The April Miracle!

Newest New Shed PhotoThere’s something new and wonderful in my back yard. The ramshackle wooden carport-on-a-concrete-slab out there that I inherited when I bought the house over twenty years ago – and had been using as a makeshift storage shed – is finally gone. In its place stands the world’s most adorable garden shed / workshop / greenhouse / utility shed / studio space.

Because it’s so attractive and so well-built, I can’t bring myself to call it a “shed.” True, it is a utility structure and not a place one could, say, sleep in (during the winter, anyway).

If I decide to eventually insulate it, I’ll probably start calling it a cottage. Whatever I end up calling it, or however I end up using it, it is certainly beautiful to behold.

The shed-replacement project was conceived years ago when I realized how annoying it was to be forced every winter to bring inside the house my numerous patio plants. Not only was that a tedious task, but the plants took up all the space in my sun porch for several months every year until I finally got around to lugging everything back outside.

After two decades worth of this dreaded annual ritual, I decided I needed a free-standing light-filled structure that could shelter my over-wintering plants. The carport I’d inherited had only a single wall, so it was useless for winter plant storage. And the carport was so dilapidated that it was in danger of falling down.

I also wanted a more congenial, convenient place for potting up plants and for storing tools, plant pots, my bicycle, and all the other stuff (coolers, tarps, etc.) that I didn’t want to store in my house or in my attic.

At some point many years ago my brother Michael, who lives in Oregon and is, among other things, a skilled carpenter (skilled enough to have built his own straw-bale house) mentioned that he’d be willing to help me replace my shed with something better and more useful. The plan was for Michael to schedule a visit to Atlanta during a break in his business (he works in the movie industry), and together we’d build something that would radically improve my gardening life, using the time while building the thing to get to know each other better. (Michael’s the only one of my siblings to have moved out of the state, and we haven’t seen much of each other since he and his family moved away over twenty years ago.)

Happy at the prospect of such an intriguing joint building project – and because it would allow me to avoid buying one of those hideous pre-fab units – I started setting aside money for the project.

This spring Michael was finally able to get away from Oregon long enough for us to Do The Deed. Before his arrival, I poked around on Pinterest for ideas on how I wanted the structure to look,  given the financial constraints we’d be working with, and emailed Michael a diagram of the existing shed and a list of project objectives and priorities – along with a rather lengthy wish-list of optional features, a list of seventeen (!) “Huge Issues to Discuss and Resolve,” plus a ballpark figure for how much I could afford to spend (a figure that I was hoping included the absurdly discounted cost of Michael’s labor).

Michael flew into Atlanta on April 1st, and for the rest of the month we worked every day – including the days it rained, and usually for 12 hours each day – until, after Michael extended his planned stay by four days, we got it done.

The Saga of Two Sheds

Here’s what Michael found when he arrived:

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The first order of business was the formidable one of emptying the existing rickety shed. Which, as you can see, was crammed to the gills with all manner of Stuff:

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After tarping on the driveway the embarrassingly copious innards of the shed…

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and after tediously emptying the old structure…

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…we then began dismantling the dilapidated shed, hoping we could do that before it collapsed of its own accord. We eventually discovered that the only thing holding it up was an almost impenetrable thicket of grape vines and Carolina Jasmine that, after 20 years of intertwining growth,  had engulfed the roof and spread into the neighboring trees:

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After we managed to finally clear the thicket so Michael he could remove the tin roof underneath it, we could then start taking down the supports for the old shed, which allowed us to knock down the rotted-out shed wall:

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Then, after our first of what would prove to be countless runs in my pickup truck for lumber and equipment from the (fortunately nearby) Lowe’s, Michael laid out the perimeter of the new building, drilling the first of many holes in the concrete pad to secure the four interlocking base “plates” that, along with the soon-to-be-constructed roof trusses, would hold together the four walls of the new structure. (For me, this step of creating the base plates was the most daunting of all the construction tasks, except for maybe the creation of trusses for the roof and the equally intimidating process of attaching each of them to the walls.)

