Project Backyard Shop: Planning the Building

By Tom Suddard
Jul 27, 2018 | Isuzu, Mazda | Posted in Shop Work , Features | From the June 2017 issue | Never miss an article


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Story by Tom Suddard • Illustrations by Sarah Young


My driveway. My carport. My parking space. My parents’ garage. My friend’s shop. None of these are what we wanted to call our workspace. We had a different idea: my workshop. But we didn’t have much money–not enough to pay a contractor, and certainly not enough to move to a new house with that big garage we dreamed about. Nor did we want the ongoing cost and limitations that come with rental shop space.

We did have a few things going for us, though: some money set aside, room in the back yard, and a willingness to work. Is it really possible to build your own up-to-code garage on a budget? We’re going to find out. Hey, if we can change springs on a Miata, there’s no reason we can’t nail together some 2×4s, right?

Lay Out the Tools


Before we could break out the hammers, we had to nail down what this structure would look like. We had an abstract vision (that workshop mentioned earlier) but none of the details. What kind of work would we be doing in the shop? Engine building? Chassis assembly? Restoration? Bodywork? Each specialty demands a different layout and space for a particular toolset.

The catalyst for building this new workspace helped us answer these questions. It was the evening we tried to start building our LS1-swapped Nissan 350Z: That one-car garage just wasn’t up to the task. So we used that project as a benchmark for the type of work we’d be doing in our future garage. The shop we built needed to tackle all the jobs involved in turning a neglected chassis from Craigslist into a fire-breathing track car.

That meant we’d need a lift, lots of workbenches (preferably at different heights and made of different materials), storage for parts and spares, and tools to handle everything from roll cage fabrication to engine building to light bodywork. And by tools, we don’t just mean ratchets and screwdrivers; we’d need a welder, a plasma cutter, a chop saw and lots of compressed air. Considering all these tools, a fair amount of our budget would need to go toward big-ticket items.

And because this would be a workspace for magazine projects, we needed to be able to take good photos. That meant extra lighting as well as extra space to walk around a project to shoot it from every angle.

There was one more thing to consider: car storage. We’re not made of money, but we are made of cars–eight, in fact, at last count. In addition to serving as our workshop, whatever we built needed to have some room for parking, too.

Reality Check


Sounds like we were planning a 6000-square-foot garage mahal, right? Unfortunately, we kind of were. But we didn’t want to limit ourselves during the planning stage, then finish the building and say, “Oh crap, we forgot to put in an outlet for the welder!”

The next step was sitting down with a list of wants and figuring out what we could actually afford to do. And we don’t just mean money–about $30,000 total, in our case. We also had a limited amount of space and time, both of which would heavily influence our choices. Ideally, we wanted to have a functioning workshop in three months, though we knew deep down that would probably double thanks to the “twice as long or twice as expensive” rule of construction.

We started by driving over to city hall for a morning of fun. We weren’t pulling any permits on this first trip, but rather figuring out what we could build. Every city, county and state will have different rules, some weird and unnecessary and seemingly just there to annoy you, but the basic process will always be the same: Ask what your property’s zoning is, ask what your setbacks (the minimum distance your shop can be from other structures and property lines) are, and ask what you’re allowed to build. Yes, you can do all this with a few phone calls or an internet search, but an in-person conversation got us all the answers we needed in about 20 minutes.

In short: We could get within 8 feet of our property lines, we couldn’t build a metal building, and the garage had to be similar in construction and appearance to our Florida bungalow-style concrete-block house. Fortunately, the nice lady at the building desk told us that we could use traditional stick construction rather than more expensive concrete block, as long as we finished the exterior walls in a similar fashion. Tidbits like this can’t be easily found on most city websites, and avoiding jumping through unnecessary construction hoops can save you thousands of dollars.

Pick a Building


We started this project assuming we’d build an inexpensive metal building–the kind where a team of people shows up with a truck and a forklift and assembles it all in a day–but now we knew we’d have to go with a wooden garage. This style of construction is more expensive and time-consuming, but it should last much longer than its metal equivalent, especially in Florida hurricanes.

Remember, we’re balancing cost, space, time and zoning laws, and we now had three pieces of that puzzle answered. The only variable left to fill in was space–how much workshop the other factors would allow us to build. Note that we had plenty of backyard real estate to spare, so we weren’t particularly limited by the size or shape of our property.

First, we called a local contractor. He told us he was scheduled a few months out, but once he was available he’d be able to build us a two-car garage with 10-foot-high ceilings–necessary for our desired lift–for about $50,000. That’s almost double our budget, but sadly, another contractor gave us a similar quote. Looks like we’d be building the garage ourselves.

