"I'm a single dad, and I envisioned the shed as a place for the kids to have friends over, and a retreat spot for me," says community activist Ron Chew. "The kids ended up using it more than I do."

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COMMUNITY ACTIVIST Ron Chew likes to get stuff for free. “These big rocks from Craigslist wrecked my back,” he says, pointing to the landscaping in his pocket-size front yard. Most everything in Chew’s Beacon Hill garden, from the little shed behind the house to handout plants from neighbors, is repurposed, recycled and well launched into a second, useful life.

Chew lives with his teenage sons in the same neighborhood where he grew up. His house, built in the 1920s, presented an uninspired vista of driveway and flat lawn to the street. Over the past few years, Chew has taken down the front fence, replaced the driveway with a stone terrace and worked with gardener Eiric Ovrid to make the front yard a friendlier, more pleasant scene for those walking past.

“I’m a totally urban kid, and didn’t even know what a dandelion was, let alone what I liked,” says Chew. “I’ve learned from working with Eiric that gardens express ourselves in a very elemental way.” He points out colorful dwarf conifers he found on sale and euphorbia transplanted from the neighbor’s garden. Fragrant winter daphnes now flank the front porch.

But the real action is around back. When Chew remodeled his house to open it up to views and light, his builder, Ed Echtle, sketched a little backyard shed. Chew was intrigued. “I’m a single dad, and I envisioned the shed as a place for the kids to have friends over, and a retreat spot for me,” says Chew. “The kids ended up using it more than I do.”

And no wonder. The playhouse-like shed is just a few feet out into the back garden, yet because it sits well below the home’s deck and main floor it feels quite separate and private. “The shed activates the space and draws you down into the garden,” says Chew, speaking like the Wing Luke museum director he was for 17 years. Chew also taught museum studies at the University of Washington and believes that experience helped him plan a building that’s a satisfying hybrid of woodland and cottage style with a few Asian elements tossed in. “We were sort of re-creating something we’d never seen before,” he says.

Echtle describes the shed as “kind of a deluxe utility building” with a peaked roof inspired by simple Forest Service cabins. It took him about a month, on a modest budget, to build the shed. The furnishings are from Goodwill or traded with friends and neighbors. The couch pillow is made of old rice bags, and the mosquito netting curtains come from Ikea. Its recycled doors and windows make the shed look weathered in place. At 120 square feet its kidlike dimensions are comfortably snug. And what kid, of any age, wouldn’t like clambering up the ladder into the sleeping loft?

The little building has turned into a social space as much as a retreat, and Chew has even filmed some interviews there for an oral-history project he’s working on for his firm, Chew Communications. “The shed has a restorative effect,” he says. “In just a few minutes out there, I’m transported.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “petal & twig.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.