“She-sheds” are the latest in the tiny-house phenomenon. On Cape Cod, they do it their own way.
By Kate Whouley
Apr 17 2017
Deer Sullivan’s simple, colorful shed is a place for her to unplug from daily life—literally, since she’s ditched the shed’s electrical hookup. “I don’t need it here,” she shrugs.Photo Credit : Hornick/Rivlin
Just as the last century turned into this one, I found a tiny cottage in the classified ads. It was only $3,000, but it was also cash-and-carry. I called the number listed, and suffice it to say: Adventure ensued. So much adventure, in fact, that I wrote a book about that cottage-moving year, the title echoing the original headline: Cottage for Sale, Must Be Moved.
During one of my early conversations with Bob Hayden, a seasoned second-generation building-mover, he referred to my project as a “shed move.” I took offense. I’d already hired an engineer, met with a crane operator, applied for a building permit, appeared before the conservation commission, and cleared two hillsides. The pending 16-by-25-foot addition to my three-room home was most decidedly not a shed.
In those days, sheds were stocked with shovels and spades, wheelbarrows and lawn mowers, bicycles and off-duty air conditioners. And some still are. But now there’s a revolution afoot. Across America, women are taking to their backyards to reclaim, repurpose, and create new rooms of their own. Introducing: the she-shed.
Search the term online, and you’ll fall through the looking glass into a land of tiny, tricked-out backyard buildings. You may want them all. You may also note that a lot of these lovely spaces are in places with not much, well, weather. And you may wonder: What does a New England she-shed look like? And perhaps you will embark on a different kind of domestic adventure, as I did, crisscrossing Cape Cod in search of real-life seaside she-sheds.
“I didn’t want my shed to become a project,” says Deer Sullivan, lowering herself into a faded blue beach chair. Deer has lived on this property overlooking Griffith’s Pond in Brewster for 13 years. The shed was here when she and her spouse bought the place; she needed only to clear it out and claim it.
Casting aside the Pinterest boards filled with dream house she-sheds, I admire the simplicity of Deer’s 10-by-12-foot structure: minimalist
seating, an overturned wooden crate for a table, a large gong (yes, she uses it) hanging by the oversize barn door, open wide to a woodsy view. The pale blue walls hint at the serenity Deer seeks in her shed, while the bold purple floor suggests this she-
shedder is also a woman of action. “I am really a doer,” she tells me, confirming my color-borne inference. “And I am an artist, so I’m usually making something, or writing something, or reading something, or creating something with my hands. So I like to have a place where I can just sit.”
Deer takes sitting seriously, especially on Mondays—“mindfulness Mondays, I call them.” She is director of children and youth services at First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church, where, I’m thinking, mindfulness is pretty much a job requirement. In Deer’s case, this is work she takes home from the office. And she’s created a space that helps her connect to her personal spiritual practice.
Sipping fresh-brewed ice tea, she tells me that she’s always had a shed. “I’ve been lucky that way. Even when I rented places, they always had a shed, and I would turn it into a little sit spot. For me, it’s more necessary to have an outbuilding to hang at than to have a place to put tools.”
We watch three wild turkeys stroll past the shed. “That’s my neighbor’s property,” she says, motioning in the direction of the birds. When Deer is sitting in the shed, she can’t see her own yard or home. This outward orientation is intentional. “Sitting here,” she says, “I can’t see all that needs to be done. I can just be right here—in this little spot that could be anywhere—and breathe in, and breathe out.”
You have to get up early to join Linda Colgan in her shed. “I like to sit here in the morning, have a cup of coffee, and plan my day,” she says. And a good day for Linda includes some time in the dirt.
En route to Linda’s backyard refuge, I notice a small Eden on the roof of her house. Veggies and herbs, she tells me, fed by a gutter watering system. “I don’t have to worry about bunnies or groundhogs up there,” she explains. We pass a half-moon bed of rose bushes before we reach our destination: a 12-by-14-foot silver-shingled shed, graced with overflowing window boxes and filled with light.
The day before I visited, Linda hosted 80 guests as part of the Cape Cod Hydrangea Festival. “A lot of people noticed the shed,” she says, showing me the map she handed out to visitors. “One woman told me she had shed envy.” I get it. For me, it’s the perfectly level stone floor—a pattern of muted reds and grays, squares and rectangles. It’s a floor that could be in a Tuscan courtyard, and I want to take it home with me.
“This is the reason for the shed,” she says, directing my attention to a handsome potting bench. The surfaces are pine, bathed in a reddish stain; the supports are glossy green. The bench has a built-in soil tray with a screen. The cubbyholes in the attached hutch hold small pots and tiny treasures. “My son built this and gave it to me as a gift. When I laid eyes on it, I knew I couldn’t let it stay outdoors.”
I turn toward the door, where I see a small array of tools, some on hooks and some leaning against the wall. “My husband’s corner,” Linda says. “That’s as far as I let him in.” She smiles to let me know she’s joking. But this shed is clearly Linda’s space in form and function. Here, she feeds her passion—sifting soil at her handmade potting bench, poring over seed catalogs, sipping coffee, and deciding when it’s safe to move the tomatoes outdoors. So I have to ask: “Just one chair?”
