Extending Your Reach

Talented designers know how to plan a utilitarian 36" to 48" kitchen desk in their residential designs that houses the phone, family stationery and bulletin board. This type of "message center" adds organizational value to a functional kitchen space.

Such a center should never be simply expanded when the client requests a home-based office area. Rather, it should be tailored to the client's specific needs.
When creating an environment for a client who will spend the majority of his or her work time in this office, kitchen designers should turn to commercial interior specialists, the office furniture industry and ergonomic specialists for planning guidelines and equipment specification suggestions.

To begin learning about home office design, kitchen designers should visit office furniture stores to better understand available office furniture, table-type desk arrangements, file cabinet sizing options and available seating. Simply modifying kitchen cabinets – or suggesting pulling over a breakfast nook chair – may be just too limiting when creating a regularly used home office.

After becoming familiar with cabinet/furniture sizing and chair design, kitchen specialists must learn about equipment specifications. If a home-based office will house multiple employees, "commercial-grade" equipment (that is, heavy-duty printers, copiers, plotters, scanners and the like) will probably be required. But, rather than employ commercial products, many home-based offices rely on equipment designed for home use. And, just as the appliances in a kitchen are identified early in the planning process, the equipment specifications come first for home office design.

A key question to ask the client is if wireless technology will be used. This technology allows you to separate copying, faxing, scanning and printing equipment from the computer. An office may be built around a collection of fax, copier and photo-printer machines already in use. Or, the client may opt to start fresh.

Before listing what new equipment must be housed, an inventory of the existing equipment should be taken. Popular today are combination printer/scan/copy/fax machines. All too often, in well-organized offices, such equipment is built into a drawer or behind a door on a pull-out shelf. These pieces of equipment range in size: 17" to 22" wide, 15" to 24" deep and 15" to 26" high. Some of these sizes may not easily fit in normal desk units or modified kitchen cabinets.

In addition to the actual size of the apparatus, clear space around it must be planned. The designer needs to know how paper is loaded and retrieved, where a paper jam is cleared, and how paper exits the copy function of the machine.

To summarize, when considering the client's office equipment, the following questions need to be asked:
---What pieces of equipment will be used? Are they individual or combination units?

---Are there equipment additions planned? Perhaps a design professional is contemplating adding an oversized plotter to print 18"x24" paper. Where is it going to go?

---How and where are all of the electrical supply lines going to come into the office, and what is the relationship between all of the equipment? An excellent source for cord management equipment and countertop grommets is Hafele America (www.hafeleonline.com). Note the previous comment about wireless technology.

---How is paper fed into the equipment? For many systems, the paper is fed at the rear top section perpendicular to the machine, requiring clear air space above. For others, the paper is fed left or right, requiring much less space above the equipment.

---How many sizes of paper will the office use? Where will it be stored? How much space in front of or to the side of the equipment must be clear to allow printed documents to be retrieved?

---How is a jam cleared from the machinery? Almost all of these devices use a roller system to feed the paper that must be easily accessible from the back to clear a jam. Trying to clear a jam from the front of any of this equipment will result in damaged wheels or gears.

Much like visiting appliance Web sites, designers can familiarize themselves with the equipment on the market for home-based offices by visiting Brother
(www.brother.com), Canon (www.canon.com), Dell (www.dell.com), Epson (www.epson.com), Gateway (www.gateway.com), Hewlett Packard (www.hp.com), IBM (www.ibm.com), Lexmark (www.lexmark.com) and Minolta (konicaminolta.com). Or, just visit Staples, Office Depot or other such retailers to visually inspect and size equipment.

After identifying the type of equipment that will be planned in the space, designers need to gain a clear understanding of who's going to use the space, how…and when. Knowing this is important for several reasons.

For example, an office space used concurrently by two people who engage in similar activities will need two workstations. In contrast, one that is used sequentially, or by people engaged in different tasks or hobbies, can be outfitted with one equipment workstation with individual drawers for each person's storage.

Similarly, an office used during the day as well as the evening requires close attention be paid to both daylight and night light in the space, whereas an office used only in the evening or after normal working hours does not have this requirement. In addition, an office used by different people of different physical statures changes the chair and table height requirements, while an office used for both hobbies and paperwork may necessitate various height work surfaces, as well.

Lighting is the designer's next concern. Office designers contend that vision has become the most neglected of all workers' senses, because lighting technology information has lagged behind that of computers, printers and telecommunication devices.

