Big needs lead to small solutions

A quest for extra space is leading some to build their own

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comApril 24, 2013 

There’s a small building boom going on in the South Sound.

Homeowners, squeezed out of cramped homes or just looking for a getaway without leaving the back 40, are putting in writing cottages, home-away-from-home offices, playhouses, art studios and other teeny-tiny structures.

Tacoma homeowner Mikki Parker is putting the finishing touches on what will become her art studio. The decision came after her adult son moved back into her two-bedroom home.

“It’s mom’s room only. No kids allowed,” Parker said of her 10-foot-by-10-foot structure.

She saw the building while it was on display at January’s home and garden show at the Tacoma Dome. Builder Schuan Carpenter disassembled the display and installed it in Parker’s backyard. Cost: $5,500.

For Parker, it was a Goldilocks fit: not too big, not too small.

“I live in a small house, so having something bigger would stand out more,” she said. “Smaller would not fit a table. It was the perfect size for my arts and crafts studio.”

The aptly named Carpenter and his Seattle-based business, Little Mansion, builds only auxiliary buildings for his clients.

Though Carpenter has worked in construction since age 12, he has had careers as a minister and bank manager before turning to building full time. He focused on “mini mansions” after he built a cottage in his backyard.

“We needed community space,” said Carpenter, who lives in a 790-square-foot house with his wife and two children. “I think space impacts you emotionally.”

Today, Carpenter and his family use the cottage for violin recitals (his wife teaches the instrument), dances and as a morning getaway. “We go down there and have a cup of coffee every morning so we don’t wake the kids up.”

Carpenter has built greenhouses, playhouses, a Vespa parking garage and tea houses as small as 6-by-8 feet, and up to 300 square feet. Using reclaimed wood and windows, he builds them as panels and installs them on site.

The finishing styles range from bare bone green houses to structures with electricity, insulation, finished walls and built-ins. Homeowner-installed prices start at $2,000. Carpenter-installed prices start at $2,600.

Parker liked the uniqueness of Carpenter’s work. “I had been looking around for a good year,” she said. “Everything that I had seen was the T1-11 sided A-frame sheds. This one really stood out: Lots of windows, lots of light. Kind of my character.”

After Carpenter’s installation Parker added insulation and sheetrock. She plans to use a space heater on cold days.

Like Carpenter’s clients, the people drawn to Olympia builder Dan Britton’s work are attracted to his unique style. The owner of Millworks Custom Buildings installs his rough-hewn cottages, playhouses, sheds and other buildings all over the Puget Sound and beyond.

Britton switched from general construction to specializing in outbuildings eight years ago. There’s at least one thing that sets him apart from his competitors: He mills his own lumber.

Britton buys Western red cedar from tree trimmers and other log salvagers. His work often makes use of what he calls a log edge — the natural curve of the log. You won’t find it at Home Depot.

“We don’t mill (the log edge) off. It gives it more of a whimsical look,” Britton said. “We also do straight edge. Whatever people want.”

Britton has built playhouses, writing studios, painting and photography studios, and teahouses. He prides himself on using home-grade construction, such as full-size window headers, in his work.

“That’s how I was taught to do construction, and that’s how I do it. It doesn’t save me any money. But milling my own lumber gives me the luxury of doing that.”

Scott and Sandy Marshall had Britton build a garden shed and playhouse on their Fox Island property and will soon have a third building for their tractor and firewood.

The Marshalls use the garden shed for starting and potting plants.

“It’s a good place to putter and listen to a football game,” Scott Marshall said. The building uses reclaimed windows and doors, and is sided with Britton’s cedar shingles.

Downslope is the playhouse with a lookout for the couple’s five grandchildren who visit often. It uses the log-edge cedar planks and has a million-dollar view of Puget Sound, McNeil Island and passing bald eagles.

Scott Marshall likes using a local craftsman and the quality that he gets from Britton’s work.

“He shows up with a trailer with his rough lumber, and two days later, you have a wonderful shed,” Marshall said. Before you build:

Local contractors give these tips:

-Check with your local municipality before you build or install an outbuilding. Different governments have different requirements.

-Building permits are required once a building exceeds a certain size.

-The buildings in this story are not living spaces. Plumbing, electricity and other improvements may necessitate more permits.

-Some governments require setbacks (a determined distance from property lines and streets).

-Have a courtesy discussion with neighbors before embarking on a building project to avoid future conflicts.

Millworks Custom Buildings


Little Mansions


Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541

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