“Yes.” Linda flashes me a conspiratorial grin. “That’s on purpose.”
Shannon Goheen’s birthday greeting from her husband, Tom Huettner, was an illustrated promise. Happy She-Shed by the Seashore, it read, beneath a sketch of two sheds he planned to build for her. Shannon, a landscape designer who co-owns Second Nature Garden Works with her husband, says they had been talking about an outdoor structure for a while. “I wanted a space of my own,” says Shannon, pointing out that Tom already has a couple of sheds for “his stuff” on their 1-acre wooded property in Dennis Port.
“I love the night,” says Shannon, whose online persona, the Evening Gown Gardener, dons vintage formal wear to dispense planting and growing advice under the cover of darkness. “I love to work at night, and garden at night, and just be outdoors at night. But my backyard is too buggy. I wanted a place where I could be outdoors—but also feel protected.” The answer? A sophisticated screen room, where Shannon plans to sit, think, and listen, especially at night. But what about space for Shannon’s plant tapestries—beautiful framed weavings using natural materials like seaweed, wheat, and eelgrass—or those large-scale garden designs? Walk across the wooden deck to enter her 10-by-12-foot work shed.
This two-shed labor of love is also a lesson in thrift and reuse. The steps to the central deck were recycled from a client who upgraded to stone, and a large bundle of remnant boards from Mid-Cape Home Center ($100) will provide most of the framing. Shannon and Tom found French doors at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, where they are also hunting windows. “I feel incredibly fortunate to be the recipient of not one shed but two,” says Shannon. “I can’t wait to see them!”
When Stephaine Meads began dreaming of her she-shed, she wasn’t seeking solitude. “I love to entertain,” she tells me, as we cross a smooth stone expanse that hugs an elegantly curved swimming pool. Her bulldog, Lulu, tags along. Stephaine nods in the direction of another bulldog, this one cast in cement and standing guard at the edge of the pool. “That’s Lulu II.”
It would be easy to be distracted by this lovely outdoor living space, but ahead the gray clapboard shed beckons. Today the copper whale atop the custom cupola is unmoving, and the French doors beneath the attached pergola are closed, conserving the cool air inside. The family business is heating and cooling, and Stephaine’s 12-by-14-foot poolside retreat is climate-controlled.
That’s not the only creature comfort. Inside Stephaine’s she-shed you’ll find a fully stocked bar, a comfy couch, and a wall-mounted TV that connects to Netflix. But make no mistake: This is not a man cave. The small, welcoming space has been painstakingly planned and assembled by a female decorating mastermind, a woman who thrills to the hunt of desired objects.
In her shed, Stephaine seeks to achieve what she describes as a “vintage nautical feel.” On one wall, “AHOY” is spelled out in a vertical arrangement, with a small ship’s wheel resting nearby. “Some things, like these letters—I saw them several years ago and bought them—I never had a place for in the house,” she says. Other decorative elements in the shed are more recent acquisitions, like the two vintage bathing suits that she found on Etsy and framed side-by-side on the wall behind the couch.
Thinking of my own cottage, I feel a kinship to this woman who scours flea markets, antiques shops, and websites in search of what she needs to transform vision into reality. I’m betting that when Stephaine gathers girlfriends in her shed, they want to stay awhile to learn the story of the resonant iron bell (a replica of the last-call bell in a Provincetown bar, and a gift to her husband from his mother) or the porthole window (discovered at one of Stephaine’s favorite haunts, Buddha & Beads). “I love a treasure—something with a story, or with character,” she says. Stephaine is talking about her favorite finds, but it seems to me she could just as easily be describing her very
“A few years ago we built a lot of man caves,” says Lynne McGrath of Pine Harbor Wood Products in Harwich, Massachusetts. “They were all about electronics: wide-screen TV, big speakers. The she-shed is more of a quiet getaway.” But whether a small building is destined to be a he-shed, she-shed, their-shed, or stuff-shed, Lynne has noticed that “whenever a couple comes in looking to build a shed, the woman is the driving force as to design, style, and use.”
Lynne operates Pine Harbor with her husband, Jamie, whose father started the business back in the 1970s. Today, Pine Harbor offers sheds in a range of sizes and styles (Stephaine Meads’s and Linda Colgan’s sheds are both customized Pine Harbor buildings). “We cut all the lumber here and then build on-site,” Lynne says. “A basic shed can be installed in a day.” Through a partnership with Walpole Outdoors, Pine Harbor offers delivery and installation across New England.
Here’s a sampling of other New England companies offering standard and customizable small buildings and ready-to-build shed kits:
Jamaica Cottage Shop
South Londonderry, VT. 866-297-3760; jamaicacottageshop.com
New England Outdoor Sheds & Gazebos
Methuen, MA. 978-705-6480; neoutdoor.com
Pine Harbor Wood Products
Harwich, MA. 800-368-7433; pineharbor.com
Reeds Ferry Sheds
Hudson, NH. 888-857-4337; reedsferry.com
Do you know a house with an irresistible story? Contact Yankee home and garden editor Annie Graves, with photos, at firstname.lastname@example.org.