Designing Effective Office Space

Certain areas in a custom home are especially tailored to each client. The home office is one of these spaces. Trends in office design vary for each homeowner’s lifestyle, which leaves designers with the ever-present challenge of understanding each client individually. Doing so will guarantee a functional office space specific to a client’s way of life.

According to the American Institute of Architects’ Home Design Trends Survey for the second quarter of 2006, home offices were considered by architects as the most popular specialty room. This number increased from 31 percent in 2005 to 49 percent of respondents in 2006. And in a survey conducted by Residential Design & Build magazine in December 2006, home offices ranked first on a list of most asked-for rooms/features.

A home office can be defined in many ways as each person utilizes such space differently. Generally, the home office is a space homeowners use to conduct business.

“There are two classifications of a home office. One is for a person who works at home, wants doors on the room and is off-limits to everyone else [in the house],” says Robert Bouril, AIA, architect at Bouril Design Studio in Madison, Wis. “The other classification is for a person who is running the day-to-day bill paying, scheduling activities and online shopping — the day-to-day business of running a house.”

Another type of home office is one that’s a refuge from the rest of the house. “The homeowner might have a hobby that is carried on in that room. Or it can be a getaway TV room from the kids. And sometimes it does double function as guest quarters with a hide-a-bed,” Bouril adds. “What it’s not is a room for any activity related to your private sleeping and bathing. And, it’s not a public space such as a living room, dining room or kitchen area.”

Because there are multiple variations of what constitutes a home office, Rebecca Swanston, AIA, owner and principal of Baltimore-based Swanston and Associates, adds that the home office is any space where someone sets up a computer and a desk. “It can be carved out of niches or can be a whole room,” she says.

Varying Locations

The ideal location for an office depends on the use of that space. “Sometimes a central location is best, a place to corral mail and paperwork; a convenient space for kids to do their homework under the watchful eye of a parent,” says Mindy Mitchell, design consultant for Sun Design Remodeling Specialists, Burke, Va. “For those who work full time from home, an office that is more private is necessary.”

For homeowners who conduct business in their homes, the ideal location for an office is off the foyer, says Gary Sweet, AIA, office architect and owner of ADM in Manchester, Conn. “There are two paths off of the foyer — entertaining or business. You don’t want to cross those paths,” Sweet adds.

The location away from the main activities in the house is ideal for the homeowner who doesn’t plan on receiving guests or clients in the home office. “For the person who uses the home as the place where they do work, they prefer the office to be out of the way. These locations are usually in the lower level with natural light or on the second floor,” Bouril says.

Offices on the second floor are most commonly located near the master suite, offering a homeowner ultimate flexibility. “People can wake up in the middle of the night and do their work in their pajamas,” says James Bowen, AIA, architect for Bowen Architect in Sarasota, Fla.

Margaret McCurry, FAIA, partner and architect at Tigerman McCurry Architects in Chicago, suggests that there is not one ideal location for a home office. “Some clients want it adjacent to a family room, and some have a computer in the kitchen that everyone has access to. Some offices are off the master suite and some are on the second floor,” she says.

Multiple benefits are enjoyed by homeowners who have offices in their homes. “The obvious one is that you can live a more sustainable life.

There seems to be a trend at some companies that make their employees’ time flexible by requiring no office hours. People can utilize a home office to do that,” Bowen says. “The major benefit is that it’s flexible to use at any time.”

Sweet adds that a home office lowers the costs associated with driving to work. “We moved into home offices with the advent of computers. We made the transition to the home because of the 17-second commute it creates. And, you don’t have to jam your work day between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.”

An added benefit of the home office is a better family life, Swanston says. “It gives someone the flexibility to see their children throughout the day, and the flexibility to work at all hours of the day.”

One disadvantage to having a home office is also one of the advantages. Because homeowners have access to their work at any time of day, they can switch from the mind frame of work to home and vise versa. “You may wake up in the middle of the night and realize that work is calling you,” Sweet adds. “You also have to be able to turn off your home lifestyle when you see the lawn needs mowing.”

Offices in Demand

The word from architects is the demand for home offices is increasing. “I’ve been designing homes since 1980, and I can’t think of a project we’ve designed that doesn’t have some room designated as an office, study or library,” Bouril says.

Multiple factors are driving the demand for home offices. One is the increased amount of paperwork people need to file. “Think of how much paper enters your home on a daily basis: mail, children’s school work, memos, e-mails, appointments, magazines, etc. A home office provides a place to corral all those bits of information in a logical way,” Mitchell says.

People no longer want to file their bills on the kitchen counter. They want a designated place to organize their important paperwork, architects say. “There is a huge amount of confidential information. Now you have financial records, more documentation, and could have 10 credit cards instead of one. There needs to be a place to keep everything secure,” says Ronnette Riley, FAIA, LEED AP, owner of Ronnette Riley Architects in New York.

Technology is also driving the demand for home offices. With the increased flexibility thanks to wireless Internet access, Palm pilots and Blackberries, people can access work from virtually anywhere. “I can’t imagine someone with a home office not being able to write letters, do billing or tax work electronically — everything is done electronically,” Sweet adds. “Each generation of equipment enhances the ease of operating it. You can produce the same in less time with newer technology.”

Making Offices Work

When designing a home office, a few elements are key to making it function well. “File storage, good work-desk area to spread out papers and a computer, book-storage area and built-in integrated book shelving are all important in a home office,” Bouril says.

A lot of natural lighting during the day as well as artificial lighting at night is important. “Lighting is paramount in creating an inviting and supportive office environment. It is Sun Design’s intention to design in as much natural light as possible and then augment that with other lighting options,” Mitchell says.

Riley adds that good office design relies on comfort, too. “It doesn’t matter how organized the homeowner is if they aren’t comfortable. Good office design includes the right temperature, right lighting and a comfortable place to sit.”

The increased availability of technology and its ability to store data digitally minimizes the need for much physical storage, McCurry adds.

“Most people who are computer literate don’t need a lot of filing cabinets. They want smaller spaces with less storage and an area that is appropriate for a computer,” she says.

Materials and colors used in a home office are also distinguished by each client. “We use all types of flooring and cabinetry, depending on the needs of the client and their home,” Sweet says. “Colors vary depending on what’s popular. We use more traditional, darker woods with softer lighting and direct lighting.”

Bouril’s clients want their offices to appear upscale. “People are putting their attention into the quality of the office. They are investing in nicely built furniture, cabinets, visual characteristics and quality of lighting. We do coffered ceilings, crown moldings and paneling — the office tends to be more than four drywall walls.”

Many times the designer keeps the office looking consistent with the rest of the house. “The cabinetry might be more modest than the kitchen but it fits with the décor of the house,” Riley says. “As for colors, some clients are allowing us to go more modern and fun with blues and greens. However, it can’t be the stepchild to the rest of the house — it has to fit in with the rest of the environment.”