A word about the home office; FUTURE HOMES: PART 1

As the modern work-force shifts from the office to the home and the distinction between domestic and business environments becomes blurred, Lucas Hollweg looks at the solutions and asks `Are we really prepared?'
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The Independent Culture
There is a quiet revolution going on in our homes. As the computer becomes part of our everyday culture, the traditional boundaries between where we live and work are becoming increasingly blurred. An office in the home is becoming a necessity for growing numbers of people, with the result that the home itself can no longer be viewed as something exclusively domestic in character. Wherever the solutions lie - in new ways of designing and constructing homes, or in imaginative reinventions of the things we put in them - we are having to reassess our domestic environment as a place where we can both live and work.

Working from home is nothing new, of course - freelancers and the self- employed have been doing it for years. But what distinguishes these contemporary home offices from, say, the traditional study, is the people using them. It is not simply a case of a small band for whom home is the principal place of work. The growth of information technology, and the restructuring of large corporate and governmental bodies, is making work a movable feast on an unprecedented scale; office spaces in the home now have to satisfy those who work part- time for companies, those who spend time on the road and use home as a base, even occasional home PC users. The corporate office may not be teetering on the brink of extinction (not yet anyway), but it is none the less being recast as one of several alternative, and often interconnected, places to work.

Such flexible working practices are only in their infancy. Even so, current estimates show that up to two million people in Britain work at home full time. While half of this number are self-employed, nearly a third are "telecommuters" working from home for public and private-sector employers. And the numbers are growing. Sixty- two per cent of companies in a recent survey reported some form of teleworking. Oxfordshire County Coun-cil is one of several local authorities to have adopted a formal teleworking policy: 250 of its managerial, technical and professional staff (out of a total work-force of 16,000) regularly work from home for at least two days a week. Research from the US, where 11.8m people are already telecommuting, suggests that working from home could eventually become an option for as many as one third of the work-force.

The question is: are our homes ready for it? Most living spaces aren't designed with work as part of the equation. Yet even in its simplest form, the home office has specific requirements - adequate space, a good light source, additional telephone sockets. It will also have to make provision for the technological needs of remote working.

There are tentative steps in the right direction. Rural "televillages" such as that at Crickhowell in the Brecon Beacons National Park, are being designed specifically to meet the new needs thrown up by teleworking. The cottage-style houses in the development - which have fibre-optic links with corporate workspaces for local employers and technological facilities that are shared by the whole community - have been built to accommodate changes in layout, so that living rooms can be split to provide separate office space.

At present, however, such schemes are a rarity. Making room for work in the home is still more likely to involve a reappraisal of existing spaces. Conven-tional thinking is that the only solution for those working full-time from home is a dedicated office space that keeps the distractions of the domestic environment at bay. For those with money to spend, there are no shortage of options: extensions, garage conversions, separate work spaces at the end of the garden - and the warehouse conversion market, where flexible space comes as part of the package.

Another solution - and one that does not rely upon room for expansion - lies in the use of dead space within the layout of existing buildings. "The idea is to look at volume rather than floorspace," says Paul Monaghan of architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, whose conversion of a bachelor flat in a south London terrace includes a reinforced glass desk area like a mini mezzanine, built in the empty ceiling space above an entrance staircase. "Building an extension or purpose-built space is a very lavish architectural solution. This is far less extreme and solves a generic problem of lack of space."

It is unrealistic, however, to believe that bespoke architecture can provide all the answers. The cost of restructuring, let alone the expense of buying and building homes with extra space, means that serious architectural solutions are out of reach for the vast majority. The property market has begun to pay lip service to the idea of the home office - witness the fact that a three-bedroom house now often appears on estate agents' sales literature as "three beds or two beds/office" - but this represents an awareness of the trend, rather than a real solution to the problems it creates. Turning a spare room into an office still makes certain assumptions about the money that home-based workers, or their employers, are prepared to spend on creating workspaces in the home.

Paul Monaghan believes that dual-purpose rooms, in which domestic and work functions are combined, will eventually become an important factor in the way new homes are planned. "Where architecture can help is by looking at the use of certain rooms more flexibly. It's the idea that you can take two photographs - one of, say, a spare bedroom and another of an office space - and combine the two functions in a dual-purpose room. Architecture can provide built-in furniture that allows for this kind of transformation."

