To the Mac-cave!
Build the perfect retreat for work, rest and play
Babies might not appear all that big, but they take up a surprising amount of room – and in the run-up to the birth of my baby son, my wife made it clear that the room our son would be taking was the room where my Mac and I lived. Once Adam was out of his Moses basket, me and my Mac would have to mosey on out of there.
Babies aren’t the only reason for moving your Mac, of course. You might be downsizing, going freelance, or your better half might just be fed up with you plonking away in GarageBand when they’re trying to watch Game of Thrones. Whatever the reason, the result’s the same: you suddenly need to find a new place to perch.
That’s great if you live in a mansion with stacks of spare rooms. It’s not so great if your home is already more cramped than an 8GB iPhone.
So what do you do when there’s no room for you and your Mac? The answer’s simple. Get yourself a Mac cave!
Caves of all kinds
A Mac cave can be anything. Some people convert their garage into an office; others move into the loft; and some others build full-on extensions. Each option gives you somewhere warm and secure that’s also likely to add value to your house, but they also can cost a great deal of money and involve months of noise and mess to set up – assuming you have the time and money to get them done in the first place.
I had neither. Hurrah, then, for Permitted Development Rights.
Permitted Development Rights enable you to add an outbuilding such as a summerhouse, shed or garden office without having to get planning permission or a building warrant. You get all the benefits of extra space without the expense or bureaucracy.
As you might expect, there are limits, of course: you can’t go ahead and build a life-size replica of The Shard or the Millennium Falcon in your back garden. To qualify under Permitted Development Rights your building in question has to be single storey without balconies, verandas or raised platforms, and it can’t be higher than four metres if it has a double pitched roof or three metres if it doesn’t. If the building is within two metres of a boundary it can’t be higher than 2.5 metres, and it should be at the rear of the house: as you can imagine, the rules are much more strict about the front of your house than the back.
The rules apply to houses – not flats or maisonettes – and if the building is listed, in a conservation area or protected in some other way, then there are other restrictions, too. You’ll find full details at planningportal.gov.uk/ permission/commonprojects/outbuildings for England and Wales, if you’re in Scotland head to scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0038/00388268.pdf, or to bit.ly/RAq3gB if you’re planning a Mac cave in Northern Ireland.
Check your cave’s covered
Before you start shopping for sheds or talking to architects, it’s important to look into insurance – and if you’re going to be working from your Mac cave, you’ll need to look into business rates and tax as well.
In many cases your existing home insurance policy will cover you for home working provided that the work is clerical and that you don’t receive visitors. But don’t just automatically assume you’re covered: you should check with the insurer that the outbuilding is included in your policy and find out whether they have specific security requirements or if there are
lower per-item limits that might mean a stolen Mac, for example, won’t be fully covered.
If you’ll be using your Mac cave for work, you shouldn’t need to pay business rates if there’s no significant ‘commercial activity’, which typically means a steady stream of visitors, visible business signage and/or disruption to your neighbours. If you will be receiving visitors then you’ll need to consider getting Public Liability Insurance in case one of them, say, trips and sues you.
If you’re self-employed and have an accountant, have a chat with him or her, too: you might be able to offset some of your costs against tax, and if you’re VAT registered you might be able to reclaim the VAT on the costs of your building as well.
Choosing a Mac cave
When it comes to garden buildings, the choice is endless. A quick visit to shedworking.co.uk uncovers everything from cheap and cheerful DIY projects to the kind of rooms you’d expect to see on Grand Designs, and there are stacks of garden building companies offering everything from simple shiplap sheds to all-singing, all-dancing eco-friendly palaces. The range is staggering, from Dominic Jones’ One Grand Design (check out onegranddesigns.com) – an office he reckons you can build for less than £2,500 – to converted shipping containers, fairytale summmerhouses and architect-designed extravaganzas that cost more than £20,000.
