Home Office Basics
Sometimes a laptop on the kitchen table just doesn't cut it. Here's what you need to know to design, build, and boot up your own home office
Never before has a luxury so quickly morphed into a necessity, but few people today would consider remodeling a house without making room for a home office. And it's not just the libraries and book-lined dens of early 20th-century homes that are making a comeback. Twenty-first-century computer niches and wired homework stations are finding their place on more floor plans, too.
A recent study by the American Institute of Architects designated the home office the most requested "special function room" in the house. Chalk it up to the spike in part-time telecommuting, after-hours e-mailing, and an effort to keep the Internet out of kids' rooms. Whether it's a bare minimum desk off the kitchen or a full-blown study with custom cabinets, multiple work surfaces, and extensive file storage, here's how to create a workstation that'll work for you.
Shown: It's easy to forget that there's a printer, fax, scanner, computer tower, and files all hidden from view in this Portland, Oregon, home office. The space features casement windows, a pine partners' desk, alder floors, and fir built-ins.
Talk about multitasking. Built into the kitchen, this home office allows its homeowners to stay connected while cooking, cleaning, paying bills and overseeing homework.
Positioned on a back wall that's open to the kitchen, the hutch extends its range with a flat-panel TV that swivels out 180 degrees. On it, the homeowners can watch CNN, or review vacation pics when a digital camera's memory card is popped into the computer tower. Shown here: LCD TV by Samsung.
The desk is equipped with file drawers down below and is designed for convenience at 36-inches-high rather than a standard 30 inches.
TOH Tip: Most desks are 30 inches, but that doesn't mean yours has to be. Designers build work surfaces up to 42-inches-high for homeowners who like to check e-mail while standing.
Family members can grab a stool from the kitchen island just 3 feet away and check e-mail on the laptop or visit a kid away at college via the clip-on webcam; download tunes or video on the MP3 player; or check the day's calendar on the Internet-enabled "smartphone."
Shown here: PowerBook G4 laptop by Apple; PD-1170 webcam by Creative Lab; iPod 30G and Universal Dock by Apple; PCS Vision/Smart Device PPC-6700 by Sprint.
When there wasn't enough space to add a library, Hinsdale, Illinois, architect Ann Nowotarski got creative and carved this computer alcove off a great room.
To keep the 7½-foot-wide, 6-foot-deep nook off the TV area looking like the rest of the Nantucket-style house, homeowner and interior designer Ann Kohout continued the kitchen's cabinetry and beadboard splashback, and concealed cords and computer equipment.
The hard drive sits on a pull-out shelf behind a vented file drawer, and wires are snaked into the kneehole.
TOH Tip: Cabinets that conceal a hard drive might need additional breathing spaces or built-in grilles.
Faux mini-drawers overhead are actually one tilt-out cabinet door, exposing five pigeonholes where family members tuck cell phones and sunglasses.
"Some might say that granite is a cold surface," says Kohout of the hard-working desktop that can seat two. "But if the kids leave a drink out on it overnight or there's a spill, it's fine."
One of the biggest trends in home offices today is the move away from the business/corporate look, toward a warmer, more homelike environment. When Minneapolis designer David Heide was hired to add on to an early-1900s foursquare, he was asked to design an office that flowed into the rest of the house.
The office nook features the home's original Colonial Revival details such as colonnades and and stile-and-rail wainscoting.
Decorative art-glass windows add unique style.
Heide created a traditional-looking library that conceals its technology with a pullout keyboard tray, a hidden hard-drive tower, and wiring that runs behind the kneespace's beadboard back, which is built out 3 inches from the wall.
TOH Tip: Use desk grommets to funnel wires down from the desktop and out of sight. Or consider building the kneehole panel out from the wall and running wiring behind it.
The desk's 5-foot-wide seating area was intended to allow a parent to pull up a chair during after-school homework sessions.
TOH Tip: If you're not going to use a chair, you could fit a computer station into an 18-inch-wide cubby. Want to sit? Expand it to 21-inches-wide, but for a pair of seats, allow at least 2 feet per person per workstation.
With four school-age children, these homeowners had a kitchen that was already chaos—hardly the place for computer stations that could serve as homework cubbies. When Wilmette, Illinois-based architect Healy Rice was hired to redo the house, she found an underused space in a den off the kitchen.
TOH Tip: Layer lighting with recessed cans to provide ambient light, and undercabinet fixtures or desk lamps for task lighting. Dimmers and three-way bulbs let you easily adjust light levels for comfort.
Using the same cabinetry and millwork as in the kitchen, Rice designed a wall of bookshelves over each 5-foot-wide desk area.
Equipped with a wireless keyboard and mouse, each desktop is kept clear of cords. Superthin 19-inch monitors have a wider viewing angle, and a 3-way speaker system lets the kids tune into their MP3s.
Shown here: Wireless Optical Desktop 1000 by Microsoft ; 19-inch LCD Monitors by Proview; Z4 2.1 Speaker System by Logtech
In the center, just an arm's reach from each workstation is an all-in-one multitasking printer/fax/scanner/photocopier. Shown here; X2350 Multitasking Fax by Lexmark
The ergonomic Celle chairs by Herman Miller flex with the body, providing comfort and lower-back support during long work sessions.
TOH Tip: To save your body undue stress, place the computer monitor 18 to 20 inches away from you, with the top third of the screen at eye-level. The keyboard should rest 1 inch above thighs and tilt slightly down and away from you. Elbows and knees should be angled at 90 degrees or more.
For a paper person, the desk comes first. That's what Greenwich, Connecticut, architect Jay Haverson was told when it came time to build an executive's study in a new lakefront home: "He told me to work around it," says Haverson of the mahogany writing table.
Dividing the room into a butler's pantry and a walk-through home office, she created the 10-by-12-foot work area the family desperately needed, leaving it doorless so Mom and Dad can see what is onscreen.
Tip: Consider desk placement (back to the door, or not?), whether old furniture and bookcases can easily be fitted with electronics, glare that might obscure your computer screen, and whether you need a writing surface away from the keyboard.
While the homeowner wanted a computer, he also wanted additional work surfaces where he could spread out his paperwork and refer to it while on the phone—which is constantly ringing.
Cabinets that hold files and a shredder were kept discreet and functional, tucked under the desktop and painted alabaster-white to match the home's trimwork.
From his seat, the homeowner can look out over the water, keep up with the news on the plasma-screen TV on the opposite wall (not shown), and when online, view his monitor glare-free since it's positioned well away from the windows.
Separate writing and computer areas, ample file storage, and a door that blocks the noise are the luxuries of an office room of one's own.