I Built My Serene Backyard Office From an A-Frame Kit I Bought Online
Everything Salad for President’s Julia Sherman wishes she’d known beforehand.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 6:08 AM
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When we found out we would be having a second child, my first thought was: There goes my office. With only one extra space in the house where I could shut the door and attempt to focus, my productive workdays felt numbered. I have always preferred to work from home, but with the pandemic, my husband moved his office into our home, and our toddler was not in day care. With a baby on the way, the situation was going in the wrong direction.
The house had maxed out the buildable square footage permitted by the city for the main structure, so we had to be creative with additional office space. The loophole would be a stand-alone prefab structure or kit that skated just under the 120-square-foot threshold so as not to trigger the need for permits (less than 120 square feet in our city and you can call it a garden shed, so check the specific requirements in your area before undertaking a project like this).
The other major must for us was that the office be insulated. Our property is cold in the winter and blazing hot in the height of summer, so without insulation it would be unusable for a good portion of the year. Many of the cheaper options had only a single-layer wall and would be difficult to insulate.
Beyond practical considerations, the most difficult criteria to fulfill was the design. Our house has sleek lines, white stucco with black trim, and a lot of glass. To plop a Hansel and Gretel–like log cabin at the top of our hill, the focal point of every window in the house, would be anomalous, especially after all the effort we had taken to achieve a historically accurate renovation on the main structure. We wanted something sleek and simple, something that would complement the house, not compete with it. We also didn’t want to engage a contractor or an architect or spend upwards of $25,000.
Surprisingly I had a really tough time finding structures that were sold explicitly for use as office space. Most were on the pricier side because they were full-fledged accessory dwelling units (ADUs), with plumbing and kitchens included. The closest I came to what I was looking for was the Studio Shed Portland series. The main benefit of that model was that for an extra $2,640, the company offered the option of adding on insulation and electrical wiring, two elements that are not necessarily included in the other units and are beyond the skill set of most laymen.
Focusing first on aesthetics, I found two A-frame structures that I loved: One was from BHC, but the cost of having it shipped from Canada was prohibitive. The other was from Den Outdoors, a startup based in New York’s Catskills that was just sending out its first shipment of A-frame kits (the company ships worldwide, but shipping rates will vary). We had to act fast if we were going to make the deadline for the California-bound units. But unlike prefab structures, a fully constructed house would not appear at our doorstep. Instead all of the pieces to build the studio would be packed on pallets and delivered like a huge Lego kit—or many pieces of IKEA furniture.
Every piece of lumber was cut to spec, all the hardware was included, and we would have to build the house ourselves, using the oversize paper instruction manual as our guide. The windows would come separately, a special order from Pella. In total, the kit would run us $27,000, not including the add-ons or labor. This was more than we expected to spend, but after comparing the other options out there (surprisingly few!), we were sold.
With the Den ordered, we had to hatch a plan for how we would get this done. Anyone who has undertaken any kind of building project knows that success lies in your scheduling and timing. The Den website offers “the promise that using simple tools, you can have your very own cabin built within a long weekend.” While this may be possible, it puts a lot of confidence in the builder, does not account for unforeseen hiccups, and was not our experience. By our estimation, you should set aside four full days of work, with three people on the job (who know a thing or two about building). This schedule does not include the time spent to get the materials from delivery location to the building site, and it does not account for preparing any foundation—which will most likely add additional time. Here are a few things to consider from both a timing and budgetary perspective, likely applicable to any kit you purchase.
A massive shipment of building materials was dropped in our driveway, and it was no small project to get it all to the building site. Once we saw what we were working with, we hired two men for one long day to haul all the materials through the house and up the hillside ($600). Again, our building site was particularly squirrelly to access, but unless you plan to build right off the side of the road, you will need to take this into account.
Without side access to the back of the house, everything had to go through our garage and a standard doorframe. Make sure all the pieces will fit through doorways and can be moved safely. We only realized after placing the order that the main window was 450 pounds and would have to be carried down multiple flights of stairs and across steep switchbacks to get to its final destination. Because the window was delivered after the main shipment of building materials, we had to hire those same movers at an additional cost ($250), and I definitely grew a few new gray hairs as I watched them wrestle with it.
