Suffolk: The Smart way to work from home

GONE are the days when working from home necessarily means taking over the kitchen table or being holed up in the box room. Charlie Dalton is the man behind Ipswich-based Smart Garden Offices. Sheline Clarke went to meet him.

CHARLIE Dalton’s son was just a toddler when he decided to give working from home a try after his employers moved premises and he was faced with a two and a half hour commute each way, each day. Tom wasn’t a bad lad, just made the noises and demands any usual two year old would make, but Charlie realized he would be far more productive in his own space.

So he looked to the garden. He researched what was available and found there were just two choices – a shed or a portable cabin.

Fearing he might end up a single man again if he installed a portable cabin, and feeling that a shed wasn’t quite what he was after, he set about designing a prototype garden office, fit for purpose and really rather beautiful.

Fast forward 12 years and Charlie is one of the UK’s leading manufacturers of garden offices and has supplied thousands of them to delighted customers around the country.

Based in Ashbocking, just outside Ipswich, he overseas the manufacture of a range of offices that are comfortable, attractive and robust and will last for years to come.

“We have never built a shed, a gazebo or a stable,” says Charlie. “This is what we do.

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“Back then there was nothing like it in the marketplace and I thought there must be other people like me. At the time I was in marketing and believed I could sell what I wanted to buy and the original brief included everything you would expect from an office such as electrics, security, double glazing and carpet and so on, the only difference was that these offices were designed to be in the garden.”

The enterprise went through something of a step change in 2005 when Charlie and his core team established Smart Garden Offices as a fully independent business.

To do it Charlie went back to grass roots and studied carpentry at Otley College.

“I was the oldest one there but I absolutely loved it,” he laughs. “It was a really good opportunity to reappraise things and be free from management speak. I decided that I wanted to be capable of working in every part of my business, including the manufacture, although I am not often back on the bench any more. I love the process of manufacture. Coming from a printing family I just love that sense of the factory and the noise and looking at a pallet and knowing that I made that.”

His experience at Otley College and his new carpentry skills led him to a major breakthrough when he invented a unique construction and installation system that has revolutionized the business and made it even smarter.

The system involves a self-indexing slot and solid socket system now used throughout the range.

It makes the buildings rigid, thermally efficient and moveable but part of the genius is that component parts of the offices can be manufactured during the quiet winter period, ready for the peak times of installation when the weather is better.

It means the team are employed throughout the year and stocks are ready when demands begins to rise again.

Making the offices moveable also makes them more flexible, is important for tax reasons and also keeps the second hand market buoyant with the offices enjoying on average a 75% residual value. Smart Garden Offices will even act as agent to find a buyer.

Smart Garden Offices are built using construction grade material including certified European softwood and Douglas fir for the corner posts. The insulation is taken care of by fellow Suffolk company Celotex and inside they are finished to a white silk finish. Each office can be built to the customer’s specification and can include a number of ‘delight’ features, such as timber beams or a porthole window and can be finished in a choice of colours.

The process starts with a site survey and discussion with the customer as to what they want from their Smart Garden Office. The templates are massively flexible with an infinite number of configurations possible, to accommodate what goes on inside, as well as perhaps making the best of the view and taking into consideration the shape and orientation of the garden.

“We’ve been doing this for such a long time now we instinctively know what will work and usually recommend about a dozen configurations. Because everything is on the panel system we can accommodate most requests, though I wouldn’t install something that I didn’t think was right. That’s because we take such professional pride in what we do, we wouldn’t want to specify or build an office that was wrong.

“I put my mark on every building and want to deliver fantastic customer service and that means sharing our knowledge as well as the building itself.”

Smart Garden Offices are springing up across the country, from Southampton in the south to Swansea in Wales and Lossiemouth in Scotland, with many finding their way to London and the Home Counties as an affordable alternative to moving or extending.

The four-man Quarto model, for example, will come in at a fraction of the cost of a loft conversion and offer much the same space. It is also much simpler with construction taking approximately two days. Even gaining planning permission, although often unnecessary, is taken care of by Charlie and the team.

And while the state of the economy has done little for other businesses, it has had limited effect on the garden office market as people look for cost effective ways of improving their homes or starting their own businesses.

Alternative uses for Smart Garden Offices have included an artist’s studio, music room, a fully fitted library, a quiet room in a local primary school, offices for a parish council and several teenage dens where young people can study and generally find their own space.

Then there are people coming out of managed office space who will on average get their money back in a year if they invest in a Smart Garden Office.

And with so many applications it seems Charlie has a business he can grow and grow. He is developing and testing new products all the time and recently bought another company – The Home Office Company – who manufacture garden rooms to complement this own range.

“Its diversification upwards, rather than downwards,” he said. “Garden rooms are heavily glazed and are a different market place and have many applications from a leisure point of view. It will be good to bring that company into our manufacturing process here in Ashbocking.”

The company will soon be rebranded and will be promoted as a separate brand from Smart Garden Offices.

Other plans for expansion include looking to export markets initially in France and then perhaps Italy. The market in Europe is far behind that of the UK, but Charlie can still see potential which all adds to what promises to be a bright future for this entrepreneur and his niche businesses.

“My wife says I am a garden office geek and I wouldn’t disagree with her,” he smiles. “We all have our obsessions and I’m lucky that mine is what I produce. It’s true I am obsessed with garden offices and how I can make them better

“We have new products we are testing and they are tested vigorously which gives me the scope to offer an even better range and genuinely fantastic customer service. Because this is my own company I don’t have sales targets, just a desire to do what we do well and I love every aspect of what I do.

“Going back to college was a turning point; now I know what I’m doing and I know how good my team are and that the products are something we are all very proud of.”