Welcome additions A window-walled dining nook offers year-round backyard dining.

SQUATTING ON THE half-acre property where I grew up was a metal shed that my family called “the little house.” I’m not sure if “little house” referred to my tendency to pretend that I was Laura Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie and that the utilitarian outbuilding was my humble late-1800s homestead. But regardless of its origin, the term still seems to me a far superior descriptor than “tool shed.” A backyard building, after all, can be much more than just a storage space for soil-splattered garden gadgets. It can be a writing nook, yoga studio, or pool house, a play space for the kids, a darkroom, or a temperature-controlled wine “cellar.” It can, in short, serve any purpose you can imagine.

But before you begin building your dream shed, certain practicalities must be considered. Debra Prinzing, author of the definitive Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways, suggests you start by familiarizing yourself with zoning laws. In the city of Seattle, any building larger than 120 square feet requires a permit, as do those equipped with plumbing or electricity. The paperwork averse can opt for a small prefabricated model—Garden Solutions (gardensolution.com) in Bothell has a wide selection of prefabs, along with cupolas and other accoutrements–but shouldn’t forget about setbacks: It is typically verboten to build within five feet of the property line. Whatever their plans, Thomas Schaer, a principal at Seattle architecture firm Shed (shedbuilt.com), suggests DIYers contact the Department of Planning and Development (seattle.gov/dpd) for counseling on what and where to build.

You’ll also want to think about how the shed will fit into your home and garden. Schaer says clients with older homes often imagine backyard structures with a modern, airy appeal they can’t achieve inside the house, but it’s important to make sure the new building doesn’t “stick out like a sore thumb.” For simple projects, he suggests Seattle-based prefab supplier Modern Shed (modern-shed.com), which offers several models of clean-lined contemporary cubes. Projects that require more aesthetic finesse, however, are best left to the pros. Schaer worked with one client to create a storage space made from the same wood as the fence, so that the structure blended discreetly into the overall flow of the property. Another option is to charge an architect with drawing up plans, then save money by hiring your own contractor. Any way you go, it’s critical to plan your build from start to finish so that you don’t end up with city inspectors at your door and an eyesore of an outbuilding that leaves your neighbors scowling.

Long after I outgrew pioneer-era make-believe, my father took apart the tool shed in the side yard and replaced it will a custom-built wood structure nestled near a cluster of lithe irises in our front lawn. Perched atop the shed’s cupola, like an angel on a Christmas tree, was a copper whale weathervane. This handsome bit of property could not have been more different than the rusty hut where I built burlap bunks for myself and the other Ingalls children. We called it the little house nonetheless.