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Lola Sheppherd and Mason White stand inside their macroSPACE unit in Toronto on Nov. 6, 2020.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Mason White and Lola Shepherd considered briefly moving out to a farm in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. “I lost that argument,” Mr. White says.

Instead, the Toronto family commissioned a “macroSPACE” unit from the modular building designers of the same name; a pre-fabricated one-room structure to sit in their backyard. With one teenager tackling high school from home, another arriving home early from COVID-shortened school days and the parents – both professors – teaching from the house, space in their house became a precious commodity. The house sits on a skinny lot in Toronto’s Bloorcourt neighbourhood; adding to the main house itself would have been prohibitively expensive,

What they get instead is a room of one’s own – a place that suits the needs of all the family members. The elder teenager gets a place to play video games; the younger a space to exercise. Both children have a space to hang out with friends and the parents get a quiet space to finish work, or read.

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Their custom space includes an outside deck area, a light plywood interior finish, a skylight and Pirelli floor tiles (think: hockey locker room floors), ideal for keeping a multi-purpose room clean.

The mini building “just becomes a really novel way to get a little cottage in the backyard,” Mr. White says.

Like the family’s need for more space, macroSPACE was also born out of the pandemic’s pressures: the lack of separation between work and home, and the daily challenges of having everyone in one space. Founders and long-time friends Shanly Arnett, Maria Denegri and Elisa Sauvé had each ended up in some part of the design world – production, architecture and interior design. Conversations would regularly return to the same question: why can’t you use a backyard year-round?

“It’s kind of this dead space for four months of the year or more, and so we’re pushing to rethink that,” Ms. Sauvé says.

What the pandemic made clear to the trio is how much home can become a fraught space when it is the only space.

“I think we honestly have a universal need for a refuge,” Ms Denegri says.

Renderings of macroSPACE's three models. Choros model.

macroSpace

Nearly half of Canadian households have someone working at home as a result of the pandemic, according to a June 2020 Angus Reid Survey, while many Canadians are spending more time at home due to the pandemic’s economic fallout or the vagaries of the schooling schedule. In any case, a majority of workers do not see themselves returning to the office full-time: one-fifth of those surveyed expect to never return to the office.

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Tech giants such as Shopify, Twitter and Facebook say some version of permanent work-from-home would be part of their future plans after the pandemic ends.

Danny Tseng, co-founder of design firm Syllable, says working from home was always going to be a part of the new working future, citing a 2017 report from tax software firm Intuit forecasting that by this year, freelancers, independent contractors and on-demand workers would make up 45 per cent of the Canadian workforce.

The firm has seen an uptick in secondary space projects from garage conversions to laneway houses but Mr. Tseng says the modular enclosed space is unique to COVID. For one client on a larger lot in Richmond Hill, Ont., they’re in the process of designing a small structure to serve as a backyard sanctuary.

Realtor Steven Fudge, whose Urbaneer blog tracks housing trends and developments, says customized outbuildings for work or leisure have long been around as a type of DIY idea – a space near the house to get away from it all, namely from others in the house. But Mr. Fudge says that, in his real estate business, he has found that for his clients, “the new currency is square footage.”

Toronto-based design firm Syllable is designing a space it calls the Backyard Retreat.

Syllable

Building in the backyard also has a pleasant advantage to renovating the main house; you can add a room without the daily nuisance of dodging plumbers, drywallers and carpenters on the way to the kitchen.

For Mr. White and Ms. Shepherd, the pre-fabricated walls were transported down their thin side-alley; the only disruption inside the house was when the thicker roof panels had to be taken through the front door into the back yard, a process that took less than a day.

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The speed of construction is a major selling point. MacroSPACE’s smallest model at less than 100 square feet, called the “ruimte,” does not require a permit. The company says it can deliver a completed unit in six to eight weeks.

Ryan Abernathy, co-founder of Lethbridge, Alta.-based DROP Structures, has been in the modular building business for four years. The company’s units are now ordered by hotels and resorts, but the company began as a modular backyard office builder and continues to offer them.

The Mono, a high-end black-clad shed with glass windows and doors, remains a popular choice. “It just gets dropped off. We plug it in and it’s ready to go,” Mr. Abernathy says.

The Ruimte is the smallest of macroSPACE's three models and does not require a permit.

macroSpace

Mr. Abernathy has recently been fielding a wave of inquiries, some from as far afield as Southern California, where tech workers are finding themselves looking for some kind of reprieve from home.

Despite the smaller size of the secondary outdoor space, this burst of modular building faces the same supply and pricing problems plaguing the construction industry during a time of closed borders.

DROP’s interiors use Baltic birch which comes from Russia. A shutdown of the Russian mill delayed arrival of the lumber for over a month and a half, forcing Mr. Abernathy to buy the material whenever and wherever he could, regardless of price, a cost the company has absorbed in order to keep construction going.

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Sebastian Kellner of Backyard Outdoor Escapes, a London, Ont.-based company, has found that the cost of material has had an impact not only on requests but also on the pricing of the buildings. For clients looking to build immediately, construction comes at a premium. But it’s a premium, he’s finding, that clients are willing to pay.

These spaces must service high aspirations and meet high demands. Small as they are, they must be a sanctuary; a space for focus and productivity; a home away from home and be usable through all four seasons. In Canada, the demands for a climate-proof small structure that can do all that comes with a not-insignificant price tag. MacroSPACE’s smallest unit starts at $39,000 which is inclusive of all fittings. Backyard Outdoor Escape’s custom sheds start at $9,980, but can increase rapidly as a basic shed transforms into a more sophisticated sanctuary.

“If you think about the kind of budget that some wealthy people spend on vacations” says DROP’s head of sales, Conor MacGregor, “they’re just repurposing that budget into this new scene.”

For some households, the lifestyle changes required by the pandemic have led to a paradigm shift. “Outside our front door is now where the [pandemic] risk is,” Mr. Fudge says. “The magnitude of that shift is phenomenal, especially when, now, your entire life is happening within the boundaries of your property.”

But for Mr. White, the transformation doesn’t just begin inside their new external sanctum. It starts with the short walk through the backyard.

“Psychologically, it does something powerful to think that I’ve left my house, that I’m in a second space.”

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