They Built a Shed — You Won’t Believe What Happened Next
It all began with a chilling documentary. And a shed.
On the recommendation of his wife, Meg, a counselor at the Landmark School in Manchester, Tim Ferguson Sauder, a design professor at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., and their three children spent an evening watching The Dark Side of Chocolate, a 2010 documentary about the exploitation and slave-trading of African children to harvest chocolate, a practice which continues nearly ten years after the cocoa industry pledged to stop it.
It was a life-changer.
“From then on, we decided as a family that we would only be consuming fair trade chocolate and coffee,” Sauder said.
But it didn’t stop there.
When the family wanted to rebuild an old shed in the backyard of their Lanesville house into a work/live space, “we made the decision that for the rest of the project, whenever possible, we would only use fair trade, recycled, or homemade products.”
Now their passion has snowballed into a new family business.
“What started with our shed — a ‘small’ project — became something that wove itself into every part of our lives,” he said. “If a focus on fair trade, sustainable, and recycled could work for the shed, then why not for the rest of our lives? We decided to attempt to go all fair trade, to really push what we could do ourselves and try to work recycling into as many of our projects as possible.”
To that end, the family recently launched Crafted Fairly, a web “shop” that highlights “the products and projects that we feel worth including in our lives.”
“We’re hoping to inspire more families to give this a try, so we’re searching for products that we can all really believe in,” Sauder said.
As the current season of mass consumption — and “Black Fridays!” and “Cyber Mondays!” and “Storewide Savings!” — winds down, the Sauders would like to share a slightly different perspective.
“It’s the perfect time to reflect on what’s important in life.”
• • •
What’s your background?
Meg and I were both brought up in families where creating was important.
I went to school to study printmaking, ended up in an internship with a cabinet maker, and then worked with an Amish work crew on a modern home.
Meg has been a knitter her whole life. She grew up dyeing wool with her mom and siblings. Her favorite room growing up was an enormous craft room outfitted with two sewing machines, a loom, and basket-weaving supplies.
After we got married, the projects gradually got bigger. What started as gifts made for friends and family turned into small-business projects — book-topped birdhouses, baby apparel, custom Christmas ornaments, cutting boards — and in the midst of all this we were also picking up furniture at flea markets and yard sales and fixing them up. We didn’t have the money to buy the furniture that we wanted so we ended up making a lot of it ourselves or refinishing things that other people no longer wanted.
Eventually we decided it was time to buy a house. We found one that was in a great location, but we could only afford something that needed a lot of work.
We gutted the whole thing and worked on it for the next five years to get it to a “finished” state. I think that’s what really helped us to acquire the skills needed to design and build the shed.
The shed was actually a welcome side project for us — it was not in our living space, it was small, and it seemed manageable compared to our house. Plus we were building from scratch so things could actually be straight and true unlike our house, which was built in 1860.
What led to your decision to the seek out fair trade products?
Meg had worked with grassroots development organizations and was confronted with real poverty before we were married.
In this country it is convenient to ignore where and how products are made and, although we attempted to live simply, our choices were based more on design and price than the ethics surrounding those purchases.
About four years ago Meg joined a faith-based women’s group whose mission was to learn about social injustice and then do something about it. After she watched The Dark Side of Chocolate with the group, she showed it to our family and we immediately decided to buy and consume only fair-trade chocolate.
From then on, we decided to do the same for tea, then bananas, and so on. The more we looked into it, the more we decided that we’d try to only support companies that produce their products ethically.
And that was three years ago.
What was your initial goal with the shed and how did the project evolve once you got started? How long did it take to complete?
Our initial goal was to create a beautiful space that could function as a design studio, an extra bedroom for visiting family, and a play space for the kids.
We had just spent five years remodeling our very old house and we were excited to build something a bit more modern — and something that we designed from scratch. We were also interested to see if it was possible to build a beautiful and functional space that looked new but was made using mostly recycled materials.
How did you source your materials?
We started the project buying the framing, sheathing, and drywall from local building supply sources, but as the project moved on we began to get more and more of our materials from dumpsters, craigslist postings and people just getting rid of things.
We grabbed our flooring from a condo that was being demolished behind Cheers (the iconic Boston bar and inspiration for the popular 1980s TV show) in the Back Bay. Most of the framing for the deck came from a dumpster two towns away (I got a call at work that I could take as much as I could grab — before sunset).
We got the sliding door from a local fireman who was replacing his own, the windows came from multiple Craigslist posts, and the siding from three different people who were clearing out wood they had used on previous decks.
Meg also befriended some demolition crews and they would let us know if they were getting rid of anything they thought we might be able to use. We liked that this approach was cost effective as well as being more environmentally sound than purchasing new.
Throughout the building of the shed we met a lot of interesting people and were surprised at how generous and helpful so many of them were. It was a really positive part of the project.
You had a strong design direction for the shed. Was it hard to find the materials that fit your vision?
That was one of our favorite parts of the project. We spent a lot of time finding just the right materials to use that would match our vision of the finished product. We were very choosy but we also had to be realistic given our budget.
So we refinished and rebuilt a lot of things to make the shed look the way we wanted. For example, the Murphy bed was bought used at a yard sale, but we completely re-wrapped the unit in wood to make it look more modern and clean.
