excavated site into a mud pit. "After a lot of digging, I finally shored up the wall with block, and at this point, I had found all these artifacts and decided to exhibit them" in a museum above the basement.

And the wine cellar plan? "There's some wine, but right now I've got a keg of beer. I'm segueing into making beer down there."

The lower and upper parts are linked not just with the artifacts but with water. Dupin pumps the groundwater into a plastic cistern, which is perched in the rafters like a barn owl. By gravity, it feeds a sink and an outdoor showerhead. It also moistens a wall of river pebbles, on which two small solar-driven fans are played. The wall drains into the basement, where the cycle begins again. The idea is to provide a vertical sheet of water for evaporative cooling in summer, but it doesn't really work. In early summer, he can retreat to the basement, where the space is comfortably cool. By late August, the heat and humidity have found this hideaway.

What does work, however, is the whole crazy evolution of this double-decker retreat. Comforting, vernacular, quirky and educational, it is a prince of shed-dom.

'It comes alive'

I have a friend who has fashioned his narrow back yard in Georgetown into a Zen garden of moss and ginger and ferns. At the bottom is a tiny wooden shed, and in its window a lamp by Isamu Noguchi glows faintly at night. Illuminated, the square paper shade draws the eye through the space and adds a romantic narrative to the garden.

But what if you were to turn your whole shed into a Noguchi lamp or a facsimile of it? That was the mission of Jennifer Watson and Barry Bless, a Richmond couple who have a weekend home on six acres on Glenn Mountain, 120 miles west of the city, where the Blue Ridge crosses Amherst County. Watson, a Web developer, is a former architectural photographer who has always been drawn to utilitarian structures and industrial design.

For separate exhibitions, she photographed Quonset huts and garden sheds, the latter in the trolley car suburb of Richmond named Woodland Heights. "I just love small buildings that aren't-- What's the word? -- they're not pretentious."

This fondness for stylish but honest architecture is best seen in the couple's house, designed as the edgy, mass-produced LV Home by architect Rocio Romero. Less than 1,200 square feet, the two-bedroom house appears much larger. Its entrance facade is of corrugated metal, but once you enter, you find yourself looking out the far wall of glass into the woods.

A grove of pines contains a terrace. In the evening, Watson and Bless sit here for a bit of adult time over a beer or glass of wine while looking back at the house to see Isadora and Odessa, their 9-year-old twin daughters, inside. It's like peering into an aquarium.

Then the dusk fades to darkness. At night in these hills, nature's nocturnal embrace is of an unbounded blackness, not the comforting blinkers of sleep's threshold, but an opaque blanket that renders the eyes useless and the mind too active. Watson can hear the cast of animals changing, to a night-shift crew of insects and mammals. Often, the foxes sing like banshees.

One of the darkest corners of the property is at the far edge of the house, away from its wash of light. Here, the couple needed a shed to store tools and to visually anchor a small herb and flower garden. Watson wanted a shed that would have the idiosyncratic charm of Woodland Heights and yet would echo the contemporary feel of the house. They knew it would be an eight-foot cube and that it would somehow glow.

"We wanted it to have light, to be translucent, so it would mimic the house in a way," she said.

They were inspired by luminescent concrete they saw at an exhibition at the National Building Museum but knew they couldn't afford it. Instead, they found corrugated polycarbonate panels used for greenhouses.

Getting the interior illumination right required trial and error. A low-voltage landscape spotlight created the desired level and suffusion of light. Bless, a musician and stay-at-home dad, framed the structure with posts at the corners, to hide them, and then added thin vertical and horizontal stringers that would give the finished shed the look of a paper lamp.

By day, it seems unusual but not special. It's certainly functional, and houses tools and some garden fertilizer. Bless used pond liner to create a roof garden of sedums.

Even with the green roof, by day, "it's almost unnoticeable," Watson said. At night, "it comes alive."

The shed exudes precisely the desired Zen-like luminosity, pushing aside the creepy blackness at the edge of the forest.

In the gloaming, the shed's light has a pink tinge that turns a soft yellow as the natural light fades. An hour later, in the pitch black, it radiates a brilliant white light.

"It's just so peaceful," Watson said. "It's like a Noguchi lamp that I knew I couldn't afford."

For fun, family members go inside and perform a light show, and their silhouettes dance like shadow puppets.

A place for my gear

My own shed in Alexandria is pretty enough, a white clapboard hut on the edge of the garden, but it lacks the spirit of these other places. When I came to it years ago, a friend immediately saw its potential. "You need an old easy chair," he said, "where you can sit and smoke cigars." But an easy chair would leave little room for my tools, and cigars didn't seem appropriate in the vicinity of gasoline cans. There is a little bench where I pot up seedlings and a grinder where I sharpen my tools, but it is a place for my gear, not me.

I suppose it is like a new church that has yet to be consecrated, awaiting the descent of the spirit. Other sheds are full of that intangible presence that makes them special. Love your shed, really love your shed, and it will repay you with an aura that seems to foster joy and invention. Maybe it's time for me to find somewhere else to store the rototiller, the mower and the spreader, and to acknowledge what I knew all those years ago. At heart, I'm a sheddie.

Adrian Higgins is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at higginsa@washpost.com.

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