TRANSFORM YOUR OLD GARAGE
Many city garages are nothing more than inefficient, mouldering storage bins for old lawn chairs, cardboard boxes of who- knows-what and unreachable, rarely-if-ever-used whatevers. In downtown’s small lots, they’re often the defining element, occupying up to a quarter of the usable yard space and warping the rest of it into a less than ideal L shape. While Toronto land prices haven’t yet reached the hot-air-balloon levels of Tokyo, San Francisco or New York, these creaking backyard remnants of a Tin Lizzie yesteryear take up scarce and valuable space, shade the remainder into slugville and cut many a garden design off at the knees.
There are many reasons why old garages are no longer used. Some can only be entered through narrow shared drives closed in by building walls that bear witness to the difficulty of negotiating safe passage, particularly in snow and icy conditions. The garages themselves are often minuscule, even for the more reasonable-sized modern vehicle. If access isn’t a problem, the garage door may be hard to open but expensive or impossible to replace with an automatic overhead door because of low headroom. Street parking is so much easier. On the positive side, many downtown garages aren’t used because some people manage to resist the sexy commercials and stay car-free.
But when the notion of tearing the old thing down is posed, most homeowners want to keep their options open. If they’re thinking of eventually selling, a garage of any sort is an asset. They themselves may eventually want to use it for parking or storage. Despite these considerations, there are ways to make a garage more useful, more friendly and more integrated into the garden. Of course, the structure may be degraded to the point where it has to be torn down. If so, and if you intend to rebuild, you can still plan the new structure to be more open to the garden.
Just opening up a corner of the garage to the garden by adding a couple of beams and posts, cutting out sections of the walls and leaving them completely open, or installing large recycled windows can make a huge difference to the apparent spaciousness of your backyard. Building a partition in the garage back 6 or 12 feet from the new openings, can give you a covered place to sit while retaining storage space in the remainder of the garage.
The floor can be flagstones or interlock pavers extending out into the garden, or a wood deck. This can be laid on top of the existing concrete floor if there is one. It’s nice to be elevated a step or two above the garden if the headroom is available. If it’s ever needed as a garage again, it’s simple to return it to its original form, especially if the dividing partition is made in panels to fit the openings. A wood floor can be made in panels, too.
The photo above shows a more extensive conversion, where a partition was built two-thirds of the way into the garage, leaving a third of it for storage and using the rest for an open cottage-like sitting area in which a wood deck floor was built.
Mirrors on the partition simulate windows, reflecting the garden and creating a greater sense of openness. A decorative cedar rafter truss was added in the middle of the roof space, a circular opening was cut into the gable end for a view of the sky, and a coat or two of paint brought the structure back to life and into harmony with the house and garden.
While closer in character to a Muskoka cottage than to a Japanese tea house, the formerly useless garage now shelters many a pleasant conversation, over tea or not.
There are many ways to convert an existing structure, and the particulars will depend on the style of your house and garden, how you intend to use it and how long-term your plans are. With cedar shingles, a Cape Cod look is easy to achieve. With bamboo or willow panels, a Japanese tea house is yours to enjoy. But whatever the style, a nice, sheltered place to sit in the garden transforms your experience of it, extending your outdoor living through hot afternoons, rainstorms, spring and fall. And a glimpse through the window at your backyard retreat, even when you can’t get out there, brings more of the garden’s life into yours.