Several years ago I was working out of my home in an office I’d designed for myself. With plenty of space, oversized countertops, and specific places for each piece of office furniture and equipment I use (I’m highly computer-dependent), I was productive and efficient without sacrificing closeness to my family.
In terms of design, space utilization, and ergonomics, I’d thought of everything. Then two things changed my work setting in fundamental ways; a two-year old and a four-year old who delighted in knowing that Daddy was home all day.
But that wasn’t totally unexpected; I’d made provisions to increase the privacy of my office as the children grew. A little planning and a few rules about when the office was “off limits” kept the advantages of working at home intact.
Thirteen million Americans are currently running businesses out of their homes, according to the Kauffman Center For Entrepreneurial Leadership (www.emkg.org). In all, forty-five million of us (35% of all U.S. households) work at least part-time out of home offices.
Combine those figures with the Herman Miller Company’s (www.hermanmiller.com/) projected 10 to 12% annual growth in the home office furnishings market and it is obvious that sooner or later, many of us will have to consider how to integrate this relatively new function into our existing or new homes.
There aren’t many hard and fast rules about home office design; our jobs and lives are unique and will influence each individual situation. But a few basic ideas apply almost universally, and will help to guide you towards making the best with your resources.
Locating The Home Office
Even a well-planned office space won’t work if it’s located poorly. If you see clients in your office frequently, and especially if you have small children at home, separate the office from the home spaces as much as possible.
This might mean a completely independent office structure, or an existing room with an entrance designed for use by clients alone. If the office and home spaces are adjacent, proper sound insulation is a must.
Building a completely new office structure allows you the most design options, but forces the consideration of future use. Will you work at home forever? If not, what will become of that dedicated office? In my home, the old office is in “phase two” of its evolution, the kids’ “playroom”. In phase three it will be remodeled into a media room for the adults. Design your office to grow and change with you.
Remodeling an existing space into a home office requires you to look carefully at the use of adjacent spaces. Many clients will think it a faux pas if they hear the toilet flush upstairs during a meeting. Speaking of plumbing, will there be a nearby bathroom for client use? Will they have to wait for your son to get out of the shower to use it?
But perhaps you don’t see clients at home. You may only need a quiet place to get in a few hours or work each day or you may find that the solitude of home is simply a better environment for what you do.
This situation allows the office to be buried within one of the family areas of the house; a nook adjacent to the kitchen keeps you near the center of activity and able to supervise children; conversely, an alcove attached to the master bedroom can be very private and reduce the temptation for the children to interrupt. If you need privacy, find it by locating the most remote areas of your home.
Be realistic about the potential distractions of working at home. If you’re a moth to the flame of the refrigerator, it’s best that you make the path between office and kitchen as long as possible. My Achilles’ heel was cable television; it was just too easy to leave The Golf Channel on all day long. I can’t get away with that in a regular office.
Let Your Work Style Dictate The Design A few years back, I worked with a client to design a part-time home office for her small consulting business. The more time we spent discussing her work style (she worked almost exclusively with a telephone and a computer), the more we began to realize that all she needed at home was a quiet space to talk on the phone and to set up her laptop. In the end, the entire office consisted of a three-foot by six-foot desk nook tucked behind her kitchen – just enough space to type and talk, a few shelves, and two telephone lines.
If you work entirely at home, or if you bring home piles of paperwork from your main office, you’ll need greater accommodations. Countertop area and storage space are always in demand – make sure you’ve got enough. A large executive desk looks great but you will get much more use from a wide expanse of countertop.
Rather than creating expensive built-ins, many of my clients opt for what I call a “paper pantry”; a large walk-in closet, full of open shelves for paperwork, files, and office supplies. A paper pantry saves money, keeps the mess hidden, and can be used as a clothes closet should the office ever be needed as a future bedroom.
Receiving clients at home requires a place to conduct meetings. A conference table might fit the bill but don’t forget to consider how it will be used when clients aren’t present. A well-placed conference table should double as additional workspace for you.
Finally, if your work requires frequent trips out of the office, find a place where you can sneak in and out without disturbing the others in your household.
Accommodating Office Equipment Almost every office requires a computer. It’s the personal computer that made the whole work-at-home concept possible. But computers are still bulky assemblages of wires and peripherals that take up valuable countertop space. Add to that the copier, scanner, fax machine, and telephone and suddenly you’ve no room to work.
Just like a media center in a family room, cabinets and shelves can easily be designed to hold or conceal office machinery, and free up space to work. Many times I’ve expanded the “paper pantry” concept to include office machines.
The components you use everyday (printer, copier) are best placed within reach of your desk, on shelves under countertops, or in low cabinets. The less frequently used pieces (scanner, fax) should occupy a more remote location. Other options worth considering include a laptop computer instead of a full-size machine, and an “all-in-one” machine combining fax, copier, scanner, and printer in one compact footprint.
Whichever setup you choose, make sure you’ve got plenty of electrical outlets and telephone jacks so that you’ve got the flexibility to fine-tune the arrangement of machines.
Managed Growth Home-based businesses usually fall into one of two categories: new businesses trying to grow, or satellites of existing office space. The future needs of a satellite office are few, since it’s intended as just an extension of a larger office. But planning for a growing business requires some prognostication.
If you hope to move out into commercial space someday, don’t overdo the home office. Plan for a little growth, but don’t overbuild or overdesign a space that’s destined for obsolescence. Instead, look ahead to how that space will be used when you’ve moved out of it.
If you want to grow your business and keep it at home, check local zoning codes and deed restrictions on your property before you make an expensive commitment. While most zoning codes allow limited home-based business, they often restrict the number of employees, on-site parking, and even the type of businesses permitted.
Often these restrictions are related to the size of your property, but don’t assume anything. A phone call to your local zoning official and a quick check of your deed may save you a lot of time and money.
Don’t “Underdesign” It The temptation to think of a home office as strictly a place of function is strong. But if you really intend to use it, it is vital to create a pleasant work atmosphere. Access to views and natural light helps increase the ambiance and allows you to be more productive. A few well-placed personal items give you “ownership” of the office; comfortable seating and good function reduce stress.
Keep in mind how much time you’re likely to spend there. You need to make the most of those hours so give yourself the same or better amenities than you’d expect from a well-designed outside office (you’ve already got the private parking space!).
Surround yourself with an environment that supports your work and stimulates your creativity. Make it a place you look forward to going to. Properly done, a home office can be a comfortable, profitable, and liberating place to work.