The artistic eye helps us to see everyday things in a new way—and that’s just what Alison Carabasi has done with storage sheds for the backyard. “I call them garden houses because I don’t think of them as sheds,” she says.
But the houses Carabasi designs for her company, Hillbrook Collections, are not just for potting flowers and storing garden tools. She’s designed a hunting lodge, a home office, artists’ studios, a poet’s retreat, children’s playhouses, a chicken coop and even an outhouse. “What makes them unique is that no two are alike,” says the Chester County, Pa., resident.
Whatever the purpose, these small gems add a delightful element of interest to a residential landscape, with the exterior design often reflecting the architecture of the owner’s home. Among the typical client requests: shutter style, roof materials, paint colors and a matching front door design. Carabasi’s forte is creating distinctive features like cupolas with copper finials, window boxes, door lanterns, or specially designed hardware. She recently created a children’s playhouse with Dutch doors, flower boxes and a bunny finial atop the cedar shake roof. “I look all the time for inspiration,” says Carabasi. “I’ll see a finial on a post in France and tweak it for a client.”
An accomplished artist, Carabasi sketches her design ideas by hand. The walls of her 18th-century farmhouse are covered with artwork of every genre. But her garden retreats aren’t just pretty—they’re practical, too. The interiors are custom finished with features like workbenches, closets and lofts. Almost all have electricity and insulation.
Carabasi grew up near Lancaster in a family with a lively interest in art, antiques and architecture. She credits her mother with the idea for the business. “Her clients were mostly gardeners, and there was no other place to get a pretty shed,” she says.
The family lived in an 18th-century brick farmhouse in a rural area. When the barn was destroyed by fire in the early 1980s, they had it rebuilt by neighboring Amish workers. The project led to a friendship and future collaborations with that community.
Carabasi took over the business in 2012 and still works with the same builder. She’s expanded the concept by creating custom designs that can be adapted to a variety of different uses.
Even a chicken coop can be elevated to an aesthetic statement in Carabasi’s hands. She recently designed two cedar board-and-batten coops and positioned them to face each other. “They each have octagon dovecote cupolas with copper roofs and a custom-designed copper hen and rooster finial. The owner absolutely loves them,” she says.
For those who are able to work remotely from home or with a home-based business, an office with no distractions is a high priority. Carabasi designed one in cedar with pine interior. With insulation and screens on the windows, it provides an airy, private year-round working space for her client.
With the growing popularity of the “she shed” as a counterpart to the man cave, the idea of having a private space just steps from the back door seems so current. But the concept of a garden oasis is something that has a long history in Europe—especially on the great estates, where they served as a focal point or quiet spot for tea or contemplation.
Running through Jan. 6, 2019, at Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, Follies: Architectural Whimsy in the Garden features 10 such structures spread throughout the estate. It chronicles the history of the structures and includes everything from a Japanese pavilion to more fanciful creations. As you walk the grounds, you really get a sense of how welcoming these retreats were.
As it turns out, most of Carabasi’s clients don’t live on sprawling estates. Many own one- or two-acre properties. Some need pool houses, while others need storage space for garage overflow. “A lot of times, they think they want it in the back corner,” says Carabasi. “But I encourage them to put it in view of the kitchen window.”
Shed sizes vary. Carabasi highlights five customizable styles on her website. “The typical size is nine by 14 feet, but they can be as small as 8 by 8 feet. The largest I’ve done was 18 feet long,” she says.
Once Carabasi has settled on the final design with the client, she works with her Amish craftsmen to bring the concept to fruition. Construction takes a month to six weeks. The hardware and finials are all sourced from Lancaster County, and the completed house is delivered to the client’s property and installed on site.
“It’s fun delivering a really great product that I know they’ll enjoy for years to come,” Carabasi says. “They’re getting something useful and pretty that will add to the aesthetic of their yard.”
Shed prices range from $5,000 to $7,000.