Page C2.2 . 11 September 2002                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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  • Designing a Home Workplace

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    Designing a Home Workplace


    Whereas working at home used to be considered something on the fringe, it has now become desirable, even fashionable. As traditional places of business become more mechanical, metallic, and in some cases almost prison-like, people who work at home are able to generate environments that are softer, mellower, and highly personalized.

    People often begin working at home on a temporary or trial basis, sometimes because of a personal or financial need. At first, the decor may be modest a card table, a folding chair, or a desk found in the attic shoe-horned into the corner of a bedroom. But for the long term, such first-step home workplaces are often unpleasant, poorly functional, and unhealthful.

    That's because many home workers who wouldn't think of planning a kitchen without an experienced kitchen designer cobble together home workplaces without any professional help, relying solely on their intuition and leftover furnishings. But as more of us begin working at home, we are now recognizing the need for good home workplace design.

    Whereas five years ago excellent examples were hard to come by, we're finally seeing a host of marvelous home/work environments of all shapes, sizes, styles, and persuasions. They are organized sensibly, have a design spirit about them, and work efficiently for the functions intended. Good designs also wear well over time, regardless of changes in computers and other high-tech gadgets that find their way into the home workplace.

    Good examples of workplaces have one thing in common: they represent more for their inhabitants than merely a place to suffer work. There's a personality about them: to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, "There's a there there." Their specific design details make each space work.

    Once a Toolshed, Now a Studio

    Never underestimate the workplace potential of any outbuilding on your property, no matter how small it is. Keith Roberts lovingly converted what was an old toolshed into a jewel of a workplace for his wife, Priscilla, who is a commercial artist.

    A big part of the charm of the one-room studio is the wraparound veranda that Keith added, inspired by a lighthouse keeper's house that he'd seen on Key West. Windows and doors were either recycled from old buildings or donated by friends. The corrugated, galvanized tin roof cost a bit more to install, but it should last 50 years or more.

    Keeping a house or outbuilding in the American South cool in summer can be a challenge especially if you don't want to use air conditioning. Keith took full advantage of the existing toolshed's location (on a marsh on the intracoastal waterway in northern Florida), elevating the building and using awning windows to allow marsh breezes to pass beneath and through the studio.

    A vented attic with ridge vent creates a "chimney" effect, aided by a ceiling-mounted paddle-wheel fan. The Spanish tile floor, set on concrete board, stays cool during the sultry summer months. The studio is well insulated and needs only a small space heater to keep it warm during the cooler months.

    From Bedroom to Writing Studio

    Judy Jencks is an English and creative writing teacher who wanted a quiet place at home where she could grade papers and write poetry. She and her husband Alan, who is a remodeler, collaborated to produce a beautifully detailed home workplace within what was previously a rear bedroom (and before that a long, narrow, screened porch).

    The first task was to identify Judy's work needs in fine detail. In Alan's words, "Judy and I laid out the desk details together. She sat at her old desk, and we arranged things within reach and tried to keep the most frequently used items close to the seating position. The computer is centered, with the phone and answering machine on the left to keep her right hand free to write. The tape player and the CD player are left of the phone," with pigeonholes for all the various storage items that Judy needs close at hand.

    Once he'd determined Judy's specific requirements, Alan was able to size the workstation both vertically and horizontally fitting it neatly into the bay area niche he planned. The height of the window ledge was based on the height of the largest item on the work surface, which is the computer monitor.

    The glass area above wraps around the workstation and expands the space visually, while bathing it in natural light. Recessed lighting in the step-paneled ceiling above provides supplemental task light around and at the work surface.

    Alan likens the detailing of the room interior to the "warmth and intimacy of a ship's cabin," which is only fitting given Judy's love of the sea and all things nautical. His generous use of finely crafted wood carries through the rear door of the workplace and into the garden. The bay window detailing, doorsteps, bench, and wood deck work together to make the garden area feel like a seamless extension of the enclosed workplace.

    Experience changes perception. Working at home has proven to be more than a fad, and there's an emerging awareness that the quality of the home workplace counts not only for efficiency, comfort, and safety, but for the sheer pleasure of being there.

    Home workplaces are beginning to enjoy the respect afforded other key spaces in the home so that in addition to getting work done productively, we can also spend our time there peacefully and joyously.

    Neal Zimmerman is an architect in West Hartford, Connecticut, who specializes in workplace planning and design. He has over 25 years of experience designing corporate, commercial, and residential workplaces of all types and sizes.

    This article is excerpted from At Work At Home: Design Ideas for Your Home Workplace copyright 2001. You can order the book from the publisher online at The Taunton Press or by phone at 800-888-8286. It is also available at



    ArchWeek Image

    Working at home has its virtues, but with a view as captivating as this it can be tough to get any work done.
    Photo: Randy O'Rourke

    ArchWeek Image

    In the toolshed that Keith Roberts remodeled into a studio, the corner workstation gets cross breezes from the old-style, aluminum-framed awning windows.
    Photo: Randy O'Rourke

    ArchWeek Image

    The added entry door and bump-out bay window turned this small rear bedroom into a writing studio, with a connection to a sitting area and outdoor garden. Remodel designed by Alan Jencks.
    Photo: Charles Miller, courtesy Fine Homebuilding magazine/Taunton Press

    ArchWeek Image

    Pivoted awning windows above the workplace fill the room with light and air. The shell-shaped opening between the writing room and bedroom reflect the owner's love of the sea.
    Photo: Charles Miller, courtesy Fine Homebuilding magazine/Taunton Press

    ArchWeek Image

    The workstation and its cubbyholes are meticulously planned with no wasted space. The left end of the L-shaped work surface curves away from the doorway to allow comfortable passage.
    Photo: Charles Miller, courtesy Fine Homebuilding magazine/Taunton Press

    ArchWeek Image

    To test the mettle of a cabinetmaker, look underneath. Here, the work surface load is carried by custom-shaped 4x6 beams, which eliminate the need for legs. The wall behind is outfitted with a wire chase.
    Photo: Charles Miller, courtesy Fine Homebuilding magazine/Taunton Press

    ArchWeek Image

    At Work at Home: Design Ideas for Your Home Workplace, by Neal Zimmerman, published by The Taunton Press.
    Image: Taunton Press


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