In the past, office planning requirements simply called for overhead fixtures to cast 50 foot candles of light evenly across the work surface. Kitchen designers follow similar general task lighting planning as they uniformly illuminate kitchen surfaces with undercounter or overhead fixtures.

However, lighting a workstation that includes a computer monitor as well as adjacent paper space is far more complex than illuminating a counter serving the primary cook. First and foremost, brighter is not always better. Different tasks require different amounts of light. For example, reading a document requires four to five times more light than does viewing a monitor. In addition, rather than lighting being the major distraction for the individual using the monitor, oftentimes it's glare from ill-placed light or unexpected natural light that makes the space difficult to work in.

On top of this, the user's age dramatically changes the requirements for lighting. Lighting specialists have written, for example, that individuals in their 60s require approximately 350% more contrast than do people in their 20s.

What this adds up to is the fact that there are multiple lighting needs in the office.

The solution seems to revolve around using a task light on a moveable arm to supplement the ambient lighting scheme of the office so that a cohesive, flexible strategy can be planned to support the various activities and people using the space. This allows lighting to offer a direct, as well as an adjustable, source of light for the specific user at any given time, as she or he accomplishes a specific task.

Once again, this points to the need for kitchen designers to visit commercial office equipment stores to learn about specifying newer task lighting technology. Cool-to-the-touch light sources that can be easily repositioned while providing a variety of lumen light output – resulting in correct foot candle reflectance on the specific work surface – are needed. Plotting the sun's path, as well as considering sources of natural light, will assist the design professional in completing the lighting plan.

The computer equipment to be used in the space is the next important piece of information to gather. And, once again, the wide variety of equipment makes the information-gathering stage of the process a key to successful home-office planning.

First, recognize how frequently laptops are used. It's not uncommon for private schools today – and probably public schools, in the near future – to require students to work from a laptop computer. Certainly, many people who travel from a traditional office to a home-based office rely on a laptop to keep the material they need close at hand. These laptops should be easily "docked" for comfortable use when their owner is working at home in a fully outfitted office.

There are equipment preferences and planning techniques employed by professional office planners that kitchen specialists should learn about when setting up a workstation for good upper-body ergonomics. The following information has been gathered from a two-part article appearing over several months last year in Interiors & Sources magazine.

According to Dr. Mark Vettraino, director, Task Group International, a home-office worktop area can be divided into three work zones, based on the user's reach. When these three work zones are planned correctly, most of the physically damaging stresses in the work environment can be relieved. The work zones are as follows:
---Primary Zone: Everything within one's reach when a user's elbows are at his or her side. The keyboard and mouse should be within this zone to prevent injury.
---Secondary Zone: Everything within arm's reach – for example, planner, telephone, etc.
---Reference Zone: Outside of arm's reach – for instance, heavy reference material, files, etc.

The finer points of proper workstation ergonomics are quite technical, but what follows are the four essential guidelines to minimizing physical stress while keying on a laptop or desktop:
1. With the roof of mouth parallel to the ground, the eyes should be looking at the top third of screen. Placing the screen in this position not only keeps the cervical section of the spine erect, it helps with thoracic outlet issues, as well.

2. The wrist should be a natural extension of the forearms, and there should be no deviation from what's normal. Because of this, both the mouse and the keyboard should be in a position that allows for neutral extension of the wrists, with the wrists not touching the desk. Bending the wrists back or raking them across the edge of the desk contributes to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS). Moreover, the top row of the keyboard should be no further away than the knees to assure that you are keying in the primary zone, rather than extending the arms too far forward, which can contribute to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

3. The center mass of the skull should be at or behind the hip joint, with the torso reclined at an angle of 91 to 112 degrees to save stress on the spine.

4. The knees should be no more than three inches above or below the hip joint.

According to Ronda Crenshaw, director of the Humanscale National Ergonomic Group, the chair is the first priority to consider in creating a healthy workstation. Task chairs should not only offer proper reclining support, but should provide good body fit for the user.

Here are four criteria for designers to consider:
1. Realize the importance of the seat height. Ideally, the seat height should be set so that the user's feet rest comfortably on the floor while the upper body is high enough so that work can be done comfortably at the desk. Placing a height-adjustable footrest under the desk will give petite workers proper support for their feet and legs.

