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Home offices

More homeowners creating personalized workspaces

Last Updated July 6, 2007

Like many families today, the McEwens (not their real name) found they had little use for their living room since their home life revolved around the family room and kitchen.

So they did something that speaks volumes about how lifestyles are changing: They turned the space into a lavish home office, with the requisite desk, computer and large LCD monitor, but there's also a flat-screen TV over the fireplace, a bar and a pool table.

"Today, home offices tend to be more versatile," says Dana Kosich, principal with Toronto's Hiatus Design, who conceived this radical makeover. "They're suited to several people's needs and different types of work."

As mobile and telecommunications technology increasingly blends our home and work lives, people want a comfortable, secluded but still accessible spot to do anything, from a few minutes to a few days of work. Depending on the extent of the use, that place could be just a nook in the kitchen or an entire basement outfitted with custom millwork.

Rudy Stebih, owner of DigiConcepts Home Technologies in Delta, B.C., says home offices today generally fall into three categories when it comes to their capabilities. Even a basic one should be pre-wired for network connections and have at least two phone lines and three outlets, he says.

An advanced office incorporates capability for simultaneous teleconferencing and online work, which typically means at least two computers, as well as multiple network and phone lines. The "ultimate office," as he calls it, moves you up to a wireless network, including a voice-over-internet protocol phone system.

"A VoIP phone becomes an extension of your phone that you can use while you're sipping coffee at a nearby cafe," he says.

Think home, not office

No matter what your ambition or budget, there are some key considerations when planning a home workspace.

Home offices have traditionally been bare-bones replicas of the work environment, but one of the latest design trends is to develop a look for the space that helps it fit in with the rest of the house.

Makers of computers, monitors and other work technology have moved beyond bulky boxes in institutional beige to offer a range of colours and sleek shapes that complement a contemporary decor.

Furniture designers, meanwhile, have devised clever solutions for integrating tech into the home. For small spaces, there are wall-mounted desks that feature "perches" for peripherals, ventilation holes and built-in power sockets — and best of all, they can be flipped closed to hide the equipment.

A number of companies make work areas that close up and look like armoires or entertainment cabinets, disguising the fact that the room doubles as an office.

The desk comes first

Looks are important, but so is a practical layout if you're doing a home-office renovation.

Before anything else, decide on the location of your computer, phone and peripherals, and plan to install or move the jacks and power sockets accordingly to avoid ending up with a maze of wires trailing around the room.

Ideally, your desk should get enough natural light for reading without creating glare on the screen or in your peripheral vision — something that can lead to fatigue and stress.

If your home office is near a high-traffic area of the home, also consider what's visible from the door. One of Kosich's clients had his office right off the main foyer, and the desk, covered with papers and surrounded by a tangle of wires, faced the door.

"A guest would enter the home and see whatever mess was there," she says.

She moved the workspace to a wall adjacent to the door, thus keeping any surface mess out of view while allowing the client to see anyone entering.

Use the right furniture

Modern electronics need air, something that many people forget when trying to create an attractive work area.

"Some of this technology creates so much heat, it can be delicate," says Dolores Pian, who runs Spaces Custom Interiors in Toronto.

It's important that equipment enclosures provide proper ventilation, since heat can affect the performance of high-tech gear and even cause components to fail.

Look for desks, bookcases and cabinets outfitted with ventilation openings, slots and storage compartments for wires and devices, and built-in power strips so that plug-ins are within easy reach.

Use the right equipment

"Is your work computer-intensive, do you do a lot of reading and writing, or is it a combination of the two?" asks Pam Grills, an Ottawa ergonomic designer.

The answer should guide your selection of the gear. Many people, for example, toil away all day on laptops that are really designed for short bursts of work on the go.

Grills points out that since laptop monitors are attached at the keyboard, "they compromise arm and neck position. And they [notebooks] tend to have smaller keyboards, so you are getting more bend in the wrist."

If you work extensively on a laptop, Grills suggests springing for an external monitor. Most modern laptops have a connection for hooking up a monitor, as well as a full-size keyboard and mouse.

And if you take your notebook on the road a lot, a desktop docking station is a nice convenience. The dock is permanently connected to your peripherals, monitor, power and network cabling, so all these connections are made instantly when you click a notebook into its slot in the dock.

This makes it easy to pick up your laptop and go or get back to work quickly when you return to your desk, because you don't have to fumble to plug everything in individually.

Save space

In small rooms, a corner desk is a great solution because it provides ample work area without hogging floor space.

Another space-saving option is to forgo a keyboard tray, since it pushes you out a foot from the desk. Instead, get a desk that can adjust to the ideal height for typing — 27 inches for most people, versus the 29 to 30 inches of most traditional desks.

"To get the arms in the right position when typing, you should be working at your sitting elbow height," says Grills.

Make the space multi-tasking

A home office should serve more than one family member — and not just for work.

For example, get a chair that adjusts for height, seat and lumbar-support positions, as well as the height and width of the arms, so that several people can use it comfortably.

In one home office, Kosich installed a large LCD monitor that could serve as both the computer screen and a television. The screen is large enough to allow one person, seated in an armchair across from it, to watch a TV feed while another uses a portion of the screen for computer tasks.

Don't buy into the paperless-office hype

And beware the salespeople who try to pitch office furnishings and layouts that are geared solely for electronics and working at a keyboard.

"There is no such thing," as a paperless office, says Pian.

You can control the amount of paper you use to a point. But you'll still need to plan a way to store the inevitable reams that will accumulate, and you'll need enough space to work on hard-copy documents from time to time.

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