Thinking of Building a Dedicated Shop?

Shop Design: With so many things to consider, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Building contractor Matt Dunkin answers some of the most important questions to ask before you break ground.

By Matt Dunkin

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Thinking of Building a Dedicated Shop?



Photos by Matt Dunkin; Lead photo by Bruce McMahon

The dream of a dedicated home shop is a common one among woodworkers. Whether you currently borrow shop space, work in your driveway or side yard, or compete for a corner of your basement with Christmas decorations or your fur­nace, you may be ready to build your own space that will allow you the free­dom of more room and time, and will also keep dust, fumes, and noise under control. Every design/build situation will be unique but there are a series of consid­erations that you will face in the design and construction phases of your project. Let’s walk through the process and dis­cuss the questions that you will need to ask yourself and others as you approach this project.

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2-D Layout – By making scaled drawings of all your equipment and storage, then drawing a floor plan, you can move the objects around the space with ease. This will help you determine how much space you require to house everything. (Photo by Rob Brown)

What will you build in your shop? How much space will you need?
Your sense of space and how to use it will be slightly different depending on the focus of your craft. If you are building furniture with hand tools, you will be able to make do with less space (under 300 sq ft.) than if you’re using mainly power tools and building sets of cabinets (over 400 sq ft.). Some 3D mod­elling with a program like Sketch-Up or some 2D layouts on graph paper with scaled cutouts can allow you to experi­ment with arranging your space and how much of it you will need. You should include not only the tools, benches and storage that you currently possess but also enough room to tackle new types of projects and new tools that you antici­pate needing down the road. When you think you have a layout that works, test it out by mentally working through a range of different projects you might tackle and the needs you will have for material storage, assembly and finishing. Then revise as necessary; this process will allow you to hone in on a general square footage and layout ideas that will set you up to move forward.
 
Will you attach your shop to your house with an addition or locate it in an outbuilding?
There are benefits to either approach. Sharing a common wall with your house can require some careful soundproofing but can reduce heat loss and exterior fin­ishing costs like siding. A shop located in an addition is more likely to be allowed to have living space or storage space above it, and it may be easier to make use of the existing plumbing and electri­cal and heating systems of your home to service your shop space. Another advantage of an addition is not having to run to an outbuilding in minus-30-degree weather or a summer downpour.

Alternately, a detached shop can often be located closer to your property line and offers you a bit more freedom in terms of the type of foundation you can use. It may give you a sense of welcome separation from your home and open up yard space or allow a deck on the back of your house that would otherwise be lost behind your shop. In an urban setting, if you would like to have a wood stove in your shop you may find it more challenging to find an insurance carrier that allows one in an outbuilding. Also, outbuildings can be subject to more stringent height regulations than additions.


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Survey Says … A survey is a good place to start when selecting a specific location for a new building. The Post-It notes show two options where shops may be appropriate.

One floor or more?
Let’s face it, one of the most significant costs of your shop will be its foundation. While you’re at it, what about adding space above your shop? There may be regulations preventing you from building living space above your shop if it is in an urban setting or in an outbuilding, but there may be some flex­ibility depending on where you live. It is in the municipality’s interests to encourage infill housing that uses existing infra­structure. At a minimum, think about including attic trusses to create some space above your shop for drying lumber or storing equipment. Access could be from simple pull-down attic stairs or from the exterior if you don’t want to lose floor space to a stair or ladder. If you’re creating an addition to your house, you may be able to add a couple of rooms you’ve always wanted, such as a family room, office or in-law suite.


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Another Story? – To gain access to a second floor the simplest option may be a ladder, as they are small and easy to make or purchase. The downside is that it can be tough to haul heavy objects up them. This foldaway ladder is secured to the ceiling with two eyehooks then lowered when needed. (Photos by John Spitters)

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What is the zoning of your property?
If you want to run a business operated by yourself and more than one employee, you may run into zoning issues if your location is zoned for residential use only. It’s common for municipalities to allow and encourage home-based busi­nesses but there will likely be a maximum area that you will be permitted to add for business purposes. If you try to build a shop that will contribute noise and traffic (from employees or deliveries) to an urban neighbourhood, you run the risk of run­ning into opposition from neighbours concerned by the impact your shop will have. Your municipality will have planners with whom you should consult as you begin to define the possibili­ties that your property will allow.
 
Do you have room to add a shop?
This is a fundamental question. A good place to start is with a survey of your property. Most municipalities have a maximum percentage of your lot that you can build on and standard setbacks from your property lines that you will need to adhere to without needing to request special permission to build. On a photocopy of your survey you can draw in what your local setbacks are in order to define the location within which you will be permitted to build. In a best-case scenario, you will have the space to build without compromising too much on space or location; otherwise, you may need to request a minor variance, which would allow you to circumvent an obsta­cle such as a setback.