The wood for the floor was free, but had to be sanded seven times to get it down to a clean and even surface. Reusing materials takes a lot more time and planning but it was rewarding to end up with something that didn’t look “recycled” but that had an interesting past.
What’s your favorite thing about the shed?
We love the way the space feels with its high ceilings, sparse decorations, and its location away from our house and the nearby road.
We have also come to really appreciate the shed’s ability to transform from a work space to a living space — we use it in so many different ways and it feels just right for each of them.
You’ve packed a lot into a small space — and there is a lot of ingenuity in the design. How did you decide on the layout?
We started with a very clear list of things we wanted the space to allow us to do and we stuck to that list as a guide for all of our decisions as we designed the building. I think the simplicity of the space and the focus on it achieving just a few things: work space, sleeping space, kids play space allowed us to keep things simple and not fill the shed with things we didn’t need. I think that fewer things in a small space is always more effective.
How do you use the shed as a family?
We use it a lot. Tim uses it as a studio for his freelance design jobs. We use it as a sleeping space when family comes to visit — we’re both from big families. Our kids use it as a play space for knee hockey games and basketball, and we eat a lot of dinners over the firepit with friends and family.
What about that amazing outdoor shower?
The shower was completed a year or two before the shed. What started as a basic shower and a two-week project turned into a two-month experiment! We decided to try to design a round shower that was tall enough that people walking by on the sidewalk above it couldn’t look down into.
The whole family worked on it together and it’s become one of our favorite parts of the summer — rinsing off after surf sessions in what the neighbors often refer to as “The Silo.” The antique shower head was another thing grabbed from a friend who was cleaning out their basement.
What are some of your favorite self-made projects?
The outdoor shower is definitely a favorite because we all get to use it so much and it’s something that provides such a beautiful experience. We also just built a new kitchen counter extension from the wooden sides of some old chairs that were being thrown out, and we love the way that project has made it easier for us to congregate and spend time together as a family.
You have a very full and rich life. Do you struggle with the busy pace?
We do struggle with finding a good balance in our lives of work, family, projects — all of it. It really helps that we are both in education and that we can all spend our summers together.
Spending time together as a family is a choice that we made once we had our first child and we are so grateful for the ability to co-parent and really be all together so much.
It also makes it easier that many of the projects we take on we do together so that they don’t feel like something that’s taking away from family time. But balance is something we talk about often. One thing that really helps is that we don’t really watch TV, which saves a lot of time for projects and family time.
But I definitely wouldn’t say we’ve got it all figured out!
How do you make decisions on purchasing new products?
When purchasing new products we work hard to make sure that the companies we’re supporting are creating their products ethically. If we can’t be sure about their ethical practices we try to look elsewhere or at least buy things made in the US, because their working environments are easier to track.
As for specific brands that are featured in the shed — you can get more information on our blog about those companies, but here is a little taste so you can go out and support these incredible artisans:
◼︎ The outdoor chairs are made by our good friend Tim Miller. We love his ability to create simple beauty and his chairs around the fire pit seem more like sculptures than furniture. We all fight over who gets to sit in these chairs.
◼︎ The artwork in the shed is made by an incredible artist and another good friend, Bradford Johnson. His work is based on historical photographic essays and have wonderful narratives behind the imagery he portrays. His artwork is affordable — although we don’t think that will last long as more people find out about him — and technically beautiful (he uses some really intricate methods to replicate the look of old photographs).
◼︎ We love Coyuchi bedding. The high-quality organic materials and the subtle colors are a perfect combination. All of their products are ethically produced. The sheets on the Murphy bed are soft yet have a linen feel. The cascade blanket is a perfect weight for the summer. Meg is obsessed with bedding and Coyuchi is her all time favorite.
◼︎ The patchwork yellow blanket on the bed is made by Sari Bari. From their site: “Sari Bari makes and sells beautiful, handmade, upcycled sari products. The heart of Sari Bari is its women, survivors of Kolkata’s red light areas who have taken brave steps into new life, freedom, and hope. Each product is marked with the name of the woman who made it and with your purchase you become a part of her freedom story.”
◼︎ The beautiful bath towel/blanket is made by Creative Women. We love their woven pieces in the shed and we have the striped bath sheet and hand towel in our house. From their site: “Creative Women works with women-owned- and led- studios around the world to create a positive impact in communities through long-term, reliable employment that ripples out into better health, education and opportunities for families.”
◼︎ The beach tote/linen hamper in the shed a created by The Dharma Door. Their aim is to bring the highest quality designer Fair Trade homewares to an audience that values contemporary design (something we are always on the lookout for). We love their mission and their products!
What advice would you give to someone just beginning their “crafted fairly” journey?
Take the time to educate yourself. If you don’t have the time to do that — start small and stay committed (remember, we started with just chocolate!).
And remember that behind every product is a person and a story. We believe that our role is to value every human being and our beautiful planet. Living with less makes the prospect of buying ethically attainable.
I would say that it has been a challenge for our family, but entirely worth it. We’re raising our children with a global awareness. And to realize that small changes can make a big difference.
We also love the organization International Justice Mission. They do such incredible work around the world and are a great resource for the kinds of changes we’re trying to support.
Note: This interview originally appeared in, and is reprinted with permission from, Pure Green magazine.
Beverly-based Mark Spooner specializes in wedding and lifestyle photography.