The Greyhouse: Your Ultimate Winter Productivity Hack
As a full-time, work-from-home writer, I am never happier or more productive than when I am working outdoors. Compared to the decade of my career that I spent working inside my home office, and no matter how thoroughly I optimized my workstation, my hourly wordcount and enjoyment derived from the writing process was barely half of what it’s become since I started working outside two summers ago.
I have a delightful backyard, which is by no means the biggest or the most beautiful, as far as backyards go, and yet working in it— among the trees, the green plants, and the open sky — has been nothing less than pure bliss for me.
At a conference that I attended last summer, I heard Cal Newport (author of the extremely successful productivity book, Deep Work) describe the ideal work environment as an isolated room that shuts out all distractions and leaves you with nothing to focus on but your work. I must disagree. While deep work is certainly important, what’s no less important is pleasant work: to make sure your work environment is actually pleasant to be in — and the more pleasant you’re able to make it, the better.
The more you enjoy the experience of working, the better the quality of the work, and the longer you will be able to persist at it. And one effortless way to increase your enjoyment of that experience, however much you might dislike the task that you have to do, is simply to enjoy being in the physical place where you choose to do it. For me, the aesthetic and sensory pleasures of working outdoors on a summer day, serve to make even the most boring work an authentically pleasant experience.
There’s only one problem: I live in Boston. And while half the year, the weather is perfect and the nature beautiful; in the other half it is cold, dark, and unforgiving. As one great 19th century Bostonian, Henry Adams, wrote in his famous autobiography (The Education of Henry Adams, 1907):
The chief charm of New England was harshness of contrasts. . . . Winter and summer, cold and heat, . . . marked two [opposite] modes of life and thought, balanced like lobes of the brain. . . . [Summer came with] the endless delight of mere sense impressions given by nature for nothing. . . . The opposites or antipathies, were the cold grays of November evenings, and the thick, muddy thaws of Boston winter. . . . Winter was always the effort to live; summer was tropical license. . . . With such standards, the Bostonian could not but develop a double nature. (pages 7-9)
Indeed, during the previous winter (the winter of 2020 - 2021), I found myself working again inside my over-a-century-old Boston house (built seven years before Henry Adams published his autobiography). And almost instantly, both my productivity and the enjoyment I found in my work plummeted to as little as one-third of what it had been during the preceding summer. I chugged along, but the gloomy skies, the freezing cold, and the sun setting at 4PM, caused me to feel increasingly lethargic and claustrophobic between the walls and the ceiling where I lived and worked. (This was only my second winter in Boston, having lived most my life in New York City: where the winters are also cold, but not quite as bad as they are here.) By early March, although I by no means have Seasonal Affective Disorder, I was beginning to sympathize with those who do.
Then spring and summer arrived— and melted away all of these problems. But I was determined not to fall prey to the same calamity the following winter.
At first, I considered leaving Boston for at least some of the winter months, and going somewhere where it would be warm and I would be able to work outdoors. It would be expensive, and I really liked living in Boston in the same house as my best friends, but I decided that it would be worth it to not fall down a pit of unproductivity and unhappiness. Then, I started dating a wonderful girl who lived in Boston, so leaving stopped being a viable option.
Necessity is the mother of invention. And all this necessity led me to invent the ultimate winter productivity solution: The Greyhouse.
The idea: If I build a transparent greenhouse in my backyard, insulate it, find a way to heat it, and furnish it into a workspace, I will be able to have the experience (and enjoy the scenery) of working outdoors in the Boston winter, while remaining as warm and comfortable as someone would be working indoors.
There are a handful of walk-in greenhouses on the market, ranging from $80 to well over $10,000. But I wanted to build the ideal work environment — without wasting thousands of dollars on what might be little more than a fool’s errand.
After an extremely thorough Amazon search, I finally found the $500 Palram Hybrid — which not only met all my requirements for size, transparency, and durability, but had a respectable 4.0 out of 5 star Amazon rating, with over five hundred customer reviews — most of them glowingly positive.
I decided to build it on my back porch — for the sake of stability and ease of access. (Greenhouses are notoriously unstable, liable to collapse into pieces in the face of a strong wind. So the house behind it, I reasoned, would serve as a good windscreen.)
Measuring the porch, I found I had just enough space to fit either the smallest 6' x 4' model or the medium 6' x 6' one. But the 6' x 6' version wasn’t available through Amazon, so I decided to go with the 6' x 4' model, which I figured was adequate to my needs, and would also be easier to heat. It was a sound decision.
It arrived in a couple of days, and took about twenty hours to assemble. And the result has been an unmitigated success. See the video below:
I’m not gonna lie, I had many misgiving of what could go wrong with the Greyhouse. (My girlfriend and I have called it the Greyhouse because it is grey, because Boston winters are grey, and because I do not keep plants in it.) I worried it might get destroyed by the fierce Boston windstorms. It might not hold heat in the subzero weather. It might be too cramped, uncomfortable, or otherwise unpleasant to work in. Or it might leak water inside when it rains.
But I am happy to say, after over four months working inside the Greyhouse, none of those fears came to pass! The Greyhouse is an absolute pleasure to work in, at any time of the day or night. It has restored my enjoyment and productivity almost to summer levels. It has plenty of room for a single person (and can fit a second person with effort), whether I’m sitting or have converted my desk to a standing desk. It is unbudging even during the strongest windstorms. And after sealing some narrow gaps with insulation, it remains perfectly warm even in negative double-digit (Celcius) weather, and completely dry even in the heaviest rains.
