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We Quickly Built Our “Mini-Gym” (Greenhouse? Poolhouse? Flex Space), Rushed It, Changed Our Minds A Few Times, And Now We Love It – A Real Farmhouse Messy Saga

Where do you start with this one? This is one of those projects that was my little fantasy – a bucolic tiny building that would anchor the yard, and play a supporting role in this domestic fantasy I had for this property (and my life). I could see clearly, it would be so wonderful, but Brian wasn’t on the same page. He just didn’t really care about this one which turns out is ok. At one point he said, “We don’t have to have the exact same level of enthusiasm for every single thing In life, just do it,” which I actually really appreciated. But because it’s such an expense I wanted him to want this greenhouse-turned-mini-gym as much as I did, (he was more concerned about the pigs and alpacas TBH, LOL). Sure, he works out most days and theoretically wanted somewhere dedicated to doing that, but I just couldn’t get him to meet me on my same “this is going to be so beautiful!!!!” enthusiasm level. So after getting “permission”, I pulled rank (he said, and I quote, “Just steamroll me – this one is yours”) and with my brother and a fast contractor, Scotty, we threw this building together.

But while I originally wanted this beautiful little greenhouse so badly (I could just SEE it in my head), it also wasn’t a priority for me work-wise last spring. Things might have been rushed and ideas might not have been flushed out. I had bigger fish to fry and a lot of them. And yet I’m so happy to say that it’s a little tiny dream situation that I’m incredibly grateful for (I call it “No Excuses” for obvious reasons).

A Fantasy But Also Part Of A Long Term Investment Plan

photo by kaitlin green | from: the backyard makeover

Also, let me be clear – this property will eventually be an income, a business with its own revenue stream. Likely not til the kids have graduated and it will likely remain our home, but with almost 3 almost flat acres so close to Portland I feel confident that with the right business plan we can rent it for a variety of purposes (ahem, because I seriously doubt we’ll ever get out of it what we put into it if we just sell it out right in 10 years). So as I was designing the whole space I was also thinking long term resale, renting it out for shoots, for retreats, small events – all the things. Continuing to invest in making the property as desirable, functional, and beautiful as possible felt wise because there are sooo many unknowns in the future of digital and social media, but beautiful real estate and in-person spaces to connect in, I believe, will always be desirable. Let’s walk you through it:

A Greenhouse – Yes! That’s It! I Want A Greenhouse (Until I Didn’t)

Even after we turned this property into a flat mud pit during the construction, I could see the opportunity for a greenhouse (this is WAY before we even thought of putting in a Soake pool). To grow my seedlings! I thought. To write amongst the vegetables! I fantasized. And yes, I am a real garden enthusiast (with little to no experience) and I really did have dreams of feeding my family from our very own vegetables. I grew up with a massive veggie garden plus our neighbor during Covid had an abundant harvest they shared with us generously. I found extreme joy in the daily picking of my salads and cooking with seasonal vegetables and fruits – I was SOLD). And still am. But then a happy accident occurred…

Our Sunroom Windows Came In Slightly Wrong

It took me a second to figure out what looked off but the beautiful custom windows from Sierra Pacific were missing a shadow bar (a piece of material in between the two panes of glass that gives the illusion that the grid pattern goes all the way through – thus “simulated divided lights”). The windows were gorgeous and yet this flaw was very obvious in the sunroom – a room that we’d be shooting in for the rest of my life. A huge compliment to the Sierra Pacific Customer Service Team – they agreed immediately that it had to be changed (they’ve since streamlined their custom window process to make sure it doesn’t happen) and our new windows came in 6 weeks. I begged them to keep these windows (obviously they worked so well on the property and were very specific to our house) and they said yes as long as I actually use them and not just hoard them til they collect dust. So this humble little greenhouse was about to get GORGEOUS windows…PLUS…

