Building the Wood Shop: Part II - Design Options
It was the dead of winter - and I'd made the decision to build a new shop, but I hadn't decided on just what I was going to build. No problem, lots of time to go before the snow left, so it was a good time for a little research. I've been an architect for a while now, and have been building homes and involved in building in one aspect or another for my entire life, and if I've learned anything, it's that ideas take time to gel - and will, if you actively pursue them. You don't have to spend every minute obsessing over it, but spend a few hours when you can and check out all of the options for yourself. It's time well spent.
For the shop, I figured I had 2 choices... I could do either a stick frame or a pole barn style. I had to weigh out the pros and cons of each... I wasn't too fond of pole barns, but I figured since I'd heard so many talk positively about them that I should give it an earnest effort and find out if it was an answer for me.
First up, the ubiquitous (at least here in Northern Idaho) pole barn. Seems like everyone has one around here. I looked into several different builders, from the high profile builders to Average Joe Pole Barn, and it left me unimpressed. Sure, I could get a shell up for what seemed to be little money, and in a hurry... But the more I looked into it, the less impressed I was. As I talked with each contractor, it was almost like talking to used car salesmen. The concrete wasn't included. The windows weren't included. The overhead door wasn't included. There's no overhang, that costs this much... A lean to will cost you this much more. Was there even a building included in the base price, or was that just for four sticks with a poly tarp stretched over them?
Then - if that wasn't enough - I get the Cadillac vs. Chevy spiel from one fellow, and the "yeah, but it only adds the cost of a couple of pizzas every month" from another. Good god, man - get a grip! This crap might work when you're selling your cousin's 1985 Impala, but for chrissakes, this isn't the time or place! The last guy that tried that line on me literally was a used car salesman!
A tip from a neighbor had me calling another guy who "did the work on the side". Ok, at least I won't get the sales pitch... Of course, it wasn't a good sign when I called him at about 11:00 in the morning and he wasn't out of bed yet, and sounded like he had one helluva hangover. When we finally got around to talking price, he wanted half the cash up front. References? Um... References?
That's pretty much how it went with everyone I talked to. It boiled down to two types - either by the time I got what I wanted, the price was rivaling the best stick-built - or I was gambling on some head case, and I've been down that road before (with some drywallers on my first house - but that's another story). It didn't help that the area was going through an unprecedented building boom - the one guy I did talk to who truly impressed me was booked for 8 months sold and couldn't even guarantee anything for me then (he basically told me he couldn't take my job because he was so busy).
Ok, so I could build one myself, I suppose. But then there is the aesthetics... No matter what you do to them, they still look like a pole barn... and given where it was going to go, a pole barn really just doesn't fit. Also, by the time the shop was completed (both inside and out), the cost savings was minimal. Then, I don't think I could actually have built one without help for a large part of the process, at least labor wise. If I was to do it myself, the situation I was in demanded that I be able to do almost all of the work by myself.
In the end I came to pretty much the same conclusion that I had before I started. Pole barns are fine for their purpose - as an unheated shelter put up in a hurry. But for a heated space, they lose a lot of their luster... They simply weren't designed with that in mind originally, and the basic premise for them hasn't changed much. The one thing it might have saved me - time - was something I had in abundance.
Now, if I didn't have the time, it might have been another story... Finding a contractor to put up a stick built shop in the same marketplace would have been difficult at best too... and who knows, the next time I build a shop it might just be the way to go. But this time, for me - the pole barn idea wasn't looking too appealing.
One of the first design issues is how to place the building on the lot... A good part of the layout is determined by its location. It will tell you the locations of the main entrance, the main views, the best places to hide something from view, where the utilities will be coming in.... It's also important to determine that there's nothing that's going to be in your way that you need to take into account, such as with a septic tank and drain field. One doesn't have to just figure for the drain field alone, but also a replacement area for that drain field if the existing one fails for some reason.
There are also code issues to consider - things like setback are often regulated. In my case, the applicable setback rule is the side yard setback of 10 feet. There's also a 30-foot setback from the rear of the property, but as the lot I have is exceptionally deep, so that wasn't going to be an issue. Also, there's no direct access from the back - it's private property - so that placed the major entrance to the building at the lower right front.