It’s possible to pick up a basic shed or summerhouse for few hundred pounds, but that’s almost certainly a false economy. If the building has windows they’re likely to be singleglazed and perspex, the walls will be made of the thinnest wood and the hardware – hinges and so on – will be flimsy: as a result you’ll be freezing in the winter, boiling in the summer and you’ll live in constant fear of falling foul of burglars. You can upgrade all of those things yourself, of course, but doing so can easily wipe out any of the savings you were desperately trying to make.
Buying a building that’s insulated and doubleglazed is probably a better idea, but it comes with an inevitable price hike. There are different grades of insulation too, and a building with thick insulation and super-efficient double glazing will cost more than one with basic aluminium bubble insulation and thin double glazing. There’s a trade-off here: better insulation costs more, but costs less to heat and cool. For buildings of the sort of size I wanted – about 8 feet by 10 feet – the rate was around £5,000 for ones with basic insulation and £7,000-plus for more toasty ones.
Shopping around is crucial here. There are huge price differences between apparently identical buildings from different suppliers, and hidden costs can be huge: where some firms charge fairly reasonable delivery charges, others appear to be sending the goods by taxi.
Cut your cave costs
Shopping around isn’t the only way to cut costs. If you’re willing to install a pre-fabricated building yourself – something that’s typically a two-person job that takes a day or two – that can save you a packet, and it’s much cheaper to paint it yourself than get it painted by the manufacturer. Don’t forget about opportunity costs, though. Any time you spend doing things – digging trenches, painting walls, fitting security bars – is time you can’t spend on doing your job (if you’re working freelance or are self-employed, for example), so think carefully about what jobs you want to take on yourself. There’s no point saving a few bob on tradesmen if doing so means turning down wellpaid work.
If you’re not too bothered about getting something factory-fresh, ex-demonstration buildings often come with steep discounts: the building I ended up getting was £3,500 including delivery and installation, a saving of more than £2,000 on the new price.
It’s important to realise that unless you pay the building supplier to do it you’ll also need to budget for electrical work, network cable, paint, flooring, blinds, lights, furniture and security.
Once you’ve worked those costs out, take the final figure and double it, because there’s bound to be something you’ve forgotten about or an unexpected development that’ll involve spending more cash.
Digging out your Mac cave
Before your building can be built, it needs to have a place to sit. You’ll need a flat surface – slabs are usually fine provided they’re level, or you can make a foundation using concrete and/or wooden beams – and you’ll need to arrange for an electrical supply. You’ll probably also need to run Ethernet cabling unless your Wi-Fi signal is incredibly strong. Your cordless phone and doorbell probably won’t have sufficient range either, so you might want to run cables for your phone and/or doorbell or buy systems with longer wireless range.
In most cases you’ll want to bury your cabling to prevent accidental damage or sabotage, so you’ll need to dig a deep trench, run the cables and put everything back again before the building can be installed. Once it’s up you can Got a screw loose? Gary attaches his Kensington
SafeStand to his desk. then finish off the job by fitting plugs, networks and other sockets.
The building regulations are very strict about electrical safety: you must use armoured cable for the power supply, if it’s underground it needs to be buried safely and with warnings for future residents, and it needs to be certified by a qualified electrician.
I’m rubbish at DIY, so I dug the holes and left everything else to my friendly neighbourhood electrician. He charged £400 for two days’ work. That figure included all the cabling, hardware and finishing but not my Ethernet cable or security light, which I ordered online because they were cheaper.
If like me you’re on a tight budget, there are a number of ways to cut corners here. Expensive armoured cable isn’t needed for any wiring that’s inside your house, so my electrician only used it for the stretch between the back of my house and the home office, and I didn’t bother getting a lighting circuit fitted. Don’t skimp on network cable, though: in fact, run twice as much as you need: so, for example, instead of running one 25m length of Ethernet, run two. That way if one fails you can simply swap to the other one without having to dig down and replace the existing cabling.
Once you’ve got power and internet, it’s time to decorate. I went for straightforward paints inside – magnolia might not be exciting, but it’s really cheap – and spent a little bit more on paint and wood preserver for the outside, since that’s the bit
The house that Gary built: the building Gary bought cost him £3,500. He’s delighted with it!
Inside, Gary can work with the
reassurance knowing he has his own secure working space.