Pandemic sheds: Families find silence, storage and solace

The cozy, sturdy structure in our backyard that my husband built last year has cycled through several names, some of them even before the walls were up. At first, we called it the “learnin’ shed,” planned for our kids’ distance learning. Then it was the “instead shed,” built with money for a trip to France that the pandemic canceled. For a time, he jokingly referred to it as his mistress because of the amount of time he devoted to it, and one day I called it the “medished,” when he Zoom-taught a medical class in it. When the pandemic is over, it will be my writer’s studio (I’ve been promised).

My husband was not alone in turning to shed building in the middle of the pandemic. Some people needed to extend their living space to gain privacy and avoid cabin fever. Others finally had time to devote to a previously planned shed, or were creating a workspace. Still others needed a project to take their minds off a relentless news cycle.

Whatever you call them, these one-room shacks of 2020 have been a hot commodity. And they constitute visual reminders of our battle with covid-19 — small buildings crafted in challenging times to fulfill the needs of families stuck at home for weeks or even months on end. A century from now, real estate listings may include the quaint notation that the property includes a “pandemic shed.”

And Chris Cockrell, 53, of Orem, Utah, stood ready to hand off plans for these sheds through his company “I noticed my business was doing better because of covid,” says Cockrell, an entrepreneur. “But then I started connecting the dots that the landscape of the U.S. is changing, how we think about work and where it needs to happen. I have a solution a lot of people have turned to.”

Cockrell’s sheds come in more than a dozen styles, including Saltbox, Gambrel Barn, Cape Cod and Colonial, with variations for size, door placement and other details. The plans can be downloaded from his site for $16 to $61, or Cockrell will mail hard copies for a little more money, if people don’t have a printer. Backyard builders can also find shed plans online at,, and, among others.

Cockrell’s “Complete Backyard Shed Build in 3 Minutes” YouTube video condenses a one-hour tutorial into a time lapse showing him in jeans, T-shirt and ball cap building a garden shed. It has more than 3.6 million views (including 1.6 million views since September). “There’s a phenomenon happening here, and I’m in it,” he says. “It’s kind of cool I’m in a place where I can help.”

Dean Jenkins built two sheds on property along the Oregon coast and connected them with a walkway. He and his wife, Melanie Hantze, use the structure, which has plumbing and electricity, as a retreat. (Josh Partee/For The Washington Post)

The Compound

Dean Jenkins, 59, used to drive five hours from his home to his lot on the Oregon coast where he and his wife, Melanie Hantze, 66, would retreat once a month for a few days.

“We always just parked our RV there,” Jenkins says. “But they don’t age well. They rust, start leaking. Mice get in, and pretty soon it’s nasty. We loved having a simple little place at the coast and didn’t want to build a house. Literally, one day we were just sitting there … and I said, ‘You know, a shed would be about as big as this.’ ”

So he built two of Cockrell’s modern studio sheds, modifying one to make it smaller, and connected them with a wooden walkway. Both have electricity and plumbing, and he sidestepped the need for a building permit because neither is over 200 square feet. “There was a sense of getting away with something,” he says. “There’s a smugness: ‘Wasn’t that clever!’ ”

Jenkins began the project in 2018 and finished it during the pandemic. “We can’t do anything else,” he says, so he had time to work on the compound. One shed contains a bedroom with a king-size bed and a kitchen with a range, fridge and counter. Five feet away, the second structure boasts a full bathroom and storage space. He created a patio cover for firewood and lawn furniture, and a firepit “to sit by the fire on a nice evening and look out at the water.”

It’s been a haven of sorts for the couple, particularly now. “You get cabin fever at home and can’t do social gatherings like you normally would,” Jenkins says. “One day is like another day, and you think it would be good to have a change.”

He says that the road trip to get there is an adventure because it’s a chance to leave the house, and that there’s something “magical” about being on the water. “And even in winter if it’s raining hard, it’s got a tin roof,” he says. “You lie in bed and hear the rain on the roof while you’re cozy and dry.”

‘The Treehouse, Hold the Tree’

Jared Campbell, 38, used to travel every day to schools near his Upstate New York home to provide music instruction. When the pandemic required him to teach virtually, he poured his former commute hours into raising a shed as a playhouse for his kids. “We call it the treehouse, hold the tree,” he says. It also carries the affectionate nickname the Campbell Clubhouse. He too used the modern studio shed plans.

“I did everything all myself,” he says, with the exception of a “brute force older brother” who came to help lift the 500-pound front wall and hand up some roof pieces. “Every step of the way, and I mean every step, I had anxiety: ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ ”

Yet the challenge fortified his confidence. He says that his wife, Meridee, 40, pointed out another benefit to the shed’s construction, something he hadn’t realized: “Instead of sitting around wondering, ‘What am I going to do with my career and my life,’ this allowed me to have a little bit of an escape and not be bogged down,” he says. He had to sell several guitars for the treehouse fund but says the sacrifice was worth it. “If you don’t have a project like that, it’s easy to let thoughts come creeping in. Covid was such an unknown mystery as to how it would affect any aspect of your life — your health or your business. It’s enough to make you think all kinds of thoughts you wouldn’t normally think.”

Campbell had to sell several guitars to fund his “treehouse,” but he says the sacrifice was worth it amid the stress of the pandemic. “If you don’t have a project like that, it’s easy to let thoughts come creeping in.” (Chris Sorensen/For The Washington Post)

Once the shed was completed, Campbell took delight in “decking out the interior like an apartment” for his 8-year-old twins (a boy and a girl), 3-year-old daughter and — as of January 2021 — newborn boy. Before the shed shut down for the winter, the family watched movies on the pull-down projector screen while enjoying snacks and Capri Suns from the mini-fridge. As an homage to the treehouse concept, the shed’s artwork includes tree-trunk decals.