Factor the preparation of the ground and laying of foundation into your budget. For any of these structures, you will need flat, level ground. We contracted a landscaper to excavate our hilly ground (that cost us about $800). Our Den didn’t need a solid concrete slab, but we did need to support the structure along two sides, at eight locations where the frame touches the ground. We dug holes at each of the locations, laid a few inches of gravel, stamped it down, and then placed precast concrete foundation blocks. This worked well for all but two of the footings that were further downhill. For these my husband dug deep holes and placed cardboard tubes that were filled with concrete to secure the building.
While the Den A-Frame is built to accommodate insulation, those materials are not included with the kit (nor are there specs or recommendations for what material to use). We had to consult with Mike, the founder of Den, who was very helpful with recommendations but didn’t know exactly what was available or necessary in our part of the country. We had some difficulty sourcing the material we initially spec’d without a contractor’s license but eventually found what we needed at Home Depot: a mix of Polyiso foam sheets and fiberglass rolls (the pink stuff). Like all building projects, the chips need to fall into place in a specific order. We couldn’t finish the project until we insulated and closed up the walls, and we couldn’t wait for a special delivery of insulation, so this set us back a few days.
Given that this was going to be my office, we needed to wire the space for electrical (something that would technically trigger the need for city permits, which is maybe why these units are being sold as camping structures). This was beyond the purview of my very handy husband, so again we incurred an additional cost to engage an electrician, run cable up to the site, wire the space, and add switches and fixtures. I sourced my lighting from Lightology. I hung two chic pendant lamps, the Terho small pendant light from Mater Design, from the ceiling, and placed a medium Gregg polyethylene floor lamp from Foscarini on the floor by the desk for late-night work sessions.
Finishing the Floor
The interior walls and floor are unfinished plywood. This feels really nice on the walls, but the floor required some treatment to be sealed and functional. While we were at it, we decided to color it with a water-based stain. I prepped the floor with 1 quart of Minwax wood conditioner ($19) and stained it using a quart of Minwax water-based semitransparent wood stain ($8–$13), taping off the edges of the walls and window trim with 3-inch-thick painter’s tape. Both products were applied with a rag, rubbing in the direction of the wood grain to make sure it went on evenly with no streaks left behind. This was an extra step that took me half a day (and a lot of elbow grease); you could easily just seal the floor with a quart of Minwax oil-modified polyurethane ($9) and call it a day ($12).
Heating and Cooling
The last add-on might be an in-wall heating and cooling unit, but we are holding out. It will cost around $1,000 to $2,000 for a small mini-split air conditioner/heater combo (not including installation). I am doing my best to make it work with just a fan in the heat and a lap blanket in the winter. Luckily it seems the insulation is doing its job—even on a 90-degree day I have been able to work semi-comfortably (the winter remains to be seen, but my plan is to start with a small space heater, since the shed is tiny).
I wanted the studio to be minimal and cozy. I chose the Eave Desk and Cleo Chair from Dims, and paired it with its Barbican storage caddy. I covered most of that beautiful newly stained floor with a vintage rug from Revival, and the space was done.
All in all, my husband spent four full days working on this, half of them with the help of a friend and the other half with the help of a single handyman. Our all-in cost was approximately $33,000, a whole lot more than we intended to drop on this DIY project, but one that I can justify by equating the onetime investment to what I would spend on an office space for the next three to five years (not to mention the ever-elusive notion of increased property value).
The final result is nothing less than stunning. The design is sleek, nestled into the back hillside in a way that is both formidable but also understated. The amount of interior space feels just right for my purposes (mostly writing at a desk), and every day when I go to work, it feels like I am on a retreat. The only challenge is not having plumbing (it’s a hike down the hill back to the house where the bathroom lives, and as a pregnant woman, this is no small detail). Next project, compost toilet?