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How to plan your home office.

Setting up a space you'll love to work in

Thanks to innovations such as electronic mail, voice mail, and fax-copiers - not to mention ever-faster computer chips - the home office has become an essential part of Western living. You can't stay home without it.

But how do you avoid the "our home office is simply the spot where we found room for the computer" syndrome? Just because there is enough space in the master bedroom for a desk and some file drawers doesn't mean this room is a great location for your home office. What about equipment? It's hard to sort through the many choices available for home offices and figure out what's optimal, what's optional. How can you set up your workspace to be attractive, efficient, and comfortable? And what about stress and strain; what's the trick to working at home injury-free?

You'll find answers to these questions, and more, in the following primer on planning and outfitting the home office that will work best for you.

Making the most of your space

The most successful home office is both custom-designed for the way you will use it and flexible enough to serve multiple functions. But few of us have ample space. As San Francisco interior designer Lou Ann Bauer cautions, "You really need three times as much space as you think."

So, how much space do you think you need? The answer depends on the nature of your work. For instance, a designer who uses drafting and light tables will need more square footage than a management consultant who spends most of the time on the phone or at the computer. However, nearly every home office needs to accommodate a computer, modem, and fax machine. And new technological marvels go from novelty to necessity quickly, so try to leave room for equipment you might eventually acquire. Remember to allow for extra phone lines and additional electric circuits. Any office design should include a wiring plan and a way to contain electrical cords and cables.

The greatest concept in home office furniture is the pullout accessory. Most systems use pullout work surfaces - not only for the keyboard and mouse but also to provide additional space where you can spread out your work. If you occasionally host clients, consider a curved desk return with a swing-out round surface for a conference table, or a tabletop that pulls down from a wall cabinet. If the room needs to double as a guest room, there's an easy solution: a Murphy bed, which can be faced with panels to blend in with the rest of the cabinetry. (It may also prove useful when you've put in too many hours at work and can't make it back down the hall - to home.)

Tactics for small homes

If space is at a premium and building an addition is not an option, you may be able to use one of these approaches:

* Look for a spot in the kitchen, living or family room, bedroom, or hallway where you can fit a small office station. Manufacturers have come up with ingenious pieces of furniture, from rolltop desks to an "office in an armoire," ranging from less than $500 to more than $10,000. Generally 4 to 6 feet long, these self-contained units are decorative and functional, outfitted for all your computer equipment.

* Create an office system in a closet. A 24-inch-deep closet is ideal for a desktop. You can build in your own system to suit the space, or purchase furniture. Stock desktops range from 20 to 36 inches deep and from 28 to 70 inches long and can be purchased with pullout keyboard trays, storage compartments, file cabinets, and matching hutch tops.

A room of your own

If you have a spare room or plan to build an addition, you have many more options for furnishing your office. You can make a real design statement by buying furniture to suit your personal taste. For instance, use an antique or cottage table for your desk, find an old chest that can hold hanging files, and modify a tea cart to hold your computer equipment. Blending older furniture with modern technology can have a softening effect on the room.

If you want to leave room for other furniture, place your workstation(s) along the wall. A typical configuration with a corner computer station flanked by desk returns will run about 5 feet along each wall. Modular office furniture is like factory-built kitchen cabinetry in that it can be built-in and is available in a wide range of finishes and sizes. Another option is to have furniture and built-ins custom-made.

Style at work

You are not obliged to spend 10 hours a day surrounded by the neutral colors and furnishings that typify corporate decor. Your home office should reflect your personality. Home office furniture is available in a range of styles and finishes. You can use color to set the mood for your workday - on your walls and in your upholstery and floor coverings. Pattern and texture in accent pieces can make the space more appealing.

Design tips

* Order your task chair(s) from a commercial furniture company, but provide your own fabric (such as a floral-print linen) for the seat and back, suggests Seattle interior designer Melinda Sechrist. It doesn't cost any more than using the manufacturer's fabric and will brighten and soften your office.

* Cool colors like green and blue are calming; warm colors like red and orange are more stimulating.

* Seam together two or more bright colors of commercial-grade carpet to create a floor pattern that will give life to the room. Chairs and carts roll easily across low-pile carpets.

* Build a pull-down table into the face of a Murphy bed for additional work and conference space.

* If your office requires complex electronic cabling, raise the floor above the subfloor just enough to hide the cables, advises San Francisco interior designer Joseph Horan.

* Wire baskets hung beneath a desktop can hold excess cable.

* A row of large clips attached to the wall by cup hooks allows you to keep important papers off your desk but within easy reach.

Practical considerations

* Plan for acoustical privacy. Make sure your office can remain a quiet zone while you are working, especially if family members will be nearby. Background clatter, appliance noises, giggles, or dog barks will not help you project an air of professionalism during important phone calls, and they can interrupt your concentration.

* Think about your desktop as real estate. How much of it can you comfortably devote to the computer and monitor? Should you opt for a tower computer that you can place beside or under the desk? You can also buy an adjustable keyboard tray and attach it under a table or in place of your desk's pencil drawer.

