Learning to Love the Humble Shed

A young pig and an old barn. Photo of Christopher Hogwood by Howard Mansfield. (For more about Chris see The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery.

Consider the average, newer American house. It takes up 2400 square feet – twice that of 50 years ago – and it is stuffed with papers, toys, computers, shiny stainless steel appliances, and on and on. The house is so full of things and noise that people can scarcely find room to breathe. Two solutions are usually offered: throw out stuff (good advice any time) or expand your empire. But I’d like to offer a third way. In your house there may be a shed struggling to get out. I’m not talking about finding more storage, but rather learning to appreciate these ordinary buildings.

Sheds are humble buildings. They have the flexibility and simplicity that our houses lack. Sheds contain small things – wood and tools – and big: summers, winters, solitude, festivity. The smallest sheds can be liberating: a bob house for fishing on a frozen lake, a summer cabin. Sheds can shelter dreams.

We don’t recognize the range of buildings around us that are sheds. Besides woodsheds and barns, specialized sheds like A-frames and saunas, there are covered bridges – which are sheds across the water — and old New England meetinghouses. Take a barn, put windows and pews in it and you’ve got a meetinghouse. It’s a plain room; the worship mattered, not the church. It’s the same with early houses, like the Georgian or Federal styles. They are (handsome) sheds that have housed generations. Old houses, often with shed-like additions called ells, can ride out the centuries, accommodating large families in one era, and in another being split up into apartments, and still later being reunited and restored.

The history of a small set of buildings in a town near me is a good example of this kind of flexibility. They were built as a wooden general store (a shed with a storefront), a train depot, and a storage shed. When that general store grew into a family department store, the storage shed was converted into a furniture showroom. These sheds were a ragtag, ordinary assembly. In time, the railroad left, the family store closed, and the buildings were vacant or home to a few businesses that came and went. Today there’s been a revival, with antique shops, a gourmet restaurant, and an art gallery. But behind the twinkling white lights and the prim wooden signs, these buildings are still sheds. The life of commerce moves through them. They are endlessly adaptable. For each use, they change. It’s the life inside that is important. We fuss over the architectural details that decorate the store, house, barn, meetinghouse, but we should look closer at the life that flows through them.

You could list all the materials it took to build these sheds – barn, meetinghouse, house — on the back of an envelope: Wood, plaster, a barrel of nails, one or two types of windows. You can’t do that with the contemporary house. But there is a hidden simplicity in our houses, an “inner shed” that has been buried by clutter and home décor. Our homes could be freer, more pleasing places if we could learn a few lessons from sheds:

1. Sheds are flexible and fragile. They live in this paradox: They are strong enough to bend. If they break, they can be fixed with common knowledge and common tools. A shed is a simple form, easily rebuilt.

2. They are temporary and yet they last. (The paradox continued.)

3. They evolve and devolve as needed. They can take the accretion of style – a steeple, a gable, a dormer, fish-scale shingles, and shrug them off.  Steeples have been a part of meetinghouses for about 200 years and yet in their essence the meetinghouse is unchanged.

4. They are part shelter and part tool.  We change them to fit the job at hand.

5. The best sheds are like summer cabins and lake houses. They are just enough shelter – more summer than cabin, more lake than house. They are alive to the season.

6. A shed is the shortest line between need and shelter. It’s a trip from A to B. It’s often built of found materials; it’s built with a distilled practicality.

It’s the simple that’s adaptable, that thrives generation to generation

From Dwelling in Possibility by Howard Mansfield