We Needed A Shed Or Structure To House The Pool Equipment

photo by kaitlin green | from: soake pool reveal and review

As the yard was under extreme construction we felt the pressure to make huge long-term decisions NOW, so we chose to do the Soake pool (quite possibly the best high-end decision we’ve ever made – skip a good car y’all, this year-round pool is incredible). The Soake pool, albeit small, has the typical pool equipment that needs to be housed in a structure with a roof (or inside a pool house). So all of a sudden I had more motivation to build this thing (and fast) to pass our pool inspection (which we needed to get because we had to extend the gas, electrical, and plumbing out there). Let’s be honest, I was also driving the pool train – Brian was again more focused on the sports court (which I have mixed feelings about LOL) and the pigs/alpacas (of which I think are a hilarious and wonderful addition to our lives). This whole thing sounds ridiculous, unbelievably privileged, and yet here we are. This is our story and you likely came here to hear a personal account of one’s “renovation that got out of control”, as ridiculous as it all is.

We’d Do It Fast, Cheap, And Very Bare Bones

While I didn’t want it to be janky, we were so done spending money and I was determined to do it as fast/cheap as possible and not worry if it was perfect. This is an outbuilding, not our bedroom. ARCIFORM was slammed doing our house and frankly, they were too high-end and expensive for this project (which I fully respected – different levels of projects require different budgets). From my perspective, we had these pretty windows, we’d put drywall in between and call it – GREAT. DONE. It would have basic electrical (one overhead light and some outlets), no plumbing (which admittedly is probably dumb not to have), and just a mini split for heat and AC (that still doesn’t work, LOLOLOLOL). So I hired Scotty, a new contractor with a lot of framing experience and he was ready to go with a crew. But before I totally messed this up, I smartly got help to make a clear plan.

The Plan…

I hired Annie Usher – the architect on my brother’s house to draw up some basic plans for them to work off of. She put in the dimensions of the windows, we talked about having some drywall to block wherever we put the pool equipment (so a window wasn’t highlighting that stuff), and threw in some also leftover French doors that we weren’t using. GREAT! I handed over the plans and Scotty got to work. He quoted $17k for the building which included framing, roofing, window/door install, basic electrical, and drywall (I believe). We had to pour a pad of cement (which I think was $7k) which fun fact made us have to move some irrigation lines (everything is a thing!!!), but this all seemed reasonable. Painting inside and out was an additional couple of grand. Things cost money. I know this. This felt fair, we’d pay it over months and Scotty and his guys could start like the next day (what a dream). Let’s go!

OH WAIT!!! Before you go around thinking that $25k is a crazy high or worse, that it’s super normal – you should know that we got this quoted by a design/build team (not ARCIFORM) for $75k earlier (they would do the drawings and execute with construction). So that could be why we ended up saying YES quickly on $25k – it’s all relative and that actually felt like a good deal to us. (I just want to say that I find using real large figures so flippantly to be very triggering to myself and also opens up a vulnerability that I’m honestly still not comfortable with – these numbers are just huge and the economic disparity in our country is extreme. But I’m not HGTV and I’m not going to lie about things costing $1,700. I hope that the numbers can help inform your decisions on your home).

How Big Is It? Did You Have It Permitted?

One of the ways we kept it moving quickly was that we made sure it was under 200 feet, therefore avoiding having to get it permitted. Annie took the windows and made sure they functioned for whatever flex space we wanted but kept it under 200 square feet.

What Style Is This? Is It Still A Greenhouse? (Nope)

At this point, I could tell that this space was going to be so pretty that there was no way I was going to let it be full of dirt. I thought that it was going to be my writing office for the afternoons after the kids came home. Listen, my gardening dreams weren’t over, I just likely will buy small veggies already started (or steal from my parent’s greenhouse – they are retired and much more adept at this whole seedling situation). But I still wanted the option for it to be a greenhouse! There is no drainage in the floor but we were told that that could be added/drilled at some point as well.

All Was Good And Fine Until…

I couldn’t believe how fast Scotty and his team threw up this building – within days. Talk about satisfying! I came back from a trip and noticed that the roof line came lower than the windows in the front. They didn’t on the drawings. This is where I did what I wouldn’t do for a client should I have one again ever. I said “Well… it’s good enough!”. The options were to either re-roof it or reframe the windows lower. Both are doable. Both cost thousands. Instead, Scotty had the good idea to cut back the rafter tails (a detail we brought to the front of the house) and we were able to lift the roof a bit. It’s still lower than intended, but it’s only ok.

