At Home in Your Office : A Little Strategy, Creativity Can Turn an Extra Room Into a Pleasant Work Area


Tired of gridlock? Want to spend more time at home? Would you like to never, ever drive the San Diego Freeway at rush hour?

In today's high-tech business world, it can be done.

Just hook up your computer, modem and fax machine--and join the increasing number of urbanites who are exchanging the car-pool lane for a home office.

An office at home "encourages people not to drive, makes better utilization of space and provides better economy of time," said interior designer Jackie Jacobson of Creative Dimensions of Laguna Beach. "I think with today's technology, we're going to see more and more home offices."

Jacobson converted a garage into a design studio. Glass doors now lead into the large, well-windowed office. A computer system and large desks are strategically arranged to make optimum use of natural light from the skylight and windows as well as interior fluorescent lighting. Along the walls, fabric and carpet samples are stored and a large wicker basket holds blueprints.

When choosing a room to convert to a home office, find a space where you can have privacy, said Jason Titus of Johnson & Titus Interior Design in Irvine. A guest bedroom, partitioned garage, bonus room over a garage or large closet all function well as home offices.

You may want to remove a window and replace it with a door for outside access.

Titus recently redesigned a bonus room into a home office for Greg and Mary Lou Long of Seal Beach. The office incorporates a 12-foot-long, built-in desk and work center with storage units and bookcases on one side wall. A roll-top desk and a wide cabinet divided into sections to accommodate a TV, VCR and books occupies the other side of the room.

Not only does the room serve as a home office and a study area for the Longs' daughter, Andrea, but it is also an extra family room and a second guest room.

"It's a very practical room," Mary Lou Long said.

With a large closet, "you can break through the wall and make a window," Jacobson said. "In a space as small as 11-foot by 9-foot, you can have a standard office."

Mary Swift of Mary Swift Interiors in Laguna Hills redesigned a walk-in bedroom closet into a home office. A bay window was added as well as a bookcase, lateral files, a mobile file and a 9-foot desk.

"We actually ended up with more room with the redesign," she said.

After determining the location of your home office, consider your budget and plan accordingly, Titus said.

"The whole office area can be something as basic as a slab on top of a filing cabinet to something very elaborate with an extensive filing system built in the closet."

To optimize the space you have, evaluate your work habits and operational procedures, said Marie Chan of InterSpace Design in Rancho Santa Margarita. Make a list of everything to be included in the office, such as a desk, chairs, lamps, telephone, reference books, magazines, charts and files.

Computers, modems, scanners, printers, fax machine, telephone, answering machine, copy machine and typewriter all need a dedicated space work area. Electronic products often need longer and deeper work tops.

"Don't forget a stereo or TV if you like music or background sound when you work," Titus added.

A radio or stereo also blocks out outside sounds.

If noise is a problem, said Eva Lennen of Avart Interior Design in Santa Ana, there are wallpapers that are designed to help absorb sound. A throw rug can help too, she added.

"If it's an elegant office, such as a lawyer's, an Oriental rug works in nicely with a leather sofa," Lennen said.

Depending on the number of phone calls you receive, you might want to invest in a separate business phone.

"When my office hours are over, I close the office door and the answering machine takes over," Jacobson said.

Wires and cables can be a potential safety hazard, so make room for them. Also, make sure all equipment is grounded and that the electrical outlets in the room are adequate for their use.

Plan adequate, multilevel space for a computer system. Electronic equipment can emit magnetic fields that could damage disks or lead to a computer system crash. Protect computers and disks by placing them away from other electronic equipment, such as televisions and stereos.

Also consider seating requirements.

"Some people prefer to sit at a desk, others want to read in a chair and still others like to stretch out on a couch," Titus said.

Jacobson sees clients in her office, so a large oak table and comfortable chairs occupy the center of the room.

Selecting the proper chair is important, Lennen said.

"The chair needs to have legs low enough so feet sit on the floor," she said, adding that an improperly sized desk or chair can result in shoulder and neck strain.

Lennen recommends swivel chairs. "They save space and can be used for both sitting at the desk and as visitors' chairs," she said.

Woods such as oak and fruitwood are popular for desks and credenzas, Lennen said. Whitewashed wood "is not just Southwestern; it goes well with any scheme," she added.

To avoid that drab wrap-around look, shape the space through the judicious placement of the furniture. In one of Chan's office designs, display cabinets and an entry counter were set at 45-degree angles to the walls.

If a secretary or part-time helper will be sharing your home office, plan for the additional work station, Titus said.

Minimize clutter by keeping papers and files hidden inside file cabinets. Lennen stores paperwork and stationery in a French armoire.

Where space is at a premium, use a custom, built-in unit, she said. "A built-in looks homogeneous and fits everything into a small space."

A unit she had built for a client has eight file drawers, a desk, drawers and bookcases up to the ceiling.

A window with a view helps break up the monotony of work. Jacobson's office features large glass doors and arched windows that look out onto gardens.

"From a psychological standpoint, I think it's important to have windows in a home office--for a sense of space, light and something beautiful to look out on," she said.

To avoid glare on a computer screen caused by sunlight through windows, Titus suggests that the office be located on the north side of the house where it's less sunny.

Not only do you need sufficient light, but that light needs to be controllable. Windows, glossy surfaces and ill-placed lights can create computer screen glare.

"It's not an easy problem to solve," said Titus. "The lighting needs to be as flexible as possible."

Control natural light with shades, horizontal or vertical blinds, and dimmers, designers suggested. "Wooden shutters or wooden blinds look elegant," added Lennen.

Track, indirect or cove lighting work well, said Lennen. A light source coming from behind will cause glare on a computer screen, but "a fluorescent strip right under desk bookshelves provides enough light for the room and is hidden by the shelves," she said.

If the room seems small, intense light opens it up, said Lennen, as do mirrors.

Selecting white and cream-colored fabrics and paints and using bright accents help a room look larger than if designed in darker colors, she added.

Choose a color scheme that "flows with the rest of the house," said Lennen. "If the house is in pastels, use grayed-down blues and pinks, sandstone and dove gray--maybe even a little burgundy."

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