Smart Office Design for At-Home Workers

For in-house workplaces, think function first, style second

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Gayle Reynolds went looking for a new home, she had one feature in mind: space for an office.

As an interior designer, Ms. Reynolds needed room for her expanding business. Her family relocated within Lexington, Mass., and now Reynolds and her assistant work in the lower level of her contemporary home.

Reynolds is one of an increasing number of Americans who ``go to work'' at home. While a precise count of at-home workers is difficult to determine, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that more than 20 million people work from their homes, whether they're self-employed or just bring work home.

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In his forthcoming book ``The Complete Home Office,'' (Viking), Alvin Rosenbaum estimates that the number of home-office workers will soon climb to 50 million.

The trend is fueled by several factors: technology (computers allow telecommuting), dual-career couples who want to care for their children at home, and corporate downsizing, which has led many professionals to become entrepreneurs and consultants.

From a designer's point of view, this means more home-office projects. ``Eight years ago, it was about 1 out of every 3 [jobs]. Now it's every home, and many times it's two offices,'' Reynolds says.

She adds that increasingly, home offices help boost housing sales. ``You see `home office' or `space for home office' in the real estate ads now.''

For some people, a phone, fax, and desktop do the trick. But as more people spend working hours at home, they want to have pleasant surroundings, Reynolds says.

Good home-office design takes into consideration a cabinet of variables: functionality, work style, professional interaction, family needs, budget, and taste in decor. Obviously a dentist's office is going to be different from a landscape architect's.

For many of Reynolds's clients, the design of a home office is an ongoing process. ``I work with a lot of people over a long period of time,'' she says.

Interior decorator Dawn Williams finds the same is true for her. ``Home offices evolve over time. Financially, most people can't do it all at once.'' Plus, incremental changes keep things lively, says Ms. Williams, owner of Decorating Den in Norwell, Mass.

Williams's own home office is a lovely dining-room makeover. French doors, flowers, and a green color scheme bring warmth to the room that doubles as ``a little escape'' if she and her husband want to dine there.

A special armoire acts as a disguise. It accommodates the phone, answering machine, paperwork, and laptop computer. Slide-out tabletops and built-in hookups make it an organized storage piece.

Williams originally started out in one of her sons' bedrooms. Later, she decided to move to the first floor and chose the dining room over the den because of better light. Now, she has quick access to the kitchen and front door. Her children, ages 10, 12, and 14, know the general rule: When the doors are closed, they should be quiet. ``Not that that always happens, but they try,'' Williams says.

Balancing family time and office time can be especially tricky when working at home.

``People who go into it knowing the drawbacks and advantages are the most successful,'' says architect Ken Hurd of Kenneth E. Hurd & Associates Inc., specializing in hotel interiors and high-end residences. Mr. Hurd is in the process of building his own home with a studio in Lincoln, Mass., where he, his wife, and two associates will work.

``I've always wanted to be an involved father,'' says Hurd, who has two young children, ``and my profession puts me at odds with that - because of the long hours.''

Working at home, rather than in downtown Boston, he and his wife will save close to two hours per day of commuting time.

Historically speaking, the idea of working separate from the home is relatively new, Hurd points out. The Industrial Revolution broke up the family unit as it had been known. Now, technology allows more people to work at home.

``There is this whole belief that living and working in the same community further invests you in the community. It can improve the quality of life in many ways. That goes back to how our country was founded,'' he says.

With that in mind, Hurd advocates that a home office (in his case, a place where others will also be working) strike a balance between the professional and personal. His studio will have a high ceiling with incandescent lighting, a conference area, and a few personal cubicles, but also a fireplace, a green terrace for outdoor lunches, and a kitchen.

In addition to the hardware, comfort, efficiency, and ``look'' of a home office, proper lighting is paramount, say designers and architects.

Robin Doerfler, a lighting consultant with Wolfers/Standard Electric, says two things of utmost importance are sufficient lighting and absence of glare on a computer screen.

These days, people can be more creative in home offices with how they light the space. Fixtures and design options abound, Doerfler says, adding, ``the industry has come light-years.''

At the end of the day, what really counts is designing a work environment that suits your personal needs and tastes.

Echoing scientific studies and common sense, Hurd adds: If you're happy where you work, you'll be more productive.

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