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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

home office
Photo by Paul Bardagjy
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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, most families just can't do without a flexible, functional workstation. As Hinsdale, Illinois, homeowner Ann Kohout put it: "Our home office might only be 7½-feet-wide and 6-feet-deep, but it's probably the most-used room in the house."

GETTING STARTED
Whether you're retrofitting a space for an office or starting from scratch, don't shortcut your setup.

Floor Plan: 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.

How High: 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.

How Small: 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.

Lighting: 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.

Body Alignment: 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.

Ventilation: Cabinets that conceal a hard drive might need additional breathing spaces or built-in grilles.

Wire Management: 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.

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, most families just can't do without a flexible, functional workstation. As Hinsdale, Illinois, homeowner Ann Kohout put it: "Our home office might only be 7½-feet-wide and 6-feet-deep, but it's probably the most-used room in the house."

GETTING STARTED
Whether you're retrofitting a space for an office or starting from scratch, don't shortcut your setup.

Floor Plan: 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.

How High: 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.

How Small: 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.

Lighting: 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.

Body Alignment: 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.

Ventilation: Cabinets that conceal a hard drive might need additional breathing spaces or built-in grilles.

Wire Management: 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.

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UTILIZING NOOKS & NICHES

 

UTILIZING NOOKS & NICHES

the wired kitchen
Photo by Eric Piasecki
Have a desk, a chair, a laptop, and an alcove? You just might have a home office.
The Wired Kitchen
Talk about multitasking. This 5-foot-long custom built-in by Front Row Kitchens functions as a media center, a message center, and a mini home office all in one. 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 (1). On it, the homeowners can watch CNN, or review vacation pics when a digital camera's memory card is popped into the computer tower. The desk is equipped with file drawers down below (2) and is designed for convenience at 36-inches-high (3), rather than a standard 30 inches. That way family members can grab a stool from the kitchen island just 3 feet away and check e-mail on the laptop (4); visit a kid away at college via the clip-on webcam (5); download tunes or video on the MP3 player (6); or check the day's calendar on the Internet-enabled "smartphone" (7). Shown here: LCD TV by Samsung; 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.

Easy Access
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 (1) and beadboard splashback (2), and concealed cords and computer equipment. The hard drive sits on a pull-out shelf behind a vented file drawer (3), and wires are snaked into the kneehole (4). Faux mini-drawers overhead (5) 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 (6) that can seat two. "But if the kids leave a drink out on it overnight or there's a spill, it's fine."

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Feels Like Home

 

Feels Like Home

wired kitchen's plan
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. Using the home's original Colonial Revival details such as colonnades (1) and stile-and-rail wainscoting (2), and adding decorative art-glass windows (3), Heide created a traditional-looking library that conceals its technology with a pullout keyboard tray (4), a hidden hard-drive tower (5), and wiring that runs behind the kneespace's beadboard back (6), which is built out 3 inches from the wall. The desk's 5-foot-wide seating area (7) was intended to allow a parent to pull up a chair during after-school homework sessions.

Away From It All
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. While the homeowner wanted a computer (1), he also wanted additional work surfaces (2, 3) where he could spread out his paperwork and refer to it while on the phone (4)—which is constantly. Cabinets that hold files (5) and a shredder (6) 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 (7), 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.

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Side-by-Side WiFi

 

Side-by-Side WiFi

Easy Access home office
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. 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. Using the same cabinetry and millwork as in the kitchen (1), Rice designed a wall of bookshelves over each 5-foot-wide desk area. Equipped with a wireless keyboard and mouse (2), each desktop is kept clear of cords. Superthin 19-inch monitors (3) have a wider viewing angle, and a 3-way speaker system (4) lets the kids tune into their MP3s. In the center, just an arm's reach from each workstation is an all-in-one multitasking printer/fax/scanner/photocopier (5). The ergonomic Celle chairs by Herman Miller (6) flex with the body, providing comfort and lower-back support during long work sessions. Shown here: Wireless Optical Desktop 1000 by Microsoft ; 19-inch LCD Monitors by Proview; Z4 2.1 Speaker System by Logtech; X2350 Multitasking Fax by Lexmark.

Here are some new add-ons we'd be happy to have while working.

Smartphone: This cell phone comes with computer-enabled features, so you can check e-mail, surf the Web with a high-speed connection, update your calendar and address book, create and edit documents—and play the latest version of Texas Hold 'Em.

Wireless Headset: Thanks to Bluetooth technology, you can now pace the room during those endless conference calls without any wires keeping you tied to your desk. The mini-headset (which hangs from one ear) communicates with a smartphone via short-range radio waves.

VOIP Phone: Eliminate at least one bill with a "voice-over-Internet-protocol" phone that uses your broadband Internet connection instead of a dedicated phone line. Many providers charge a flat monthly rate for local and long distance calling.

USB Flash Drive: Say goodbye to burning data CDs forever. This pocket-size memory drive plugs into a computer's USB port and allows you to store or retrieve thousands of documents, pictures, and other files. And it'll even fit on your key ring.

MP3 Video Player: Products like the iPod have been great for playing digital music files, but the latest Apple innovation allows you to watch color video on your portable player or computer monitor, too—perfect if you want to download last week's episode of Lost. Of course, you also can store work documents and contact lists on it, so it's a productivity tool, too. And consider this: One 30G iPod holds more data than 40 traditional CDs. —Jason Carpenter
 
 

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