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Uptick in Backyard Dwellings Gets Pandemic Push

Modern sheds, prefab 'pods' become home offices, living spaces for aging parents

spinner image Accessory dwelling units are growing in popularity.
Accessory dwelling units are growing in popularity.
Courtesy of Scott Bremner

When Kevin Yost began working from home last spring due to the pandemic, he set himself up at his San Francisco area home's dining room table. But with sensitive material on his laptop, he needed more privacy from his wife, who often worked from home, and two teenage children.

So Yost, 54, co-opted a corner of the living room. “I created a cardboard fortress with sheets for walls,” he says. “If I were 10 years old, all I'd need is beef jerky and chocolate milk and I'd be the happiest kid.”

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But that was no way to conduct business for a professional video editor, so Yost began searching for a solution. He'd find the answer in his own backyard.

Coronavirus spurs interest

spinner image Pandemic Shed
Kevin Yost's backyard shed will provide a more private workspace.
Courtesy of Kevin Yost

In the past few years, there's been a surge of homeowners building or renovating structures such as accessory dwelling units (or ADUs), sheds, garages, studios and other structures on their properties, says Kol Peterson an ADU expert. But the coronavirus has put that demand into overdrive.

People needing private spaces to work from home, like Yost, or those seeking to move older family members close by are taking a second look at their yards as places to find refuge or create a dwelling.

Tim Vack, general manager of Seattle-based Modern Shed, which makes small, stylish prefabricated standalone structures, reports that based on the number of phone calls, catalogues requested and web traffic, his company has seen “four times the interest” compared to the previous year.

Mike Koenig, president and cofounder of Studio Shed in Lewisville, Colorado, has seen similar numbers for his company, which makes sheds and ADUs. “We've seen our traffic for website visitors age 65 and older triple over the last year,” he says. “That's not normal.”

Yost and his wife wanted a space where their high schoolers learning remotely could do schoolwork, play video games and listen to music, or where Yost could work and have the privacy he needs.

The couple considered putting an addition on their circa-1950s 1,450-square-foot home about 30 minutes from San Francisco, but the costs were prohibitive. They would need a space with electricity, but no foundation, plumbing or bathroom was necessary. In early May they decided on a shed and called Modern Shed.

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Moving family closer to home

But others are looking for something more than just a place to get away for the day. If you're seeking a structure that includes an independent kitchen with a fire wall separating it from the house, it's classified as an ADU, Peterson says. These may be attached or part of a residential home or detached, and every jurisdiction has different rules and regulations on what's permitted — from square footage to number of bedrooms or the slope of the stairs.

ADUs are growing in popularity, particularly in the West, as home prices ratchet skyward amid a lack of housing in some areas. California is the biggest market, Peterson says. Los Angeles went from issuing 15 ADU permits in 2013 to 6,747 in 2019, for example. But other states are following on the trend; Portland, Oregon, now has about 3,000 ADUs and Seattle and other cities and states have adopted or updated ADU codes, Peterson says.

Kerri Folmer, 52, decided to build an ADU on her Bay Area property with the idea that her mother, Toni Wiggs, 76, could move in. Wiggs, who has diabetes, had been living independently at a senior living facility but fell several times and wasn't happy with her living experience, Folmer says.

Folmer, a managing director at Deloitte Consulting and mother of two college-age children (also home and learning remotely), was already in the process of purchasing an ADU from Studio Shed when COVID-19 hit.

It “accelerated everything,” she says. “The risk was high in our community, and I think a worker in [mom's] facility tested positive. They were going on lockdown. She would be isolated. And [my siblings and I] were paying a lot of money for the facility. It all felt extreme and high risk at the time.”

In March, Folmer moved her mother into her home's dining room. It wasn't ideal, but it would only be temporary.

Even though Folmer had already signed a contract for the prefabricated home, it took 90 days instead of the usual 30 for permitting due to delays caused by the pandemic. Then, in late summer, during installation, “the plumber was evacuated because of the [ongoing] fires. It has been quite a feat.”

But Folmer says her mother is looking forward to moving into the 400-square-foot studio (including a bathroom, bedroom and kitchen) that is just about finished in Folmer's side garden. She'll have the privacy she needs for her own dignified life. And, if she gets ill or if someone in Folmer's home gets ill, it's easier to isolate.

"She'll be more protected,” Folmer says. “We're a close family and this feels safer.”

More than a home office

Time Line for Sheds Versus ADUs:

If you have an immediate need for space, keep in mind that an ADU needs permits; that part of your journey may take six months to a year plus. A shed usually does not need a building permit — but check local zoning ordinances since you might need a permit if the shed is over a certain number of square feet. Once fabricated, a prefab shed can be shipped out in four weeks and may take only two to three days to build on site.

For Yost, the time line for installing the backyard shed was a bit less complicated. He opted for a 10-by-12-foot structure, which is the largest shed he could get without needing to pull a permit. Transom windows, a sliding glass door and a side window bring in plenty of light.

Modern Shed fabricated the panels, made of standard building materials, and delivered them to Yost's house on a trailer where they were installed on site. It took two and a half days. Although Modern Shed would have taken care of flooring, drywall, insulation and electrical, Yost decided to hire his own contractors for those items.

“I enjoyed looking out the back window and watching it grow in its various stages,” Yost says. He'll have to wait on using it as his home office, though. “At first, it's the remote college site for my daughter.”

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