Outdoor Living: Garage Conversion Opportunities

Embraced in many areas as a housing solution, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) from converted garages can also be used as flex outdoor living, working and entertaining spaces.

authors Patrick O'Toole | August 6, 2021

The work-from-home trend was strong before COVID-19. Today, it is off the charts. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 20 percent of employed adults worked from home prior to the pandemic. Seventy-one percent worked from home during the pandemic and, significantly, 54 percent say they would want to continue working from home post-pandemic.

Two functions are on display here. There is a comfortable built-in reading nook and a ladder to a hideaway for the kids.

Many of the same people say their homes lack the kind of workspace solutions needed for a permanent stay. The same Pew survey found that 23 percent of those working from home say their workspaces are “very/somewhat difficult.” An even greater number (32 percent) cite difficulties getting their work done “without interruptions.”

A popular solution during the height of COVID was to work outside as long as there was adequate shade, a place to plug in computers and peripherals and, perhaps most important, access to a strong Wi-Fi signal. Search the terms “outside” and the acronym “WFH” (short for work from home) and you’ll be met with dozens of detailed posts about how to create a suitable home office outside.

In a way, Seattle-based design-build firm Crescent Builds has been onto this trend for more than a decade. While today the 12-person firm is best known for its full-scale whole-house renovations and room additions, the firm has its roots in an ADU garden shed created by the company’s founders on their property in 2006. (You can even see a picture of that building as it looks today at crescentbuilds.com.)

Two recent Crescent Builds projects, both completed in collaboration with Seattle-based architecture firm Mutuus Studio, are better examples of garage conversions as a means to create flex spaces suitable for a number of work-from-home, relax-in-the-yard, entertain-in-the-yard solutions.

In the Ballard section of Seattle, the firm designed and built a “garden studio” to “engage every member of the family,” states a company description. The existing garage was small. It held two cars and had a standard 7-foot by 16-foot opening. Crescent Build’s solution was to specify a folding glass wall.

This modestly sized garage is the perfect permanent office, away from distractions. When closed, it’s back to workspace or hangout space. 

On nice days, the folding wall (a NanaWall SL60) can be opened wide for complete access to the yard. And when the weather is not suitable for full access to the yard, plenty of daylight floods into the interior spaces where a built-in seat is intended for reading and a long bier-garden table occupies the center of the room. The table is a place for projects as well as for outdoor dining. For the kids, there is a built-in ladder to a playroom hideaway.

Another Crescent project, the Phinney Garden Room, also began as a standard-sized garage. But instead of specifying one folding window wall they used two. With two open walls the indoor-outdoor effect is enhanced. The finished project functions as a work-from-home office and entertainment space.

This modestly sized garage is the perfect permanent office, away from distractions. When its folding glass walls are folded, it shifts to an outdoor living oasis.

The two folding window walls terminate at the same corner post. When both walls are opened, away from the corner post it creates the type of outdoor living space usually found in warmer, drier climates in the Sunbelt. To maximize the openness, the doors selected by Crescent are a type that folds flat revealing the full extent of the expanse.

Crescent’s design for the project included two skylights mounted between the existing ceiling rafters, which were left uninsulated. For comfort’s sake, a radiant heating system was also added. The existing concrete floor was buffed and coated. Additionally, a set of cabinets were designed to store all the yard-care items that were previously stored in the space when it was a garage.

Design Considerations

Asked to list the key design considerations for adding a folding window wall in place of a standard two-car garage door, NanaWall’s Matt Thomas focused on two areas. The first is to address whether the folding glass wall would be supported from above or rest on the threshold below. Though many existing garage-door headers can support the weight of a folding glass wall, the better choice would be to support it on the ground.

Notice the handle on the folded unit. That is the swing door for use when the walls are closed.

The second consideration is the type of threshold to specify. Ground-supported units can be designed with a flush-mounted threshold or a saddle threshold. Just as its name suggests, the saddle threshold is installed on top of a slab but is “comfortable to step on with bare feet,” Thomas explains. The primary benefit of a saddle threshold is its enhanced performance capabilities in climates where wind and wind-driven precipitation are common.

“Garages are built to support a heavy garage door,” Thomas says. “So, you’ve typically got the kind of header that’s necessary to support these panels if you want them top-hung. The majority of our systems, however, are bottom supported. This way, there’s no problem whatsoever installing these systems in garage-door openings. All the weight is borne on the floor. If you want more weather resistance; you can use a low-profile saddle.”

A view from near the desk out across the main living space into the yard and garden.

A big question surrounding the folding window-wall product category is price. Because they are custom made, NanaWall products (as well as those manufactured by other window and door manufacturers) are often priced at a premium. But high prices are a common misperception, Thomas says. Because the heights of garage openings are only slightly more than 7 feet this type of unit would price out at approximately $700 per lineal foot or approximately $8,000, he says.

Given the benefit created by converting an old garage to multipurpose outdoor living space—a place suitable for also working, playing and entertaining—many homeowners quickly see the value. Without knowing the actual price or the functionality, homeowners may, out of ignorance, opt for a standard, two-panel, sliding glass door found at a retailer for $3,500.

Other design considerations, Thomas says, involve the proper placement of a swing-door section of the folding door, which serves as a main door for regular entry when the folding glass wall is closed. In the Phinney Garden Room only one of its two folding glass wall units is fitted with a swing door. The other window wall is only opened from the inside.

Another design consideration is the decision of whether to add retractable screens. NanaWall does not make screens though it once did. Today there are several manufacturers who make retractable screens that can be custom ordered and designed to properly cover large openings.

To Thomas, the design example set by Crescent Builds and other remodelers shows what can be done with garage spaces when window walls are added. “Most homeowners aren’t aware of these possibilities, even with the proliferation of bi-fold doors on the market,” he says. “Project examples like these help communicate the possibilities to homeowners.”

Given the strong trend toward outdoor living and the large number of people who intend to continue working from home post-COVID, remodelers will undoubtedly see plenty of new leads for this type of solution. And creating ADUs from existing detached structures will certainly be an attractive option for the new work-from-home crowd. QR

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