Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 135 / NOVEMBER 1991 / PAGE 78

Design inspiration. (designing a home office) (includes related articles)
by Sherry Roberts

Millions of people go to work every day and never step out the front door. They manage this trick, for the most part, by using their computers, modems, fax machines, laser printers, and telephones as their electronic eyes and ears. Their ranks include writers, artists, accountants, executives, entrepreneurs, desktop publishers, and consultants of almost every persuasion. Unfortunately, few of them are professional interior designers.

And there's the rub: How can a home office worker create a comfortable, efficient, and productive work environment next door to the laundry room with the rattling washer or adjacent to the nursery with the colicky baby? What do you if your home office shares a room with the Nintendo? Is it possible to create a professional home office that you would be proud to show clients--a place where professionalism can live in harmony with domesticity?

More people than ever before are finding themselves working in an "electronic cottage" and facing these questions. According to Entrepreneur magazine, there were 18.3 million home-based businesses in 1989--a 23 percent increase over 1988 when about 14.9 million businesses were run from the home.

Office Sweet Office

Whether you are founding the next corporate dynasty or simply searching for a quiet place to pay the monthly bills, the first and most difficult step is determining where to put the office. Don't decide too quickly. Don't leap to the conclusion that the perfect location is the spare bedroom, vacant basement, or never-used attic. A home office has to fulfill all the requirements of a corporate office--and more.

"Eyeball your house," says Mark Alvarez, author of The Home Office Book: How to Set Up and Use an Efficient Personal Workspace in the Computer Age (Goodwood Press, 1990). "The most obvious space may not really be the best space."

Alvarez, who works from his home office in Woodbury, Connecticut, even has a rule about bad space: No matter how tempting it is, never establish your home office in a location that will often be uncomfortable. Forget the uninsulated attic that's freezing in winter and boiling in summer or the basement with a single light bulb dangling from a cord, unless you are willing to spend the time and money to make them habitable. After all, a home office is habitat, a place where the typical home-based entrepreneur spends more than eight hours a day.

Nancy W. Lasater, owner of Design Associates, a Greensboro, North Carolina, interior design firm specializing in commercial office space, says, "Most people start off with the attitude of where can they fit the office instead of asking what are their needs."

Lasater, who was an in-house corporate designer responsible for the interior design of RJR Nabisco's world headquarters and company offices, started her business in a home office. She recommends that home office dwellers select a space big enough to fit their needs three years from now.

Thinking big is especially important for the high-tech cubbyhole. If you have ever-changing equipment and technological needs, Lasater says, flexibility is the key to both the size and the layout of your office.

Another consideration in locating your home office is the amount of traffic your business will generate. "You want your clients to walk through as little of your house as possible," Lasater says. "For example, if you plan to put your office in a bedroom, locate it in the bedroom nearest to the living room, since the living room tends to become the lobby of most home offices."

But what if your office must share space with the television, the Nintendo, or a dollhouse? Many home office workers set their space apart, not with walls but with time, negotiating schedules with the other family members.

Even so, both Lasater and Alvarez suggesting that you find some way to distinguish your office space, to make it your own, to capture symbolic privacy if not actual privacy. A rug or platform can mark the limits of your office. Use barriers such as plants, screens, panels, and bookcases. And if all else fails, don't forget Les Nesman, the newscaster of "WKRP in Cincinnati," who carved his niche out of a crowded communal office using only a roll of tape.

The Layout for Your Dream Office

"Design your office the same way you design a kitchen," Alvarez says. "You don't want it to get in the way, to be a problem. It ought to be efficient, given the way you work."

Before arranging your office, Alvarez suggests analyzing the way you work, the type of equipment you will use, and even your physical characteristics. Are you right- or left-handed? Tall or short? Do you have any physical handicaps?

There are four standard office layouts, according to Alvarez:

* The strip, the most basic office design, is a straight line of office furniture and components. This is the least desirable if you have to accommodate lots of equipment.

* The L-shaped layout is common in home offices because it uses wasted corner space and offers a convenient arm for the printer.

