The British have a particular affinity with their sheds. From the Anglo-Saxon word “scead”, meaning shelter but also “a place of quiet, obscurity and seriousness”, the workaday storage structure has ensconced itself on British soils (in relatively unchanged form) for centuries. Maybe it reflects a fondness for insularity; perhaps a love of the utilitarian. Some say sheds are to men what handbags are to women – equipped with a kit to survive the modern world and subject to a level of secrecy.
Fifty two per cent of British people own sheds and collectively spend 60 million hours a week pottering away under their pitched roofs for leisure or work. Contenders for the annual Shed of the Year award (the climax of National Shed Week) include miniature pubs, cinemas, beauty salons, pirate ships, American diners, temples and zoos – hobbyist’s follies that serve as vehicles for self-expression.
But it’s not just the British. In 1896 Henry Ford created his first prototype car, “the Quadricycle”, in a tiny workshop behind his house in Detroit. Harley-Davidson, Daimler and Renault all began with experiments in the shed. China’s shanzhai builders while away hours on everything from aviation to robotics in their outbuildings. But enthusiasm for shed life – possibly influenced by its heady mix of old paint, WD-40 and grass cuttings – remains a predominantly British affair. Some of the nation’s greatest literature has sprung out of the shed: Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, Rudyard Kipling and George Bernard Shaw all famously used theirs as writing huts. Shaw’s shed was even capable of revolving to suit the time of day, swivelling on a rig to allow an optimal level of sunlight to stream in.
Great inventions have been born within the shed’s four creosote-coated walls – a place that lends itself as much to industrial as intellectual pursuits. The blog shedworking.co.uk estimated that back-garden businesses account for £6.1bn of the UK economy. Trevor Baylis’ shed-based tinkering gave us the clockwork radio and wartime engineer Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb was developed (and, somewhat worryingly, tested) in his back garden. During the Second World War Alan Turing and his team of codebreakers cracked the cipher for the Germans’ Enigma machine from a series of top-secret huts in the grounds of Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.
For others, the shed’s appeal is its sheer bog-standardness. The humble assemblage of brick, stone, shiplapped timber or crinkly tin is our closest living relation to the “primitive hut” – the ideal form from which all architecture derives according to 18th-century architectural theorist Marc-Antoine Laugier.
The cheap, quick and readily available kit shed makes it the domain of the non-professional. At under 10sq m, it neatly ducks under the radar of planning permission, belonging to a world not policed by aesthetics or agenda. Its basic construction inspired community architect Walter Segal, too. When rebuilding his house in Highgate in the 1960s, he made a temporary home on paving slabs in the back garden. The house cost £800 and took two weeks to build. Word spread, leading to similar commissions, and before long the Segal self-build method had taken off. By obviating the architect’s expertise, Segal’s shed-houses democratised the act of building.
In the modern world, the amicable shed has come to represent an escape from our complex and fast-paced lives. By virtue of its human scale, everything is brilliantly within reach; a microcosm of order in a world of chaos. Cities will expand, markets will collapse and house prices will fluctuate, but the shed remains a constant in our everyday lives.
Go forth and potter.