But while clients are increasingly asking for this kind of "transformative" architecture, new building for the mass market still seems stuck on the notion of houses as domestic boxes.

Where does that leave most of us? One approach is simply to take a more flexible view of the way we use the rooms in our homes. "There is no longer any reason not to work in the nicest rooms in a house," according to Ilse Crawford, editor of interiors magazine Elle Decoration. "People have had offices at home for years, but the new idea is that you can work at the centre of the house. It's more like the medieval idea of a home: you have a public space where you work and entertain, then you have private space. With technology, you shouldn't have to have mounds of paper and files. The answer isn't to make your home look like an office, but to use the technology discreetly."

Santa Raymond, author of a new book looking at changes in the design of corporate workspaces, Tomorrow's Office, agrees: "The office of the future is about mobility and working where you feel comfortable. It is all right to use your kitchen table for meetings if that is what you want to do."

The idea of itinerant working within the home makes sense for those with limited space. It also allows for the creative or playful tasks that are a part of modern working, but unsuited to more structured office environments.

This is an idea in which design for the corporate office is providing useful lessons for the home. Most of the major office-furniture manufacturers are looking at systems that suit more fluid working environments. The practice of "hot desking" (where the corporate space functions as a kind of mother ship shared on a temporary basis by a number of orbiting employees) has meant that traditional fixed- desk arrangements are increasingly being abandoned in favour of mobile tables and personal storage carts that can be positioned to provide work stations and filing when and where they are needed.

One system, called Ad Hoc, from German furniture manufacturer Vitra, centres on a slim, wall-mounted shelving unit designed to hold a VDU and anything else that has traditionally cluttered the desk top. It comes with a mobile table and filing trolley that can be dragged away from the shelves to form different working configurations. Originally for corporate offices, it has been hybridised for use in the home; the elliptical pull- out desk, Vitra suggests, could double as a dining table in homes where space is limited.

Craig Allen, buying director of The Conran Shop, acknowledges the importance of the Vitra system, but is sceptical about the practicality of this kind of dual use. "Manufacturers have these ideas, but they are not matched to people's need," he says. "The idea of using your desk as a dining-table is pretty far-fetched." Even so, flexible systems of this sort have obvious applications in the home. In much the same way as the hostess trolley made it more practical for housewives to entertain in a room other than the one in which they prepared the food, designs that incorporate some kind of mobile element mean work need no longer be confined to a single area of the home.

The principle is finding resonances in pieces targeted more specifically at the domestic market. Work from established designers includes the Mobil drawer unit by Antonio Citterio, which domesticises the trolley concept in a modern, high-energy blend of coloured plastic and shiny metal, and Konstantin Grcic's elegant reinvention of a traditional wooden desk which runs on casters and has shelves in place of drawers. It was also a theme explored by a number of students at this summer's Royal College of Art furniture design degree show. Among the pieces on show was a home office by Donato Delvecchio, which included a "column" table housing all the components of a computer within a space just 80cm in diameter, and a mobile table that could be pulled into position as a desk.

The problem is that, for the moment at least, these are designer solutions with designer price tags - the Mobil trolley costs nearly pounds 500. At the lower end of the market, solutions that deliver quality, good looks and functionalism in one neat package are infuriatingly few. It's not that the mass- market is ignoring the home office issue: the major furniture retailers have all bolstered their ranges in this area over the last couple of years, with pieces that span the spectrum from reinventions of domestic design to scaled-down versions of hard-edged office pieces; Ikea, for instance, offers everything from hi-tech desks and brightly coloured chairs to pine computer consoles. But while these pieces are undeniably domestic in both scale and pricing, they are still geared aesthetically towards the idea of the home office as a separate room.

For the most part, furnishing a home office still comes down to a trade- off between function and looks. While domestic design focuses principally on aesthetic and emotional appeal, most office pieces are geared towards practical and ergonomic requirements - accommodating computer systems, providing comfortable working positions and so on. They tend to look out of place in a domestic setting.

"People have a resistance to the idea of putting anything in their home that looks as if it has been pinched from an office," says Craig Allen. "Conventional office furniture is intentionally anodyne. It is about ordering people in a way that makes them concentrate on the task in hand. Somehow, the ritual of sitting down at it has to prepare you mentally for work. But when people choose furniture for their homes, it is for largely emotional reasons."