* The galley, which is basically two strips with a chair in between, is a favorite in executive offices. The computer can be set up on one work surface, while the other surface is used for phone calls and handwork.

* The U-shaped layout, says Alvarez, "is like sitting at your own personal control center--everything important is usually within easy reach."

The best thing about designing your own office is that you don't have to stick with some plan dreamed up by the corporate designer. You can find the arrangement that is most comfortable and productive for you.


Today's office is more than a table and a chair. To underscore this fact, consider that an ordinance requiring adjustable furniture in businesses with more than ten employees went into effect in San Francisco in January 1991.

Jeff Larson, marketing communications manager for Krueger International in Green Bay, Wisconsin, says the ordinance illustrates the growing concern about safety in office environments: "Researchers have found you're just as much at risk doing any repetitive motion such as keyboard strokes as you are out on the plant floor."

Larson has been following the San Francisco legislation because Krueger is the eight largest furniture manufacturer in the United States. The company produces 50 different lines of chairs as well as workstations and Data-Board--a line of furniture designed for computer support with slide-away and adjustable-height work surfaces.

Larson says, "People tend to put a lot of money into their computer but go cheap on the items to support it." Which is a mistake. Your comfort and health are even more important than the horsepower of your computer.

The most important piece of furniture in the home office is the chair. "Choosing a chair is like test-driving a car," Larson says. "You have to sit in the product."

Professional designers recommend work surfaces with adjustable height. Alvarez prefers tables, which often are bigger and more adjustable than desks, and notes that the standard writing height of a work surface is 29 1/2 inches. Standard typing height is 26 1/2 inches. The proper typing height is the one that permits your elbows to bend at a 90-degree angle when your hands are on the keyboard.

A desk should be at least 22 inches deep, Alvarez says, considering that a CPU and keyboard can easily consume more than two feet. Also there should be at least 18 inches on either side of the keyboard for workspace.

You can save precious workspace by turning your CPU on its side and standing it besides the desk, then propping your monitor on an articulating arm. Recommended placement of the computer monitor is 16 to 28 inches from your face. Alvarez also suggests setting the monitor below eye level, so that you look down 10 to 20 degrees when you're reading from it.

Access to Power

When you choose the space for your home office, make sure it has several power outlets and phone jacks. If you only have one electrical outlet and three computers, two printers, a fax machine, a scanner, a stereo, and an answering machine, you need to consult an electrician.

Also don't scrimp on surge protectors. You don't want to lose valuable information when the air conditioner kicks on or someone pops popcorn in the microwave. Power hogs like copiers and laser printers should be on separate circuits from the PC.

Alvarez says one of his most popular chapters is the one on lighting. And no wonder: Monitor glare is the computer user's nemesis. It causes eyestrain, headaches, and sore necks (from leaning and squinting at the screen).

To eliminate monitor glare, position your monitor so that light sources are to the side of the monitor. Don't place the monitor in front of a window so that you are constantly looking into the bright, natural light. Also beware of windows behind you that cause distracting squares of light on your screen.

Shades of the Professional

The colors in your home office are a personal preference, but the professionals have good reasons for recommending off-white or neutral colors. "Neutral wall colors are best because as far as reflections go, they don't change much under different lighting from morning to afternoon." Alvarez says. "They also hide dust, which is important in some home offices."

If clients will be visiting your home office, color selection may be important in other areas of the house as well. "When you walk into a commercial office, you are getting a prepackaged first impression," Lasater says. "When you walk into someone's home, it is a real summation of that person."

The client of a home-based business is slapped with a full-force dose of the homeowner's personality. Dirty laundry, dying plants, and fleas do not give the impression of professionalism. Remember the client is asking, "Do I want this person to handle my work?"

Does It Work?

After you've designed your office, how do you know if you've got it right? "The tipoff is if your home office gets in the way," Alvarez says. Alvarez, for example, realized after he developed an ear problem that he had his telephone on the wrong side of the desk. Simply moving the phone to the other side made the office work better.

The key to designing your home office is to constantly look at it with a fresh eye. You must build an environment in which you can live and work.