For full-time or part-time work-from-home professionals who struggle with wintertime productivity, and have ample space in their back or front yard, roof, or balcony, I cannot more strongly recommend getting a Greyhouse as their ultimate winter workspace!
Here is a list of the supplies you will need (all of it totaling about $800):
The Palram Hybrid Greenhouse. This is the model I used, and have found highly satisfactory. Available in 6' x 4', 6' x 6', and 6' x 8' sizes. Another option, if you have the space, is the Palram Oasis Hexagonal Greenhouse, which looks just as sturdy and which I am now dying to try for my next iteration. Important: You will need a Philips Head Screwdriver, some Needle Nose Pliers, and a 10mm Socket Wrench Screwdriver or 10mm Ratched with Extension to assemble it — which doesn’t come with the greenhouse and has to be bought separately.
The Palram Cable Anchoring Kit. This kit is needed to secure your greenhouse, and has to be purchased separately. This is important: Without it, your greenhouse will likely collapse or fly away!!
Foam Weather Stripping for Insulation. After you finish building the greenhouse, there will be some narrow gaps in the door and the ceiling window (if you did choose to keep the window — see Super Pro Tip in Part II of this article), which have to be sealed to keep the heat in and the rainwater out. I have found these inexpensive White 1/2 Inch Wide x 1/4 Inch Tall Adhesive Foam Strips to be the ideal color and size for sealing those narrow gaps.
Interlocking Foam Exercise Mats. This is what I used for the flooring, and is also used for the flooring in many gyms. I chose the Gaiam brand because, unlike the slightly cheaper brand, this one was just the right size for the floor of the 6' x 4' greenhouse — though the outer edges (but not the inner edges, like with the other brands) had to be cut with scissors to get a perfect fit. This was extremely easy to do, and the installation was quick and simple. I highly recommend this cheap and effective option.
Pro Breeze Space Heater. This is a solid and inexpensive little heater, which I chose because unlike nearly all of the other comparable heaters available on Amazon, not a single person out of the over 5,000 genuine reviews complained of it catching on fire. It uses 1500 Watts, and is perfectly adequate for heating a 6' x 4' greenhouse, even in minus 10 degrees Celcius weather. But for a larger greenhouse, you might want to purchase a bigger heater.
Extension Cord. Chances are, in order to power the heater and probably charge your computer, you’re going to need a long extension cord to run electricity into your Greyhouse. Depending on where is your nearest outlet, the length and the thickness of your extension cord will necessarily vary. The longer your chord, the thicker the “gauge” it will have to be to power your 1500 Watt heater. In the United States, where the standard voltage in all power outlets is 120 Volts, you will need a chord that will handle at least 13 Amps (Volts x Amps = Watts). Up to 25ft, you can use a 16 Gauge chord. Up to 50ft, you can use a 14 Gauge chord. And up to 100 ft, you can use a 12 Gauge chord.
Narrow Adjustable Table with Wheels. If you decide upon the 6' x 4' greenhouse, as I did, the simple fact is there isn’t all that much space in it. This is why the desk that you work at should (1) be rather narrow, so you will have space for a chair and yourself sitting in it; (2) have wheels, so you can move it aside when you enter and leave the greenhouse (this sounds somewhat daunting, but it’s actually very convenient); and (3) have an adjustable height, in case you want to raise it to serve as a standing desk (which I love to do when I’m tired of sitting). I used the Vaunn Medical Adjustable Bedside Table, which doesn’t sound classy, but is actually perfect. It is surprisingly cheap, sturdy, has plenty of space for even the biggest laptop, and looks rather good aesthetically. When it’s fully lowered, it is the ideal height for sitting. And when fully raised, and combined with an Adjustable Laptop Stand, it is the perfect height for a standing desk.
Exercise Ball (optional). Having injured my back at an early age, I’m very big into spine health — which is why I have completely abandoned all chairs in favor of exercise balls. They are, as far as I’ve found, the best possible back pain solution. I can sit on one for an entire day, and my back feels entirely fine and painless — which is not the case if I sit on a regular chair for even a couple of hours. Anyway, choose the sitting option you think is the best for you, but I highly recommend an exercise ball. It’s only $10 or $20, depending on the size and color, and fits handily inside the Greyhouse when combined with the Vaunn Adjustable Table (see above). But make sure to choose the size appropriate to your height, and adjust its inflation to suit your comfort, or you may end up straining your back instead of helping it when your ball is too large or too small for sitting in an easy and relaxed posture.
Smart Plug (optional): Since you have to turn on the heater inside your Greyhouse at the beginning of every workday, and then turn it off at the end, it is highly useful to install a Smart Plug in order to do this remotely. You likely don’t want to make the freezing trip to the Greyhouse in order to turn the heater on, or wait shivering inside of it until it heats up. And you probably don’t want to worry about whether or not you forgot to turn off the heater for the night. I’ve found a Smart Plug to be the ideal solution — since it can be controlled and monitored from your mobile device, and the money you save on accidentally squandered heating will quickly make the investment pay for itself.
If you have decided to take the leap and purchase a Greyhouse for yourself, do read Part II of this article — The Greyhouse Masterclass (coming soon)— for Super Pro Tips, which I learned the hard way, on what to do and what to avoid to make your Greyhouse experience as awesome as possible!
It is my dream that, by 2050, the Greyhouse will be a common household fixture among writers and other work-from-home professionals living in places with a winter season.