Thanks to to loan of a pressure washer from my friend Roger, I was able to clean the concrete pad under the old building before we proceeded any further. Then the walls of the new structure miraculously began going up. Actually, there were no miracles involved – just Michael meticulously measuring and remeasuring countless two-by-fours which he carefully cut to size and then tediously hammered into the base, followed by the equally-methodically-customized sets of vertical framing:

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With the new structure’s frame now in place, Mike next chalked onto the concrete pad a template for the nine roof trusses he then fabricated…and whose parts that Cal duly secured via nailing into place twenty-seven carefully-crafted triangular plywood creations called gussets. (Each gusset required nine nails; did I mention there were twenty-seven truss gussets?)

Out of sheer curiosity, we briefly interrupted our work so Michael could temporarily position the recycled windows we’d bought – we just wanted to see how they’d look. The next major step in the project was Michael’s hoisting the first truss onto the top of the wall frame:

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Then up the ladder Mike went with the other eight trusses…

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…and the shape of the new building suddenly emerged. The totally different look of the new structure vs. the old one became especially apparent for the first time when Michael bolted to the trusses the tin roofing panels we’d purchased – the priority at that particular point of the project being to semi-rainproof the space before a predicted imminent deluge:

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The predicted rains did arrive, the first of two downpours happening exactly at what would turn out to be the mid-way point of the construction. (The upside of the rain was that it allowed us to check Michael’s rain-proofing measures.)

After settling on what color I wanted to paint the exterior walls, I painted nine plywood panels with two coats of “Port Wine” (the appealing name of the closest approximation I could find to the color of the bricks on my house), and Michael began the intricate process of cutting the painted panels to fit the extraordinary number of openings in the seven-foot-high walls of this nine-foot-by-sixteen-foot structure: three doors and six windows.

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Michael next began installing the windows: two square-shaped ones on the side facing the house, with another matching one at the far end, plus another, transom-shaped window on wall alongside the three-foot wide “alley” between the building and the neighbor’s fence (that alley crucial for accessing my compost bin located behind the new structure). After the windows came the installation of  the numerous doors:  across the end of the structure facing the driveway, three French doors – two of them stationary (and therefore technically windows), one of them openable; a single French door at the other end, and a double set of French doors at the entrance that faces the house and garden).

Then Michael began trimming out the interior and exterior edges of those multiple openings:

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Michael’s painstaking trimwork was followed by the terrifying spectacle of him straddling the roof to secure the ridge of tin that connects the two sloping sides of the tin roof.

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After additional intermediate steps (that for the sake of brevity I’ll skip over trying to describe) came the piece de resistance, Michael’s fashioning in the final rushed days of the project, on the far end of the shed, a screened-in porch – complete with yet another door – so Cal could, for the first time in twenty years, pot up plants regardless of the advent  and duration of the annual mosquito season (which, in Atlanta, begins in early June and lasts until the first frost in November: a long time to abandon one’s gardening activities).

Constructing the screened-in porch, which I believe will prove to be a quantum leap in enhancing Cal’s gardening experiences, required pouring some additional concrete – yet another aspect of the project that filled me with trepidation, as, unlike Michael, I’d never before worked with concrete and didn’t have the slightest idea of how to successfully join a patch of new concrete to a slab of existing concrete.

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The screened porch Michael proceeded to build for my potting table and planting paraphernalia…

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…turned out to feel like a refuge-within-a-refuge: once I purge the area of all the stuff I’m temporarily storing in there, I think it will become my favorite spot to sit and have my morning and/or evening cup of tea when I want to do that “outside” instead of indoors. (This fantasy became more plausible upon the eventual arrival of the portable magnetic screens that I’d ordered online for the two exterior doorways.)

In order to finish the new building, Michael decided to extend his stay for four days beyond how long he’d initially planned to stay, but finish it he did – at approximately 10:30 at night before having to get up at 4 the following morning to catch his plane out of Atlanta.

Final cost of the materials for this project (including the magnetic screens): $3,750. (Which, coincidentally, is approximately what I figure I’ll spend on the three-week trip to Europe I plan to make later this year.)

The Construction-Completion Aftermath

With the construction work completed two weeks ago, I’ve continued working on the garden shed since Michael left, spending several hours every day putting some crucial finishing touches on the place:

  • moving the contents of the old place out from under the tarp on the driveway and into the new space
  • trying mightily to preserve enough space for the original purpose of the hew structure: a convenient place to overwinter my patio plants – while also trying to figure out how I might devote at least a corner of the place for a table and a chair, so I can sit inside and read or hang out in the garden during a rainstorm (the enjoyment of the sound of rain falling on a tin roof being one reason for choosing that type of roof).