Now, the house is set 18 feet from the properly line on the east (right) side. This allows ample space for a vehicle to get through... Lining the shop up with the house seemed like a logical step. One thing it allows for is a space to park both our trailer and boat for the winter, in the wind shadow of the building. In hindsight, I do wish I had pushed the shop 2 or 3 feet further west, to allow for a little bit larger future addition on the east side should I desire it - as it is now, I'm limited to 8 feet. Which isn't necessarily bad, either... I honestly doubt I will be adding to the east side of this particular building anytime soon. For that matter, I might just put up an open-air lean-to type shed roof to keep water off of things like the mowers and such, and park the boat and trailer on the west side or behind the building, which was my original idea that shows up in the initial design. I also have enough room to put up a small storage shed or two should I want, so I'm not really too worried.
The Initial Design
Ok - first thing - to give myself an idea of cost and to make sure that the pole barn idea was out was to design the stick-built equivalent of the same building and price it out. Besides being a direct comparison, it would help me work out the design "program" - in other words, the list of things I wanted it to have. A program is the first step of the design process. It tells you what you need to design for, and that lets you figure out what you need. I didn't do a formal program, just wrote down a few ideas and kept track of what I thought was important.
The first version I came up with was this:
Isn't that just lovely?
There's an office in the lower left corner, a bathroom right behind it, a tool area at the back left, a mechanical and finishing room at the back right, and an overhead door with room for a vehicle at the lower right. What that, you say? A vehicle? In a WOOD SHOP? Have I gone mad? Well, I can't answer the last, but for the first...
I learned a long time ago not to limit my options. Over the years I've done everything from woodwork, to automotive mechanic and bodywork in the form of hot rods, motorcycle rebuilding (dirt bikes, Harleys, snowmobiles) to large-scale art projects (I was an art major in college), to manufacturing odd things for others. A shop has to be flexible in order to pay for itself.. Then there's also the next owner to consider and the value of the property. If we were to ever sell the property, the next owner might not be interested in woodworking at all, but be a complete gearhead... If the shop can't be easily re-configured for his purposes, it's worth less to him - thus less money in our pocket for the next shop....
Back on subject... the plan above was the most inexpensive plan I could come up with that was still big enough for my needs. Here are some of the issues I identified during its design...
Already using up a lot of yard for driveway, I figured it best if I kept the large overhead door to the right side to minimize its footprint. The office was to go up front so when I was working at it I could see out the front to the back of the house... Why an office? There are a few things that need to be kept separate from the shop proper - a computer for instance. I use a computer to generate many patterns, plans, etc., and computers aren't happy with dust. Another is shelf and reading space for reference books and magazines... A third reason is to have someplace to talk over options with a potential client, should I go down that road. It's also a good area to showplace a few items, like say a Norse Woodsmith backsaw, just for fun and conversation.
I was struggling with the placement of the mechanical/dust collection and finishing areas, as well as the tool area. It seemed a bit constricted, and kind of isolated/packed. It really didn't connect well with the larger space, at least not as I have it drawn above.
Storage seemed to be lacking. One accumulates things over time, and as I have shown in my old shop, it can actually become detrimental to the use of the space. There didn't seem to be enough room for bench space, either... I was also tossing back and forth the idea of having the walk-in door enter either the office or the shop area directly...
Something else that was not present in the design was a wood stove. This is north Idaho, after all - a place where firewood is plentiful, and I happen to have an excellent wood stove available for the shop as well. A couple of years ago, before we converted it to gas, our house was heated with electric baseboard heat and with a wood stove in the basement. The electric heaters were not very efficient (they were 30 years old) and very expensive to run - one month's bill was nearly $300... So, we heated the house with the wood stove when we could. It made a large difference in the monthly costs. But since installing a high efficiency gas furnace that cut our bill to a third or less of what it was, that stove hasn't been used a lot and is no longer wanted in the basement. While it's a good wood burner, it's not very pretty - so it's coming out and being replaced with something a little more attractive - but that frees it up for use out in the shop.
Finally, I looked at the actual construction. Most of it was quite simple - there was one thing, though. The design call for trusses, which require a way to lift them into place; you need either a crane or forklift of some kind or several strong guys around to lift them. Also it means I would need at least one if not two people around to help set them, if not more. Scheduling those things one at a time can be a challenge - and together can be kind of tough for me here, so it's something I wanted to keep in mind and see if there wasn't a way to use a system that wouldn't take a lot of my resources.
Next Up - Something with A Little More Flair:
Something from the opposite end of the scale, that's starting to look a little more familiar, though it's not quite there yet... and I'll get into some limiting factors such as cost and dealing with the permit office and building codes.