We had 4 leftover exterior doors from our house – a big slider (which was too big) and 2 French doors – or so I thought. We had planned these but once the roof came down the doors couldn’t swing open and they weren’t meant to swing in (they would take up SO much space inside if they did as we planned on leaving doors open in the summer if we were in there). We thought long and hard about cutting down the doors but it was a lot of finagling that we all felt very little confidence it would actually work. Plus it was holding up the siding going up. So I made the decision to do something temporary and think about it later. We bought a readymade set of doors that are definitely shorter than the windows, but Scotty framed it so that if/when we find the perfect vintage doors or customize a beautiful set of doors (that can clear the roofline) we can change it out. Of course, I looked into getting taller, not custom doors but they were $2,400 and just so boring (and still a few weeks out). I figured we’d do the cheap, fast, and potentially wasteful thing and put these in for now knowing that someday I might change them to prettier doors (or not). They’ve actually stopped bothering me and I think if I planted a climbing plant on both sides of the door, one that went up and over the doors your eye wouldn’t notice it…

Siding, Roofing, Trim, And Paint – Mostly Leftover Materials

Scotty did such a great job of working with what we had and matching/supplementing when needed. We wanted it to match the house and we had leftover materials – GREAT. Remember the materials aren’t what is expensive in most building projects (well, certainly can be during inflation) but it still saved us hundreds if not low thousands and reduced our hoarding of materials. I forget what we had left and what he had to buy – he just kinda took care of it which I really appreciated.

It was pretty much a room by the end of last summer, but without the electrical and flooring done we didn’t use it til almost December. There were a lot of little loose ends to tie up and Scotty and I had an unfortunate communication issue that ended our relationship (first time ever which I felt badly about but at the same time not willing to take all of the responsibility, but definitely some of it). This left the building 80% done for a long time and the mini split is still not hooked up (it’s cold in the mornings so we have a space heater for now).

What Flooring Did You Put Down?

Before you wonder why we didn’t do something prettier in here there are two very good reasons:

  1. We had planned a cold plunge in here and therefore the flooring needed to be waterproof.
  2. Brian’s Fight Camp (boxing app + equipment) needs to sit on rubber so it doesn’t topple over. A big rubber pad would have chopped up the space so much and would have made it hard to put down yoga mats. So we figured the whole floor could be a gym floor (??)
  3. Because we are unsure if this is going to be a gym for 10 years this flooring was easy to install and will be easy to remove should we want to tile it or do something more beautiful.

After about 15 minutes of Google researching, Brian chose this black rubber flooring that came in large rolls (to be cut and laid together, no glue or any fancy materials) ready to be delivered the following week. It was a few hundred dollars, is a great padding for weights to drop on (and a natural yoga mat in a way), and is waterproof. So waterproof, in fact, that it takes days to dry up a splash from the cold plunge (like the water just sits on top)

We installed it over the weekend together, realizing that the all-black is less forgiving than the flecked pattern. But after a while, it all evens out (and we have “gym shoes” that we put on the second we get in there – no outside shoes allowed).

So there you have it – the “mini building that could”. The reveal is TOMORROW, I feel extremely grateful to have this flexibility in our life (not to mention the daily encouragement to work out). Sadly, the outside is so “wintery” and not beautiful right now so we aren’t going to shoot the whole exterior til spring has sprung).

Come back for the reveal to see what is inside (one thing starts with a cold and ends with a plunge). While it may not be a gym forever, for now, it’s honestly – almost – perfect for Brian and me.

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1 month ago

I’m looking forwards to the reveal!
I wanted to say that if you want a greenhouse, you should probably get a proper greenhouse. Even with big windows and a skylight, you’d probably end up with seedings that grew too lanky and leaning to be properly healthy – the light levels just wouldn’t be adequate. Also, with a proper greenhouse you’d probably get just about enough winter light be able to grow some salads in winter too.
I’ve seen some pictures of very pretty timber-framed greenhouses used much more like conservatories (ie, pretty houseplants and nice wicker chairs, or even full-on dining rooms), so I’m sure you could find a halfway house between functional horticultural space and stylish writing space.