Despite the inevitability of further, but more minor, shed-related projects, after these more major finishing touches are completed, the old building is finally completely gone and in its place is The Gorgeous New Thing.

The most dreaded step in the still-not-quite-finished project was the long-awaited removal of the remains of the old shed along with the removal of assorted stuff I’d stored in the old shed that I’d decided to jettison, plus the hauling off of  the new-construction debris.  All this stuff constituted several forbidding (and increasingly ugly and inconveniently-located) piles of metal, plastic, nail-embedded wood, etc. Despairing of the labor that would be involved in quickly (or even not quickly) getting rid of it all, I decided to forego the cheaper option of hauling it off myself to the (very distant) county dump and, instead, paying $318 to a local (and excellent)  junk-removal company to make it all (expensively) disappear. This wonderful event occurred this very afternoon.

For the first time in over a month, I can resume enjoying a cleared-off, usable driveway! Upon which I plan to install several raised garden beds that plan to situate in front of (well, actually, to the side of) the new garden shed, recycling some the rafters from the old shed to build these beds. Raising assorted vegetables in those beds is the next frontier in my amateur gardening journey. Plus I look forward to the prospect of surveying those beds from inside the new garden structure, and tending them with the garden tools now conveniently stored therein. (Stay tuned for an eventual progress report on this new garden adventure.)

What I Learned

Instead of recounting further details (or providing photos) of this project, I want to emphasize how interesting and satisfying it was to spend a month helping my brother create this marvel:

  • We spent an especially enjoyable afternoon in the construction-prep phase of the project trawling through a demolition company’s lot across town where we unearthed and purchased the ancient but well-made doors and windows Michael was able to recycle into the new structure.
  • Never having been very handy myself, it was fascinating to watch someone who is talented that way confidently fashion lumber and metal into something so useful and attractive. And to do that so efficiently despite the fact that the initial vision of how the structure would look continued to morph – sometimes radically – almost until the final days of this multi-week project.
  • I was struck by the amount of math involved in erecting a sustainable (although small) structure. Getting all the measurements and angles correct proved to be critical, and it was impressive to see how different elements of the structure that Michael addressed early on ended up being so crucially interrelated with elements of the construction undertaken so much later in the project. Example: the maddening intricacies involved in customizing, leveling, and getting plumb all the building’s doors – not to mention the tasks involved in equipping the doors with new hardware and creating three functional thresholds.
  • So much precision is required to get things to fit correctly! No wonder carpentry is such a revered (if underpaid) profession! If I earned a nickel for every measurement Michael made, I could’ve paid him better for his efforts!
  • My store of building-related lore is now a bit larger. For example, I now know what a gusset is. And I know the incredible amount of work that goes into properly installing a door or a set of doors.
  • I better understand how having the proper tools can make a construction job go sooooo much more quickly. We couldn’t afford to purchase a nail gun, and until Michael found someone to borrow one from, there was a lot of tedious hammering done, most of it, like so much else, by Michael – and some of it was done in the rain or after dark.(Among the things we bought for the project was a utility light so Michael could continue working after sundown.)
  • I’ve added to the lengthy list of advantages to living in my neighborhood another one: its proximity to the local Lowe’s home improvement store. We made at least two dozen trips there for lumber and/or tools and/or paint or other supplies and equipment. (I was also reminded how convenient it is that My Favorite Mechanic is located in my neighborhood: my ancient Ford pickup’s alternator chose the month of April 2014 to die – right in the middle of one of those runs to Lowe’s.)
  • Speaking of ancient pickup trucks, I’m awful glad I hadn’t sold mine before we undertook this building project!
  • Courtesy the Pandora feature on Michael’s smartphone, I learned that building stuff is more fun when accompanied by music – especially music from the 1960s and 1970s that both Michael and I first enjoyed during our younger years. The hammering and the sawing and the drilling and the painting somehow seem less tedious when you’re singing along with, say, Jackson Browne or James Taylor.
  • We did, along the way, have plenty of time to get to know each other better. And, fortunately, Michael even found a little time to shoe-horn into the construction schedule some meetups with some of his Atlanta friends.
  • Advice to the those employed in full-time jobs: wait until you are retired before taking on a home improvement project that takes over three weeks-plus to complete. Corollary: don’t wait too long to retire! I wouldn’t’ve wanted to have undertaken this project in my 70s! Another corollary: If you own a hot-tub, wait until after any building construction projects are finished to give away the hot-tub – a detail I unfortunately neglected to consider when I gave mine away last year.

