Creating home office design that works

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

We often are asked which home-improvement projects are most popular and cost-effective. Our poetic response for years has been "fireplaces are hot, swimming pools are not -- and kitchens and baths are the rage." We now include in the "rage" department an improvement that has become wildly popular in the last several years -- home offices.

Variations of the home office have been around for eons. Branded the den, study or library, they were not as sophisticated as are today's home offices. Some communities have strict zoning ordinances that prohibit a full-fledged home office where business is conducted on a daily basis. Such use can generate traffic, parking and noise problems. Thus, if you plan to trade your office in the city for space just down the hall from your bedroom, you would be wise to check with your local planning officials before doing so.

What factors are fueling this work-at-home frenzy? There are many, including the simple desire to stay close to home. Overcrowded urban areas, jam-packed freeways and long commutes are a few of the reasons for this desire. Fuel, vehicle operation and maintenance costs, high stress levels and little or no time at home are contributing factors. In addition, advances in information systems technology (computers, etc.) and that such systems are more affordable than before is another factor behind the growth of home offices.

Twenty years ago the information technology that existed was used almost exclusively by giant corporations with great financial wherewithal. A decade ago the technology had become exponentially better and was available at a fraction of the cost. Still it was out of reach for most consumers. Today, the best of all worlds is available. Equipment is compact and prices are more affordable than ever before.

Improved communications technology is equally responsible for the surge in home offices. High-speed bandwidth, the Internet and e-mail allow computer users to perform virtually all the tasks that previously could be performed only in the workplace.

What elements contribute to a good home office? There are many. What follows are some of them:

Elbow room

A home office should be large enough to comfortably accommodate the necessary components -- ample work space, a computer, printer, fax, copy machine, telephone and file cabinets. Working in cramped quarters can be more stressful than the commute. A light ceiling and subtle walls make the most of available light. Decorate with color.

Light and ventilation

Natural light can help save energy by supplementing artificial light. It can also make the space more cheery and, thus, a more productive environment. Fresh air is a welcome change for the stale air that often circulates through an office building. Windows, a sliding patio door or French doors are major assets when you're working at home. A colorful garden area, a small fountain and a wind chime are other bright ideas.

Noise reduction

Working at home can be a challenge when others are present. A solid-cored interior door instead of the run-of-the-mill hollow core model can make a significant difference in the amount of disruptive sound that makes its way into your office. Wall-to-wall carpet or large area rugs instead of hard surfaces, such as tile or hardwood, can make the space substantially quieter. When remodeling, use five-eighths-inch wallboard instead of the standard half-inch variety. Also, insulate all walls surrounding the space with sound-attenuation batt insulation. Soft background music is another plus.

Furniture and storage

Comfort is king when it comes to working at home. A generous work surface at the right height, a comfortable chair and convenient storage will lessen body aches and increase productivity. Don't let your home office turn into a disaster area with stacked papers, books and files. Storage drawers, file cabinets and book cases can make the space inviting rather than a detraction.

Electrical and lighting

Electronic equipment in a home office should be powered by a dedicated circuit of ample size. This will prevent power surges that can damage electronics and result in lost data. More important, an overloaded circuit can result in a house fire. Consider installing one or more fluorescent light fixtures from the ceiling. A desk lamp to supplement available light can be helpful in avoiding eye strain.

Equipment

Get the best, fastest computer that you can afford. The same goes for the printer and fax. Since space is a premium in most home offices, consider investing in a printer-fax-scanner-copier. These multifunction machines are more reliable and affordable than ever.

Communications

This is one of the most important areas, yet it is where most people cut corners. Using one telephone line for a computer, a fax and telephone is counterproductive. It wastes time and cuts efficiency. If you're serious about a home office and plan to use it often, step up the bandwidth and nix the dial-up and go for a high-speed cable or DSL connection. In addition, with a DSL line, you can be online and on the telephone using one telephone connection. Check with your local bandwidth provider for the choices available.

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