How To Design a Shed for Your Old House

For an outbuilding that complements your old house, start with traditional styles and materials.

Shingle siding lends this octagon-shaped garden shed an Arts & Crafts aesthetic. (Photo: William Wright)

Sheds have evolved far beyond a place to store tools, pots, and bags of fertilizer. Today, garden outbuildings serve a multitude of purposes, ranging from man caves and home offices to dining pavilions and even aviaries. Sheds and outbuildings can be extremely useful, extending your living and storage space, generally at a cost much less than a home addition.

A poorly designed shed is an eyesore in the garden, but one that’s well-designed and -proportioned can be a valued focal point, adding grace and charm to the landscape.

Ideally, an outbuilding should be consistent with your home’s architecture, giving a sense of coherence and harmony to the overall look of your property. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you have to go to huge expense to build a custom structure. Today, many prefabricated shed retailers offer customized options, allowing you to coordinate your outbuilding to your home by matching the roof and siding colors. These sheds also come in different styles, giving you a choice of roofline, window and door design, and other features. Then there are the “extras,” such as shutters, skylights, window boxes, porches, vents, ramps, and electricity—even plumbing, heating, and cooling.

Size Matters

A large barn-style outbuilding (like this one from Country Carpenters) can become a guest cottage or woodshop.

For most people, a basic 8′ x 10′ shed is large enough for storing bicycles, tools, or garden equipment, or even as a home office or library retreat. However, if you intend to use the shed for a hobby or other activity, it may need to be larger. For example, the minimum recommended size for a woodshop is 12′ x 20′ so there’s room to maneuver with a full sheet of plywood. Check with a shed retailer for advice on the optimal size for the building’s purpose. Companies that customize prefabricated structures generally offer lengths and widths in 2′ increments (such as 4′ x 6′ or 12′ x 20′), giving you ample choice for the dimensions.

Building a shed from scratch? Consider choosing dimensions that relate to the Fibonacci number sequence. These pleasing ratios, discovered in the 13th century by the Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, closely follow a 1:1.61 ratio. Known as the Golden Ratio, it often appears in nature and was used regularly in classical architecture. When designing your own outbuilding, you can keep it well-proportioned by making the length and width any two successive Fibonacci numbers, such as 3′ x 5′, 5′ x 8′, 8′ x 13′, or 13′ x 21′.

Tucked into a corner of the yard and surrounded by plants, this simple shed blends into its surroundings. (Photo: Catriona Tudor Erler)

Location, Location, Location

With a little ingenuity, you can find space for a shed even in a tiny city garden. Build one into a corner of the fence or along the back garden wall. A narrow lean-to addition on the side of the house is another space-saving way to gain storage. Here are a few things to consider when siting your shed:

  • How much space is available? You’ll want to leave enough space for a person to get behind and to either side of the structure. If you have plenty of space in your yard, do you want the building near the house so it’s easy and quick to get to, or is the journey there part of the process of escape?
  • Will this be a gracious structure that’s a focal point for your overall garden design, or a workhorse of a building that’s best tucked away out of sight?
  • Do you want your building to be primarily in the sun or shade?
  • Is the ground in your desired location level? Does it have good drainage? If not, plan on some site-prep work prior to construction.
  • Are there any overhanging trees nearby that could pose potential obstructions or problems?
  • Are there any other buildings on the property? Consider their relation to (and distance from) the new shed.
  • Are there any setback regulations? Make sure to thoroughly research zoning requirements and secure any necessary permits before you begin.

Even a tiny shed has enough space to stash tools—and adds whimsy to a small garden. (Photo: William Wright)

Because sheds are essentially miniature versions of houses or barns, they tend to have a dollhouse look that is particularly charming and even whimsical. If the shed is near your house, echo the house’s architectural style. If you site it some distance from your house, perhaps you’ll want to celebrate the whimsy of the miniature scale, or even create a fantasy outbuilding. A garden, and the structures within it, are your artist’s palette, giving you an opportunity to express yourself.

Online Exclusive: Check out our guide to traditional shed kits.

Tags: Catriona Tudor Erler OHJ August 2014 Old-House Journal sheds

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