Actually, I don’t feel feel like I did much construction work myself – I mostly fetched things for Michael, swept up lots of sawdust, kept track of our expenses, recorded (in list form and via photos) each day’s activities and accomplishments, and tried to keep Michael well-fed and well-hydrated. And even though my role in the project was mostly in the design decision department and in pestering Michael with a million curiosity-based questions as he measured, re-measured, sawed, drilled, and hammered away – it was fun to work with such a knowledgeable and congenial companion on such an ambitious project, and to see something so useful and beautiful emerge from the raw materials Michael efficiently (and cost-efficiently) assembled.

Also gratifying was discussing with Michael what seemed like a never-ending series of design options, and seeing how often the look of the structure continued to suddenly morph or, more often, organically evolve as the work proceeded and we dealt with various emerging challenges and constraints.

For me, probably the most suspenseful phase of the project was wondering if the bead of silicone that Michael applied to the base of the building along the alley behind it – which, during heavy rains, turns into a swamp that had rotted the bottom edge of the previous structure – would successfully prevent water from seeping under that wall into the interior. Reader, it worked! The inevitable rains eventually came, and I’ve still got a dry floor! Hurray!

My least favorite moment of the process? Probably the moment Michael informed me that,  to make room for one of the posts needed to hold up the roof to the screened-in porch, I needed to relocate my rather large – and completely full – compost bin four inches northward. (That four-inch relocation, which changed into a twelve-inch relocation, was made even more problematic by the fact that a small tree stood in the way of the move; Michael had to saw it down.)

From the beginning of the project, we wanted to create something functional that we could also like the look of. A serious constraint to realizing that goal was the modest budget for construction materials. Michael repeatedly found ways to cut costs. At the same time, I was impressed by Michael’s creativity, the high standards he holds his work to, and by his diligence. He obviously likes to do things well, even if that results in longer days and doing things twice or three times to get them right.

Fortunately neither of us sustained any serious injuries during the project, although I certainly now better understand how dangerous even small construction sites can be! (Anyone standing on a ladder with a hammer in his hand is, by definition, a potentially lethal threat to any nearby colleague.) I lost track of how many times Michael cut his hands on the tin roofing panels (which, of course, had to be cut to size and are unwieldy even when you’re trying to handle them safely. There are still a few blobs of Michael’s blood on the floor near the closet where I store my band-aids.) And Calvin was lucky not to lose an eye in the Lowe’s parking lot one morning when another Lowe’s customer who was carrying a fifteen-foot-long metal roofing gutter turned around a little too suddenly (and obliviously) in my direction.

To summarize this long-winded report, creating this new garden shed (if a shed is what it is) was a remarkably interesting, exhilarating, and exhausting experience. This major new domestic amenity will bring unprecedented convenience to my gardening activities – and, for that matter, to my garden-viewing experiences: I’ve never been able to sit in a chair – during the rain if I choose to! – and look back at the patio from the particular vantage point of my new shed’s “front” door. For the longest time I’d wanted something very much like what Michael’s made possible, and, thanks to him, here it is!

Next Steps

The main construction work now completed, I’m anxious to finish off a multitude of miscellaneous tasks that still need doing:

  • constructing a trellis over the double French doors for the now-severely-pruned grape vine and Jasmine vine
  • creating, painting, installing, and planting two window-boxes
  • finishing the painting of the trim around the windows and doors: I’ve decided white is just too stark against the burgundy)
  • installing three or four raised beds (my new vegetable garden) immediately adjacent to the new structure
  • finding a more suitable place than the alley between the shed and the fence for my stash of cut-to-size surplus lumber that I plan to use in my fireplace next winter
  • mounting the ladders on the fence behind the shed.
  • deciding whether to bother making (or buying and customizing) a little gate for the alley.

Once all that’s done, I’ll post a few more photos of the completely finished and fully-festooned new structure!

Finally, one of my favorite photos from the project:

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