Dana O’Brien has a broker license and a degree in real estate finance. But these days, she works with structures on a smaller scale.
She and husband Sean own A Place to Grow in San Luis Obispo. They create garden structures out of mostly salvaged materials that are rustic, whimsical and designed individually for each client. O’Brien calls them “functional art.”
Naturally, these structures make dandy greenhouses. But clients have found numerous other uses for them. People have set up art studios, craft rooms, meditation retreats, and play spaces. Some create rooms usually reserved for the main house, such as dining rooms and dens.
O’Brien is even pioneering an antidote to the “man cave” called the “woman cave,” which at her own home is bedecked with a chandelier, wispy curtains, and comfy seating where she can “sit and enjoy the peaceful energy in my sacred space, sip a glass of wine or read a book.”
American homeowners are increasingly using outdoor rooms for entertaining and recreation, O’Brien said, partly because the trend toward simplifying has caused many to downsize to smaller homes. Even a small backyard structure can become “an extension of their home,” she said.
Although the company makes larger structures, the smaller ones have a streamlined process. They typically don’t require permitting because “in the county of San Luis Obispo and other surrounding municipalities, outdoor structures/sheds of 120 square feet or less do not require a permit,” O’Brien said.
Each shed is custom-designed, and individual walls are built offsite. A shed can usually be erected in an hour or so. All it requires is a flat surface, which can be as simple as a pad of compacted, decomposed granite. Also, the structures are removable, so that if you move, your backyard retreat can come along with you.
We have profiled three homeowners who have turned backyard structures from A Place to Grow into functional spaces. Their ideas work well in any small space — inside the house or out.
Miller meditation room
Ann and Bill Miller originally planned to use their structure as a greenhouse. But its captivatingly woodsy smell and serene ambience quickly altered their plans. “We ended up putting some comfy chairs in there and we enjoy spending time quietly reading, meditating, napping, and sharing,” Ann Miller said.
During the design phase, they wandered the yard at A Place to Grow, sizing up salvaged materials. They spied a green wood door with a charming window. “I said, ‘I want that door! Can you build a greenhouse around that door?’ ” she recalled.
Using salvaged materials added to the sacred feeling of the space, Miller said. “There was a story behind each piece of material and where it came from. We were familiar with many of the places where they originated and that gave more meaning to the material,” she said.
When the room was finished, the Millers and the installation team placed a Buddha statue in the center and “blessed our sacred space,” Ann Miller said. “It was a wonderful way to bring closure to their completion of the greenhouse and for us to turn it into a living, peaceful, mindful, personal space that was so perfectly suited to us.”
Cindy Goodyear has fond memories of spending time in her backyard playhouse as a child. Her own grandchildren, who range in age from 10 months to 8 years, had their own playhouse to use when they came to visit the Goodyear home in Los Osos. But its molded plastic construction didn’t jibe with her nostalgic vision.
When she and husband Pat first laid eyes on the A Place to Grow structures, Cindy Goodyear was immediately won over by “the rustic-ness and the uniqueness” of them, she said.
Their eight-foot by eight-foot structure was built using portions of a seldom-used arbor in the backyard. After it went up last summer, their fouryear-old granddaughter Cadence saw it and said, “Oh grandma, it looks like a fairy house in the woods,” Cindy Goodyear recalled.
The house has inspired much fairy role-playing. But it is also where the neighborhood children play restaurant in the summer. The kids use it to read quietly, paint pictures, or hide out during a rainstorm to hear the sound of drops drumming on the roof.
Last Christmas, the Goodyears strung lights on the playhouse. “We deco rated it and then brought the girls over for a surprise, then they decorated the tree inside,” Goodyear said. “It was a magical night.”
Purcell sewing room
Lisa Duncan-Purcell is an avid sewer and quilter with a small Los Osos home. In need of more space for her hobby, she and husband Ray Purcell began looking at various outbuildings. “But they were all very ordinary,” she said.
They worried that a shed-type structure wouldn’t be weather-tight enough for her fabrics and equipment — not to mention her collection of antique linens and trims. “When I explained what I wanted Dana’s response was ‘We can do that,’ ” Duncan-Purcell recalled.
The structure is 10 by 12 feet with windows and skylights to make the most of natural light. Sunlight is great for avoiding eyestrain, but it can make the room warm and also fades fabrics. She asked for insulated walls, and created light-blocking shades for the sunniest windows. She also took care to place her fabrics in containers.
The shed has large French doors so that, when the weather is nice, Duncan-Purcell can open them to “feel like I am sitting outside,” she said.
The shed is a great, distraction-free place to work on an absorbing hobby, Duncan-Purcell said. But the benefits go beyond having a spot to stitch. “It is just such a unique space that I get a sense of wellbeing, just being there,” she said. “That usually doesn’t happen in a regular room.”