Minor variances are applications to your municipality to suspend a particular by-law to allow your project to proceed, based on common sense or precedents set by other buildings in your area. If your municipal committee of adjustment denies permission because a neighbour voices concern over the development, you would have to appeal the decision to the municipal board of your particular province. In that case, you may be better off looking for another piece of property with an existing structure that you could renovate, more relaxed zoning regula­tions, a larger lot, or more congenial neighbours. 


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Proper Drawings – Drawings are required to show you will comply with the building codes in your area.

What drawings do I need to apply for a building permit? Can I prepare them myself?
Gone are the days when you could apply for a building permit based on a sketch on the back of a cigarette pack­age. In provinces like Ontario, design work must be undertaken by an insured designer registered under the provin­cial building code or by the owner of the property. You can do the drawings as the owner if you can demonstrate effec­tively through your drawings that your structure will comply with the techni­cal requirements of the building code in a clear and concise way. You will be required to submit detailed drawings, including the following:

Site plan – an oriented aerial view of your property and the surrounding streets, with details of setbacks from property lines of existing and proposed buildings, separations between buildings, etc.

Floor plan – again, an overhead view of each floor of the proposed structure and, if it is attached to a house, the floor plan for the house will also need to be detailed with rooms sized and labelled. Doors and window sizes, plumbing fix­tures and finishing details, as well as the placement of partition walls, are to be included.

Structural drawings and cross sections – these will be comprised of foundation details, cross-sections of the structure, floor, wall and roof framing details, stairs, locations of posts and footings.

Building elevations – elevations are views from each exterior face of your structure and will detail exterior finishes such as roofing or siding, window place­ment, roof slope and venting, as well as the overall heights of your structure from ground level to roof peak.

Demolition plan – if you are alter­ing an existing structure, you will likely need to demonstrate what is currently present and how it will be altered. This would apply for moving windows or doors, changing the uses of rooms and removing or adding walls.


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Don’t Overlook the Floor – Anti-fatigue mats can be cut and placed around all the machines in your shop, leaving a more comfortable work area.

How do I figure out what the design and permit costs will be?
If you choose to hire a draftsperson or architect, they may charge you based on the square footage of the area you are proposing, by an hourly rate for their time or as a percent­age of the cost of the structure. Costs of building permits will be a percentage of the estimated cost of the structure you are proposing (e.g., $15 permit fee per $1000 or 1.5 percent), or a cost-per-square foot depending on your municipality (e.g., $1.20 per square foot). Design work and permits will both dif­fer depending on the part of the country in which you will be building, so ask the questions as you move ahead. One of the costs that is often overlooked in planning is the increase in annual property tax you will pay once your improved property has been reassessed.
 
What is the role of the building department once I begin building?
After a permit has been issued, the building inspector will want to be notified at various points during your build in order to do a site visit, walk around and inspect the details to make sure that they meet code requirements. These inspections are commonly at the point where excavation work is complete, when the foundation is completed but before back-filling, when framing and all structural work has been done, after the installation of the insulation and vapour barrier, and then a final inspection after everything is complete. You may need to have a separate plumbing inspector if you’re adding or changing plumbing fixtures, and electrical work will need to be inspected by the appro­priate electrical inspector (in Ontario, the Electrical Safety Authority). In my experience, inspectors appreciate good work, a clean, safe site, and are willing to work with hom­eowners and builders to make sure that the work will meet code and will endure.
 
What are my options for foundations for my shop?
The frost generated by Canadian winters wreak havoc on structures through their foundations. According to code con­ventional foundations and footings must rest below the reach of frost on undisturbed soil (in most provinces, this is safely considered to be 4 ft. below ground level or grade), bear directly on bedrock, or be frost-protected. A shallow founda­tion may be possible in your area in an outbuilding if you can get an engineer to design and stamp plans for insulating the area directly beside your shallow foundation wall so that frost will not form beneath the footing area and cause damage. A slab-on-grade foundation for an outbuilding is another option that will need to be designed by an engineer so that the con­crete slab will structurally bear the weight of the shop structure you build above it.

If your shop will be attached to your house or another struc­ture, it will likely need to match its foundation, tying the two structures together so that one does not structurally stress the other if they shift differently. That may dictate a poured concrete or concrete block foundation. Regardless of your foundation type, a cold concrete floor will sap energy away from the rest of the structure if you are not careful, so think about how to insulate it well before you build.
 
Do you need plumbing in your shop?
This will be a personal matter, depend­ing on whether it will be helpful for finishing or sharpening. However, it is a good idea to look beyond your current use of this space to the next owner. Would it be beneficial to add plumbing hookups so that the shop could someday be an apart­ment, or an art studio, or an extension to your house? It could add to the resale value of your house to be able to create as flexible an area as possible by roughing in a bathroom and even a kitchenette area if you can. If this is done when wall cavities are open or before the slab is poured, your forethought could pay dividends but not cost much up front. 