Next, we went online and started punching numbers into construction materials cost calculators. They told us that a 24-foot-square shop–basically an oversized two-car garage–would cost about $22,000 in materials. That’s within budget, and would give us quite the education in nailing boards together. But we do have a day job, and it isn’t swinging a hammer. We would also need to find plans, as even a simple box like a garage needs a certified architect to design it.

Then we stumbled down a Google rabbit hole onto Master Garage Builders. This Florida-based company does one thing: build garage kits and then deliver them to your home. They’ll even handle the assembly for an additional fee. And unlike the prohibited metal buildings we’d considered, all of Master Garage Builders’s garages are stick-built, satisfying our city’s zoning laws.

We talked to the company and picked out the biggest garage that our budget could afford: a 24×30-foot building with 10-foot-high ceilings. Compared to the more standard 20-foot depth, the 24-foot depth should give us room for a workbench as well as a car. It should also make pulling an engine easier when the garage door is closed.

We told them to design it for two doors–8×8 feet and 16×8 feet, both on the longer side of the structure. We put them there so that we’d have two distinct work areas: one with a lift behind the smaller door and a wide-open one behind the larger door. Our thought is that the larger workspace will be perfect for stuff that doesn’t require a lift, yet takes up a lot of space–tasks like alignments, bodywork, interior work and roll cage fabrication.

And yes, we went with taller than standard doors. We have two tall vehicles, and it cost exactly zero extra dollars to add in this option. This is a great example of how planning ahead can save you thousands down the road.

Another consideration with an eye toward the future: We chose a layout that places the ridge along the longer dimension of the roof, not the shorter one. The thinking is that this would facilitate any later expansion. It would be easier to add length rather than width to the building–and in our case, length refers to the dimension that coincides with the roof ridge.

Another consideration: How would this thing sit in our yard? We had two basic choices: doors facing our neighbors or doors facing some brush. To be better neighbors, especially ones who like to grind, weld and hammer, we decided to place the building with the doors facing our existing trees and shrubs.

We wrote Master Garage Builders a check for $20,495. As soon as we signed the paperwork, we marked a new date on our calendar: “Garage Delivery.”

What would be delivered? Four pre-built walls, a stack of rafters, siding, shingles, two garage doors, a side door, a window and a bunch of other stuff. Oh, and it would come courtesy of a helpful truck driver who could show us how to set it all up.

And because this is GRM, we’d be assembling the kit ourselves, using the remainder of our $30,000 budget for wiring, concrete and all the other odds and ends that turn a garage into a workshop. And speaking of concrete, we passed on an apron so we could put more budget toward the building itself.

Actually pouring the concrete and building the shop is a story for the next issue, though. We need to take a break and start researching forklift rentals and concrete contractors.

DIY Construction and How To Fund It


“Can you really build a giant garage without any training or certification?” Despite unlicensed contracting being a felony in our state, homeowners can indeed build almost anything on their own property with nothing more than a signature and a promise not to screw it up.

Most building departments, ours included, are clearly set up only with licensed contractors in mind, but through trial and error we did eventually manage to find the right people and get a permit to build our garage. Be prepared, though, for lots of skeptical city employees along the way if you go this route. We even had one inspector exclaim, “You built this whole thing yourself? No way! That’s awesome!”

Ready to build your own garage, but lack the necessary funds? Aside from the traditional options–like a home equity loan, credit cards, or a rich uncle–we have one other suggestion. Do you have a “real” car that you drive daily? Something a few years old that you bought new? Sell it, buy a 15-year-old beater for a few grand, then start building your garage. You don’t need a nice car and a nice place to work–or at least we don’t. You’ll see us driving around town in an old cargo van (albeit one with a nice garage to park in).


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Read the Whole Backyard Shop Series:

Project Backyard Shop: Planning the Building (This Article)

Project Backyard Shop: Building The Building

Project Backyard Shop: Wiring and Interior

Project Backyard Shop: Moving In and Organizing

Project Backyard Shop: Solving Our Storage Problem

Project Backyard Shop: Walls of Specialized Storage

Project Backyard Shop: Installing a Lift


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View comments on the GRM forums
te72 Reader
7/27/18 10:41 p.m.

Really enjoyed this series of articles in the mag. We had a house built so we could build a car, since finding an existing house in this area with more than a 3 car garage that was also within our budget just wasn't panning out.


So, now, garage fits 7 pretty comfortably. Double that number if tiny kei cars or things like Miatas, halve it if talking 60's American luxury cars. It's pretty rad, but occasionally I find myself thinking, "we should have put the house as close as possible to the other property line so we could have made more room in the garage." Oh well, work with what you are blessed to have! =)

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