1 month ago

Oh gosh – this building is beautiful but I don’t think I’ll ever do a renovation. I can feel your stress reading this when you’re explaining the costs and mishaps. Thanks for the honesty when sharing.

1 month ago
Reply to  KC

KC I know what you mean! I am starting my own home search (very exciting!), and I used to think I would be game for a bit of a fixer-upper, but cautionary tales on blogs like this one have me shifting my focus to move-in-ready for sure!

1 month ago
Reply to  Ann

We finally bought a year and a half ago and I was SHOCKED to get quoted $4k to pain the ceiling in our vaulted family room. The previous owners painted it brown so apparently it will take a couple coats of paint to change.

1 month ago

Emily, thank you for this real and honest story! I love that you don’t lie about costs, and that you’re honest about how complicated and hard a renovation can be. I was honestly surprised that this mini-gym cost only $25k — I’m currently working on a basement bathroom in a high-COL area where materials and labor will total around $20k, and that’s with fairly basic materials and doing some of the labor ourselves.
I have a question for you because I’m not familiar with how this sort of thing works: what’s customary when a contractor does something different from the plans you supplied? Was it an option to say “the drawing shows the roof line higher, you need to fix it and that cost is on you,” or is that sort of thing just not done?

1 month ago
Reply to  SLG

Can’t speak for Emily, of course, but I’ve done two pretty comprehensive renovations. When there is something like a plan and the contractor didn’t follow it (ie there is clear evidence of responsibility for the mistake) and there wasn’t a conversation that led to changes being made that were different from the plan, which is usually a recipe for disaster but occurs regularly because paying for new drawings adds a lot of time and cost, THEN there should have been no questions that the contractor fixed it, free of charge. However, oftentimes mistakes are made and there is a lot of blame game and usually a compromise occurs where the homeowner pays the hard costs (additional materials, etc…) and contractor does the labor free of charge. It’s generally just uncomfortable because the level of mistake isn’t agreed upon. They are facing costly repairs and might acknowledge the mistake, but feel like taking responsibility and fixing it is an outsized solution to the mistake made. I have sadly found that the contracting industry is generally very challenging to navigate and open comes with many “hiccups” in the road that often lead to greater expense and time for the project, pushed onto… Read more »

1 month ago
Reply to  SLG

I would think if it was his mistake, he should fix it.

Keith Bradley
1 month ago
Reply to  SLG

You absolutely should fight to keep what is on the drawings; it’s their mistake, and they have to fix it; that’s what was agreed to. In this case, the time to fix it was probably the contributing factor to not redoing it, but the following compromises make that regret worse.

1 month ago

Fascinating! We have an old milk shed on our property. Was so excited to turn it into a wood sauna for next to nothing–until realized we had absestos inside. So it’s a cute storage garden shed. Adds visual interest to the property after being moved behind my garden and protects the history of the place–and I’m happy with that compared to where it sat before doing the same storage thing.

🥰 Rusty
1 month ago
Reply to  Kristi

You “moved” an asbestos shed? That’s scary!👀

1 month ago

As someone getting ready to build a house from scratch this is the only blog I’ve found that has multiple people sharing actual numbers from contractors and trades and it is extremely useful. Yes the numbers are big but they are also real and we shouldn’t sugarcoat them. The honesty and vulnerability are great.

Jen A
1 month ago

Look forward to seeing the reveal. Those windows are definitely beautiful. Genuinely curious to hear your thought process now that you are talking about about selling in ten years vs. it being a forever home (which I thought was the original goal?) What changed your mind? Maybe something for a future post. Also wondering can the soake pool be used for cold plunges or is it too big? Hoping for info on that in the reveal post since you hinted on cold plunge coming in the gym.

1 month ago

Instead of eventually replacing the French doors to match the height of the windows, consider adding a transom window above that matches the grid pattern on the top of the windows. Or even just a pediment or wood trim piece above the doors that coordinates with the window pattern in some way, to match the heights of the openings on that front elevation.