2. A second, somewhat common size adjustment is seat depth. The primary concern with seat depth is to provide a maximum amount of surface area on which to distribute the body weight, while being certain that the delicate area behind the knee is kept clear of potential contact stresses, such as pressure from the front of the seat. As a general rule, when the user is sitting with her or his back properly supported by the backrest, there should be approximately two to four inches of space between the front of the seat cushion and the back of the knee.

3. A third, less common size adjustment is backrest height. As with seat depth, the idea of adjustable backrests is to maximize surface contact and minimize pressure points. While the curvature of the back – particularly the curvature of the lumbar area of the spine – varies from person to person, it's the position of the curvature that matters most. Therefore, a contoured and height-adjustable backrest can offer exceptional lumbar support while maximizing surface contact and weight distribution.

4. Armrests should be adjustable and kept level. Most chairs today offer adjustable armrests, which are critical because different tasks and different sized users require different armrest positions. However, since most of these chairs have independently adjustable armrests, users are free to set the right and left arms at different heights. Unfortunately, a common choice is to keep the armrest on the mousing side lower than the other armrest; such users will sit, potentially for years, with a crooked spine.

The second workstation-related concern to consider is the keyboard and mouse.

The position of the keyboard is more important than its shape. While "ergonomic" keyboards (for example, those with curved layouts or split designs) can help keep a user's wrists in safer postures, they can also create other problems, such as shoulder abduction (elbows moving away from the sides of the body). Think of the hand and arm as a chain – what happens at one end affects the other. A safe posture at one end of the chain does not guarantee the same benefit at the other end. So, keyboard design alone is not necessarily the answer.

To minimize risk from injury, first, remove the keyboard from the desktop and place it on a platform below desk level. This will help eliminate contact stress at the wrists and reduce forward reaching.

The second critical step is to angle the keyboard slightly away from the user in what is referred to as a "negative slope." The lowered keyboard height, combined with the negative tilt, will allow the user's wrists to remain straight (in a "neutral position") and their elbows to open up. The best way to achieve this desired keyboard position is with the use of an articulating keyboard holder with negative tilt adjustability.

Now, let's locate the monitor and document placement.

As technology advances, a growing number of home offices are being outfitted with flat-panel monitors. The beauty of flat-panel monitors is the space-savings they allow – if mounted on an adjustable arm.If a flat-panel monitor is simply placed on the desktop, not only will all the space savings be behind the monitor, but the user will likely end up with a monitor sitting lower than recommended.

Attaching the flat-panel monitor to an adjustable monitor arm allows the user to customize the height and depth of the monitor for optimal viewing, while he or she is also able to move the monitor out of the way when more desk space for writing or referencing documents is beneficial.

A flat-panel monitor on an adjustable arm thus provides both ergonomic and space-saving benefits.

After kitchen specialists have familiarized themselves with equipment and have learned about the ergonomic considerations commercial designers take into account, attention can be returned to planning storage for home-based activities.

Questions we've asked for years are still valued and deal with paper. If the new office space is also the family message center, the household management and communication needs must be built into the space.

Alternatively, if the two spaces will remain separate, the designer must make sure all tasks are assigned to either the family message center or to the home office.

Here's a starter list of common tasks people will perform:
---Working with, handling and storing menus, shopping lists, cookbooks, cooking DVDs or VCR tapes.
---Posting family messages, household duty and activity schedules.
---Taking care of family accounting matters.
---Correspondence, mail and the like.

In today's world, many of these activities will inevitably be handled online. The family's address book, for example, may have been replaced by a Palm Pilot. However, designers should not make assumptions. It's far better to ask questions regarding these typical activities. What goes on at the desk? Do the family members still work with "paper" or do they have more of an electronically based household management system?

Regarding menu planning and recipe retrieval, it's quite possible that the availability of wireless technology and the affordability of flat-screen monitors and televisions will finally allow a cook to store recipes on the computer and then project it on a screen in the kitchen to be readable at several workstations. Kitchen designers need to start thinking through how and where we're going to place these large screens.

Author's Note: Sources referred to in this article include "Setting Up the Workstation for Good Upper-Body Ergonomics" (Interiors & Sources, January, 2004, Dr. Mark Vettraino, director, Task Group International) and "Ergonomics 101: Creating a Healthy Workstation" (Interiors & Sources, October, 2004, Ronda Crenshaw, director of Humanscale National Ergonomic Group).