What is needed are pieces that respond to both the aesthetic needs of the home and the practical demands of the office. But finding the necessary hybrid is proving difficult for designers and manufacturers. "The problem is that it demands a completely new visual language," according to Craig Allen. "The language of domestic furniture is not appropriate, nor is the language of office furniture. It has to have an appearance of domesticity in terms of its materials and size, but perform specific work-related tasks."

One area that could have wide applications for those with limited space is furniture that discreetly conceals its work function when not in use. Mobile systems give flexibility in terms of where we work, but they don't necessarily address the fact that the paraphernalia of working sits uncomfortably in a domestic environment. Do we really want to look at our computers when we are not using them? Or our files? Or the books related to our work? And what do we do with the tangle of wires that tie us to our desks? Note-book computers are a solution in some cases, but not all; wireless systems are still a long way off for most users. And despite the best efforts of manufacturers to reduce the footprint of their machines (the amount of space occupied on the desktop), most computers still stick out incongruously in the home.

The computer poses similar problems to those encountered with early televisions. People want to use them, but don't necessarily want them as permanent fixtures. Furniture is now appearing on the market that, like the Fifties television cabinet, allows work to be shut away at the end of the day. Some of the offerings from fitted-furniture companies are naff attempts to combine tradition and technology. But more exciting, and contemporary styles are also emerging.

Spanish manufacturer, Punt Mobles, produces a range of pure-lined, woo- den cabinets with roller-shutter fronts simply called Home, which incorporates both storage and working areas, and is aimed at countering many of the problems associated with living and working in a limited space. "The roller- shutters mean you don't need the same space as you do with a leaf door," says Terence Woodgate, the designer of the system. "The idea is that you open it up and all the hardware that is part of office life is there, but when you pull it down, it's home again."

Home designs are simple, clean-cut and modern - the sort of thing most of us would willingly have in our houses. It keeps work and domestic life separate, yet does so at the centre of the home. In principle, it is not a million miles from the old-fashioned roll-top desk, drea-med up to provide Victorians with a compact, disguisable work area for their parlour. For the home office, what goes around comes around. !

OFFICE/BEDROOM

Purpose-built architectural features can allow for greater flexibility in the use of individual rooms. This project (left) by Anthony Hudson Architects for a freelance editor and her barrister husband, maximises the use of space by combining spare bedroom and office. `We needed a room where we could both work and put people up, but didn't want it to look exclusively bedroom or office,' says the owner. `We didn't want guests to feel like they were sleeping in an office.' Panelled walls keep computers and storage concealed in a series of cupboards, while an extendable bed and folding floor mean the space can easily be transformed into a bedroom. When the bed is retracted, the floor folds out to fill the empty floor space, creating a platform at the same level as the office and leaving half the bed as a place to sit

PLATFORM OFFICE

This ingenious suspended office (main picture), designed by architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, for director of the Architecture Foundation, Jeremy Melvin, overcomes the restrictions of a one-bed flat by creating a separate work area without encroaching on existing living space. `The bedroom, kitchen and living room were all a reasonable size,' says Melvin. `But they were a bit small if you tried to work in them.' The solution was to slot a desk and work platform into the empty ceiling space above the stairs that lead from the hall to the kitchen. Supported by a steel frame, the desk is a lightweight sandwich of glass and honeycombed aluminium, which provides ample room for working, while allowing the light from a window to filter through into the rest of the flat.

LIVING/OFFICE/DINING ROOM

Freelance magazine stylist Sue Parker's simple office (left) conveniently connects to her living-room, and doubles as a space for hosting dinner parties: `I have the table against the wall when I'm working so I can look out of the window, then I just move it to the centre of the room for parties.' Parker's is a loose approach to the home office: the desk is improvised from a scaffolders' trestle, the filing cabinet is an office respray, and the chairs were designed for factory work, rather than desk duty. But it works well for someone where space in general - and not just desk space - is important. `I can spread out as much as I like and have several projects on the go at one time,' she says. `It's a completely white room and the clutter is minimal, so it focuses you on what you are supposed to be doing - and there is lots of room for props for photo-shoots.'

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