Life Homes

Thursday 2 October 2014

Irish men fall hard for the souped up shed

Sheds have moved on the days when men pottered aimlessly around inside now hosting wifi, TV and even personal bars.

Eithne Tynan

Published 04/07/2014 | 02:30

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David Leech with his pizza barn shed and son Archie. Photo: Bryan Meade
Conor Keatings with his Monkey Bar Shed. Photo Bryan Meade
Dave Leech in Mount Merrion with his pizza barn shed and sons Archie (5) and Luca (2). Photo: Bryan Meade

In the 1932 novel 'Cold Comfort Farm', Ada Doom sees "something nasty in the woodshed" at the age of two. She never recovers and becomes a bed-ridden recluse. The reader never does find out what she saw.

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Nowadays, with the growing popularity of the 'man shed', it's quite likely that prying eyes will never find out exactly what's inside the shed at the end of their own garden either.

It might not be something nasty – it could be the engine of a 1965 Austin-Healey, a clapped-out wooden boat or an orchid collection – but the garden shed has traditionally been a male retreat from domestic routine which no one is allowed to enter.

But sheds have moved on from the days when men – retired, trainspotting English men in particular – pottered about mysteriously inside. A modern shed is an extension of the house; it's as likely to have widescreen TV and wifi as boxes of nails and bags of compost. And a usable outdoor room can add value to your home.

The cult of the 'sheddie' has spread from Britain to Ireland. Among the annual entrants for the UK-based Shed of the Year competition, there is always a smattering of Irish sheddies.

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One of them is Peter Ellis, whose garden shed near Letterkenny, Co Donegal, is a tribute to the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. It's made of aluminium-framed glass panes between tubular steel posts, and has a tiled roof. Coloured vinyl sheets cover the panes to form the Mondrian-style panels.

Ellis designed and built his own house, and built the shed to use up space in the garden. "I wanted to get rid of a bit of grass because I was fed up of mowing the lawn," he says. The idea of the Mondrian homage was "a eureka moment", he adds.

It cost next to nothing to build, being made of mostly recycled materials and whatever Ellis had to hand. The work took about six months in all.

It's quite a big shed – about four wide by three metres long, and 3.5 metres high. And it's in Ellis's front garden. "As you're driving along past the house, it's definitely out there!" he says.

Inside is a bench and table, a bog oak sculpture and a water feature, as well as some garden tools. Ellis uses it as a place to unwind.

"I pop up there when I'm doing the gardening and have a little sit-down and a beer and relax. It's south-facing as well so you get the sun. You can have a little quiet moment."

The Mondrian shed was first entered in the Shed of the Year competition in 2012, and is an entrant this year again. However, the contest is sponsored by Cuprinol, which makes wood preservatives, so Ellis believes his maintenance-free metal and glass shed is unlikely to win.

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Ellis runs a geodesic dome business called Atlantic Domes. Since building the Mondrian shed, he's also put up a greenhouse and an outdoor barbecue kitchen, and there's a geodesic dome in the works. But he says he will happily erect a Mondrian shed in other people's gardens if they ask him to.

Another celebrated Irish sheddie is Conor Keatings in Kilpedder, Co Wicklow, who converted an existing garden shed into a shebeen called the Monkey Bar a couple of years ago. It doubles as a laundry room.

"It's an old shed that was here when we moved in nine years ago. It was full of junk, but slowly I whittled all the rubbish out to turn it into a man space. But the washing machine was still in there, so I asked my mate who's a carpenter to build something to hide the washing machine, and he built the bar. It was originally just to be a home for the washing machine and it kind of got out of hand, as two lads over a couple of pints do."

The shed is 12 feet by eight, with a four-foot verandah at the front. It cost very little to convert, says Keatings – a maximum of €200. While cleaning it out, Keatings found his old cuddly monkey toy, which gave the bar its name.

The 'christening' of the bar was the 2013 New Year's Eve party, when all the neighbours came over. "There were 14 of us in it that night; it was brilliant. It's still used for a session with all the neighbours every couple of months."

Keatings also goes there to watch sport, and he and his wife Jenny sometimes go out there of an evening, put the fairy lights on and drink wine. "You can get out of the house and do something different without having to get a babysitter in."

Keatings believes it's "in the DNA" of men to want a space of their own. "I didn't necessarily know it would be a bar; it just sort of happened. It can be a private domain for me as well – it does lock from the inside! But I tend not to use it like that – it's more a social space."

David Leech, from Mount Merrion in Dublin, built a shed to house a clay pizza oven in the winter of 2012-2013. Then he decided the shed was too good for that, so the pizza oven ended up outside.

"It's a chalet-style shed made of timber, designed on the back of a fag packet. As I was building it, it was still being designed. It was built between December 1 and January 20 under major pressure. Then the shed was too good to be all taken up with a pizza oven, so I started building that outside – in the Irish weather."

The shed itself – 11 feet by 14 – has a fourth wall at the front that doubles as a drop-down deck. It was built for around €2,000, The pizza oven, meanwhile, cost little or nothing.

"I dug a load of this clay out of a riverbed in Wicklow for it, which was the perfect clay that I found by accident. And the rest of it is made out of recycled materials. It took hundreds and hundreds of hours to build though. There was much pain in the poor soft office-boy hands in the building of it all."

The oven is insulated at the bottom by 196 beer bottles on their sides. "Those beer bottles were produced in real time, while I was working out there in the middle of winter, telling the wife to drink faster because I was out of materials."

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The shed is in constant use although, as an employee of Microsoft, Leech doesn't get much time there himself. "I leave for work and my wife and kids go and have breakfast out there. So it's not working out all that well as a man shed I have to admit. I do have to share it with other people."

But while the shed was once seen as a bastion of masculinity, more and more sheddies themselves are female. One Irish contender is a woman in Dingle, Co Kerry, who wanted an outside room of her own, as her husband had a garage and workshop. She built a shed with a bookcase, armchairs, and a stoop outside.

Among the multitudes of different types of sheds, there are pub and nightclub sheds, sound recording sheds, sheds on stilts, sheds with vegetable gardens on their roofs, sheds made to look like pagodas, boats, or hobbit holes, and Tardis sheds ... yes, Tardis sheds – modelled on Dr Who's time machine – are a growing subculture, and constitute a category of their own in the Shed of the Year competition.

This year's winner will be announced on a new, three-part Channel 4 show, presented by architect George Clarke of 'Amazing Spaces' and 'The Restoration Man', in August.

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