Celebrating Home: Backyard Oases

Once-humble outdoor structures emerge as high-design masterpieces.

—by Andrea Bennett

Plús Hús ADU

American families reached new levels of togetherness in the past year. With their homes suddenly doubling as everything from workplace to classroom, they learned how to think creatively about the space they had. Alcoves, attics, and attached garages assumed imaginative new identities. But sometimes even those fell short.

In 2020 the once-humble garden shed became a blank slate for backyard oases. Homeowners built luxe offices, idyllic reading nooks, and dream dorm rooms as attractive outside as they are inside. These autonomous structures are far from the simple “sheds” you might find at a local big box store. (In fact, both designers
and owners eschew the term.) The new structures are sculptural works of art that in some cases redefine the look of the entire home. Made of prefabricated modular components, they can be highly customized both inside and out—adding not just a bit of efficiently planned extra space but a creative outlet, too.


“We have inquiries for yoga and photography studios, gyms, and office cabins,” says Zoë Little, founder of U.K.- based Koto Design, which constructs sculptural modular housing in Europe, the U.S., and Canada. “One client wanted it for her baby grand piano. It looked stunning.”

The global pandemic didn’t give rise to the ADU (accessory dwelling unit) industry, according to Jeremy Nova, co-founder of the Boulder, Colorado–based company Studio Shed, but it accelerated the trend. An Olympic mountain-bike racer and passionate fan of modern architecture, Nova began building units to store his bikes more than 10 years ago, selling them to a handful of friends who liked the look. Now his company sells its units, which range from a 64-square-foot studio to a 1,000-square-foot turnkey dwelling, in all 50 states. “We built one well-appointed unit, with all glass on the front, for a guy who just wanted it for his cats,” Ellis says, “and another for someone who’s using it as a studio for teaching YouTube banjo lessons.”

“We want to disrupt how we see the conventional work office or shed.”—Erla Ingjaldsdóttir, co-founder of Plús Hús

Jason Ellis, owner and chief designer of Waco, Texas– based Kanga Room Systems, says the company has sold and installed more of its Modern Kwik Rooms (a shell
kit available to DIYers), cottages, and urban dwellings in the past six months than it has in the past three years. “The pandemic made people think about installing home offices to create separations between home and family life, but as it went on longer and longer, people didn’t go on vacation, and they started thinking their space was feeling smaller.” That has given rise to meditation rooms, home gyms, and art studios. But the real rise, Ellis says, has been in building separate suites for older relatives to avoid assisted-living facilities. “We’ve sold more mother- in-law house situations than ever before,” he says.

The Portland Series from Studio Shed

Changing legislation and more progressive policies toward building ADUs have also helped the boom. For instance, California’s Accessory Dwelling Unit Law took effect on January 1, 2020, allowing homeowners to add a structure to their property even if their homeowner association’s governing documents do not allow it. Santa Monica, California–based Plús Hús, which builds their 320-square-foot customizable ADUs in Los Angeles, says that their focus is California, though they get a lot of interest from homeowners in other states. Their no- waste “mnmMOD” panels, which use a blend of recycled steel and EPS insulation, are wood-free and resistant
to mold and termites. They arrive by flat pack and are assembled by a team, eliminating manufacturing and construction waste.

Inside, this Plús Hús structure feels light and spacious

“We have inquiries for yoga and photography studios, gyms, and office cabins.”—Zoë Little, founder of U.K.-based Koto Design

Founders Erla Ingjaldsdóttir and Tryggvi Thorsteinsson say the structures are especially appealing to California residents who have lived through the state’s wildfires because mnmMOD panels do not support fire and are completely recyclable. The company, which started in 1999 as an architectural firm and began manufacturing its panel system in 2007, promotes ADUs as a way to minimize waste. “We saw the problems in the world, and we started coming up with these solutions,” Ingjaldsdóttir explains. “We need to be responsible for what we do.”

Clerestory windows ensure plenty of light

Nearly all ADU companies have options for full AC, heating, and plumbing. For instance, Studio Shed builds a 120-square-foot shed that doesn’t require a permit to build and can be converted to a wellness studio, a sauna, or a full casita. (You can experiment with design configurations on the company’s website.) Koto’s designs range from sculptural home offices to cantilevered mini beach houses. The company’s off- and on-grid, carbon- neutral homes and cabins are often clad in black charred timber, a modern application derived from ancient Japanese art, and are designed to blend seamlessly into the environment.

by: Kanga Room Systems

One key question, according to Kanga Room Systems’ Ellis, is how your local jurisdiction governs permitting. “Most cities will have a square-footage maximum,” he explains. “As long as you don’t exceed that, you can call it a detached storage shed and finish it out with no plumbing and without going through permitting. It can be the difference between six weeks and a year for a home office.” And of course, there are different levels of interior and exterior customization. Ellis customized one Kanga Room Systems structure to accommodate an Austin software designer and amateur astronomer’s massive telescope. “It had a mechanized trap and a retractable roof that moved with the push of a button,” he says. “We were able to build him a fully functional backyard observatory.”

Koto Work Space Cabin

An ADU doesn’t need to mirror the design of your house, says Ingjaldsdóttir. Rather, homeowners should see it as an opportunity to explore high design. “We want to disrupt how we see the conventional work office or shed,” he explains. “We have designed what we hope are truly inspiring spaces that enhance the landscape while giving people privacy with direct access to nature.”

Find your next home to build your backyard oasis today.

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