Molly Phillips
1 month ago

As an amateur designer whose budget usually dictates the “it’s good enough” decision after a mistake in renovation, I keep the mantra “make a fault a fashion” that my mom always said and have found that much can be covered with landscape, plants, artwork or just living with it over time so that you quit seeing it. The only times I’ve had the contractors make changes is when I knew I couldn’t live with it long-term without feeling massive disappointment each time I saw the mistake. That’s probably why I’m still an amateur, but the confrontations with the subs and GC are so uncomfortable that they’re not worth the battle and in my rural area, if they walk away, it’s super hard to find someone else.

Thank you for your financial transparency, Em. Your honesty and willingness to admit mistakes/overspending/overanalyzing/pain points are a main reason why I keep coming back to this blog (and probably why I feel like we’re “real” friends, which may or may not be weird – okay, it’s weird, but true).

Pamela T
1 month ago
Reply to  Molly Phillips

Love the “make a fault a fashion” mantra. It reminds me of a quote a friend introduced me to: “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. It can make space for creative alternatives.

1 month ago

Would a transom window be doable over the door? Add more natural light, would be fixed, so no worry about hitting the roof. A transom could go to the height of the windows. But, it would drive me crazy, so I would definitely need to do something about fixing.

1 month ago

Thanks for the update, and sorry for your troubles building it. We had to end a relationship once and it was so difficult, but necessary. PLEASE update on the soake pool- winter costs of heating (how you heated it), usage, etc.

1 month ago

Echo what others say about being grateful for your openness re: costs. I think we all know that s*** is SO expensive right now, but it’s nice to see real numbers so we don’t feel like we are doing it wrong when we get quoted 3K for a small concrete pad in the backyard (real talk). Also appreciate you not throwing about numbers flippantly and being mindful of the fact that it IS a lot of money! Anyone who engages in any kind of home project is really so lucky to not have to be using that money for healthcare, childcare, repairing their car, etc.

1 month ago

Your blog post beautifully captures the essence of turning a personal vision into reality, despite initial resistance and practical challenges. It’s inspiring to see how a dream of creating a functional yet aesthetically pleasing space led to the construction of a mini-gym greenhouse, blending both your desires and practical needs. Your journey from envisioning the project to navigating the intricacies of design, permits, and construction offers valuable insights for anyone looking to undertake a similar venture. The strategic approach to making this space a part of a long-term investment plan, considering future income possibilities, adds an extra layer of foresight and planning.

I’m curious, given the multifunctional nature of this space and its potential future uses, how do you envision balancing its appeal for personal enjoyment versus its utility as a business asset? Your story is a testament to the power of persistence and creativity in home projects.

1 month ago

You know you could put a “ transom window “ above the doors to make it look better/even. Or ya a plant works too.

1 month ago

Emily, this building is very cute and I’m sure you’ll all make good use of it. I do just want to remark on the construction process… you had plans and elevations and then to say it was going to cost you thousands to have something changed to match that.. well, tough cookies on your contractor for not doing it right the first time. I have an architectural design degree as well as a degree in construction management and have worked in the industry for over 20 years (feeling the need to justify myself to your audience here). Plus I just designed and built my own house and yes, when the custom arched doorway needed to be moved over 8 inches due to a mis-read on the plan, they did it and had to eat the cost. And redo the custom brackets supporting the garage roof that were detailed out… as well as reframe and move other openings and details that were already called out on the drawings. There’s no accepting and agreeing to these types of mistakes, you’re only encouraging a lazy contractor to stay a lazy contractor and not improve and I’m not surprised your relationship suffered as a… Read more »

Shannon L.
1 month ago

Putting this out there for the greater good of cost transparency- putting in new engineered wood floors. It’s about 1300 sqft total and includes living room/kitchen/dining room/study/primary bedroom/stairs/upstairs hallway. Our estimate was around $20k. What led to us doing this was the fact that our existing wood floors have a ton of moisture gathering under them (bad flipper job by previous owner). Oh, and I’m in Houston.