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Simple or Complex? – While you may want to think long term and add plumbing for future expansion, plumbing can also be very low-tech. (Photo by Rob Brown)

How many windows and doors should there be?
You may want a garage door if you will need to access your shop with large workpieces or tools, or if you or future owners will ever want to use the space to park a vehicle. Garage doors are notoriously drafty, however, so if you think you can live without one you will probably be warmer. Instead, you could opt for out-swinging double doors. In a small shop you can, at a pinch, rip longer lengths of lumber by feeding the material out of either a strategically placed door or window.

The number of windows, as well as their sizing and placement, depends on your orientation, view, desire for ventilation, and needs for daylight and solar gain. Orienting more of your windows towards the south side of your shop and placing them high enough that they are shaded by the eaves in summer, but allow lower-angle winter light to come in, will increase your ability to get free light and heat from the sun. If your goal is to take advantage of passive solar opportunities, make sure that you carefully research the type of glass that is in your windows and look for something with a high solar heat gain coefficient. Higher windows generally allow for benches and tools beneath them, and relatively win­dowless north walls may be a place to arrange wood storage or mechanicals.


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What are my options for a shop floor?
The standard option for a shop floor is a concrete slab. You’re probably not going to go to the trouble of creating a basement beneath your shop, although it is possible. The weight of most woodworking machines suggests that a con­crete floor is the most solid and durable substrate available. It has the potential to be used as thermal mass to store heat from your heating system or from the sun, but it can be tiring and hard on your body to be standing on concrete all the time. You can add a vapour barrier, 2x4 sleepers and a wooden floor above the concrete to ease the tendency of the floor to strain your feet and back, or you can add anti-fatigue mats in key areas where you’ll be standing for longer periods.
 
Do you need to upgrade your electrical service?
Depending on your situation, you may need to upgrade to 200 amp electrical service in order to meet the needs of your house and your shop. It may also be in your interests to add in a separate electrical service meter on your shop so that you can clearly write off electrical use for your business, or in future rent the space out and clearly separate out the utilities for bill­ing your tenant. Generally, you don’t want to skimp on the power to your shop or on the lighting you include.
 
How finished should the interior of a shop be?
Shops can range from functional spaces adorned with unpainted wallboard to beautifully finished, painted, and trimmed-out spaces. Ultimately, I think it depends on your budget and how important your surroundings are to your mindset as you’re working, or to your clients’ if they will be viewing your shop. If finishing your shop will improve the quality of the work that you will produce, thereby relaxing or inspiring you, or showcase for your clients the quality of the work of which you are capable, it may be a worthwhile invest­ment. A more finished space may also allow for activities like parties or even a weekly poker game (as long as drinks stay off the tools).
 
How can I budget for the build?
My advice here is to make a detailed list of what the various parts of the build will be (drawings, permits, foun­dation, framing, electrical, etc.) and decide what you would like to do yourself and what you will need to hire others to do. Get quotes on the work that you would like to hire out and estimate the materials you will need to do your por­tion. You may want to factor in your time into the cost as well, especially if you will be passing up other income to work on the project. At some lumberyards, you will be able to give detailed drawings to an estimator on staff who will do a material takeoff list for you of what you’ll need and what it will cost. When all the numbers come in, you can put together a budget and plan for an overrun allowance of around 15 percent. If you keep track of the materials and subcontract costs as you go, you can stay on track and make decisions as you go about the latter stages of the project without regretting it later. If it is challenging to obtain fund­ing for a complete build, you may want to stage the build so that initially the frame goes up and the exterior is finished, and then you finish the interior work as you have time or as funds become available.
 
What is the value of a shop?
Shops have value on many different levels. There is the sat­isfaction of having a place to create and work on projects that is hard to quantify, but definitely improves your quality of life. There is the value to your small business of having space in which to work wood and thereby generate income. There is the dollar value of the build itself, which will be a consider­able investment and, finally, there is the resale value of your property after you’ve added your shop. Before you go too far, though, it’s worth asking a local real-estate agent about the potential return on your investment in your area; generally shops won’t add significantly to the value of your property, so it’s worth thinking carefully about what else the space could be used for if you were to sell. The decision about whether it is worth it to build is a matter of balancing all these factors: projected sales balanced against the cost; the cost of build­ing is balanced against what it will be worth when you sell. Woodworking can be a creative outlet, can give you a sense of mastery, and even be a way to give back to your community by donating beautiful pieces to local charities for fundraising auctions, or creating pieces that future gener­ations will inherit. Ultimately, the value of a shop might come down to the emotional and social returns that it will pay you and the people around you for years to come.