“The futon turns into a bed, so the kids have been begging to sleep in there once the weather cooperates,” says Campbell. “They’ve even talked about ordering pizza and having it delivered straight to the treehouse instead of the main house.”

“If I’d just built it for a lawn mower or tools, I wouldn’t have the same emotions,” he says. “I’d still feel proud, but because I made it for the kids, it adds a different level of emotion: love, passion, wanting to create something that’ll last.”

The Fancy Shed

Husband and wife Frank Donahue, 57, and Michelle Maskell, 42, of Preston, Conn., went all out on an elaborate shed that complements their house with arched windows, a cupola, a dormer and a steeply pitched roof. “I wanted to go high-end,” Donahue says. “It looks pretty cool.” Their 14-by-24-foot outpost follows Cockrell’s “shed with dormer” plans.

They had planned to go on a 10th anniversary cruise with 10 other couples in October, but when the pandemic arrived, they put that money toward building what they call “the barn” instead. Donahue has long wanted an antique red Chevy truck. Now, when it drives into his life, the shed — the equivalent of a four-car garage — will be the place to store it, along with the zero-turn mower and kayaks already housed there.

The couple has collaborated on many construction projects. “It does bring you closer, for sure,” says Maskell. “Because we come from military backgrounds, we have good work ethics and teamwork: ‘You grab one end, I’ll grab the other.’ ” And she was grateful for the diversion from the TV and its news. “We’re not the type to sit and fester about things like that. We choose a more positive way of distracting ourselves,” Maskell says.

Donahue had a hard time sourcing materials because of covid-19 and says the project ended up being more expensive than it would have been if they had waited a year. “But time’s more precious to me than money,” he says.

They were unable to purchase planned “hobbit doors,” but cuteness still reigns atop the cupola, in the form of a pig-shaped weather vane. “We wanted something adorable for the top and had different ideas,” says Maskell. “We both come from — I won’t say meager means, but we have modest beginnings — and we’ve done good, so the flying pig was that inspiration.”

The ADA-Compliant Shed

For Gordie Cumming, 53, the decision to build a shed stemmed from an unguarded moment with his psychotherapist wife, Liesl Farnsworth, 53, who was nervous about seeing patients in her office in downtown Bend, Ore. “We were worried things would get worse in fall and winter,” says Cumming. “I blurted out, ‘You know, I can build an office in our backyard,’ and she just said okay.”

Farnsworth is seeing patients only via telehealth at the moment, but they are thinking ahead to when the pandemic is over and clients arrive who may use a wheelchair or have other mobility issues. To allow for an office, therapy space and bathroom — all accessible according to the Americans With Disabilities Act — Cumming modified the popular modern studio shed plans, adding a lean-to roof.

To combat the steep slope on the site where he was building, Cumming had to dig down three feet and pour cement for concrete retaining walls and footings. On the downhill side, the shed rises a magnificent 18 feet, while uphill it is only 7 feet. Cumming adjusted the plans to build as large as he could without requiring a permit, added an 8-by-16-foot deck on the side, and served as his own electrician. For such a complex project, you’d think he would have previous experience, but he says the most complicated thing he had ever built was a doghouse when he was a kid. A friend reassured him that his inexperience would actually lead to a better build. “He said, ‘If you haven’t done something like this before, you’re going to do it really, really well because you’re going to be worried you’ll get it wrong.’ ”

“It’s been an emotionally satisfying experience because I’m learning I can do this stuff with some patience and some ‘oops’ along the way like everybody,” Cumming says. He relates how fun it was when someone thought he was just renovating a room in the house to create an office but then learned he was building an office. “The world’s got this crazy thing going on and we don’t know when there’ll be a return to normalcy,” he says. “No matter how long it takes, she’ll have a place that’s safe.”

The Pandemic Project

My family of four’s shed — created from Cockrell’s modern studio shed plans — also served as a calendar of days passing. Our younger child, 11, spent hours with my husband, Alan Howard, 51, fetching things and helping.

As an emergency room physician assistant during a pandemic, Alan treasured this collaborative, take-a-deep-breath time with her. “The majority of days, she was out there with me,” he says. “I’d bounce ideas off her and explain things to her so I could understand them myself. And as hard as I tried, I’m sure that she unfortunately learned a few new words.”

“I’m disappointed that it’s over; it gave a sense of daily purpose,” he adds. “There were no big questions, no unknowables, just a set of tasks. I’ll actually look longingly at the tools in the garage or the bag of nails and screws.”

While the shed was underway, we talked of how to situate a window-based air conditioner, but by the time it opened for business, we plugged in a space heater. That’s how California weather works: One day you’re sweating, the next you’re shivering. Time cycles on. Vaccines are invented. The children get older in discernible increments.

Someday I may sit in there when it’s become, as promised, my writer’s studio. I’ll probably look back at this time wishing I could worry about my husband’s virus-laden scrubs in the washing machine, or about the children overhearing my phone calls. I’ll wish for the pace of a lazy summer day with someone who is happy to sit in the sun and chatter away to her father on the ladder. And I know he will, too.

Erika Mailman is a freelance journalist and historical novelist living in Northern California.

Designed by Twila Waddy. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.