* If you are trying to decide between a laptop and a desktop computer, bear in mind that most laptops can be plugged into a larger monitor and keyboard to give you the advantages of both.

* Control the clutter. Solutions for organizing and hiding multiple wires and cables include hook-and-loop (Velcro) fasteners, plastic hooks and channels, and furnishings with built-in wire management systems.

* Office supply stores sell special cleaners for monitors and keyboards. And always keep that coffee mug well away from the equipment.


Answers to frequently asked questions about equipment



For most people, the basics are a computer with a monitor, high-speed modem, and Internet access; a printer; a fax machine; a phone line (preferably two); and a phone. Other necessities: some form of backup and storage, a surge protector, and antivirus software.


The basics might include an office package (word processing, spreadsheet, and graphics), a financial program, perhaps a simple accounting package, and a contact manager for entering phone numbers, addresses, and other information about business or personal contacts. Contact manager packages available range from simple to powerful and complex sales-oriented programs.


One line is for conversations and taking messages, through either an answering machine or an electronic telephone service. The second line is for your fax machine and modem to share. Thus you could talk to a client while you send a fax or search out competitors' information on the Web.


You can send and receive faxes from your computer through a modem, but nothing's as convenient as a fax machine you can use for any hard copy. A plain-paper fax (less than $300) is the way to go; not only do you avoid thermal paper, but today's machines also double as emergency copiers, have enough memory to store faxes if the paper runs out, and can dial 50 or more stored numbers.


Multifunction peripherals (MFPs) combine the features of a printer, copier, lax machine, even scanner. For limited space, an MFP has an obvious advantage.


If you plan to print reams of text - the great American novel or stacks of press releases - a black-and-white laser printer is the clear choice. If you'll be printing color images, digital photos, graphics presentations, or your child's creative work, with limited amounts of text, a color ink-jet printer is the way to go.


Get one that's adequate for your needs, but don't overspend on exotic features like 400-MHz processors and DVD (Digital Video Disc) drives. Basic recommendations: 32 megabytes of RAM, a 233-MHz or higher processor, a 16x CD-ROM drive, a 4-gigabyte (or larger) hard drive, and a built-in 56K modem, ideally one using the new V90 ITU standard. A brand-name PC in this category will cost $1,000 to $1,500, depending on features. Avoid the mediocre 15-inch monitor typically bundled with PCs; spend a little more to get a high-resolution 17-inch ($400 to $650) or even 19-inch ($700 to $900) monitor.


To protect your investment. Your PC's hard drive will crash someday'; that's why it's important to back up your files. A surge protector (less than $50) will keep your equipment from being fried if there's a surge in the power or phone lines. Computer viruses, unfortunately, are everywhere; loading a disc from a friend or downloading a file from the Internet puts your PC at risk. Get an antivirus package and keep it updated.

RELATED ARTICLE: Ergonomically speaking

Guidelines for a comfortable and healthy workspace


The goal of ergonomics is to get the best fit between body and tools in order to avoid physical stress and injury. Size counts - a lot. Make it easy to suit the setup to the user - especially if there will be more than one - with adjustable equipment (chair, keyboard tray, monitor stand, footrest). If funds are limited, invest in a good, adjustable chair; then supplement with inexpensive homemade supports (raise your screen with a sturdy box, use a plastic crate "footrest," roll a towel for a lumbar support or wrist rest, pile pillows to elevate the chair seat for a child).

Pay attention to the body angles produced by the interrelated heights of your keyboard, monitor, and chair. To get your body into neutral position - with the angles that cause the least physical stress - follow these guidelines to position keyboard, monitor, and chair:

* ALL EQUIPMENT should be in front of you.

* KEYBOARD should be at waist height, your arms comfortably at your sides, forearms parallel to the floor, and wrists straight when you're keying or using the mouse.

* MOUSE OR TRACKBALL should rest next to and at the same height as the keyboard.

* CHAIR should support the lower (lumbar) spine - and if you recline even slightly, also the base of your shoulder blades.

* MONITOR should be approximately arm's length from your body, with the top few lines of print about level with (but not higher than) your eyes (lower for bifocal wearers).

* YOUR FEET should rest on the floor or a footrest.

Reducing strain

* POSITION YOUR MOUSE, telephone, and anything else you use often within what ergonomists call your "near-reach zone" (a close arm's reach) to avoid constant arm extension.

* PLACE THE TELEPHONE opposite to your writing hand to make it easier to hold the receiver and write simultaneously. Consider a telephone headset or speakerphone, both of which eliminate the tendency to neck-cradle.

* PREVENT GLARE by positioning the screen at right angles to windows and between (not directly under) overhead lights. Dim overbright ceiling lighting and substitute task lamps to put light where it's needed for writing or reading. Use window coverings to control outside light.

* REDUCE FORCE of any kind. "Float" your hands (as if playing a piano) and move your hands, arms, and fingers as a unit. Avoid overextending (lifting up your fingers or hands) or deviating (reaching out to the side) when keying or using the mouse. Never droop or press your wrists onto the desk or wrist rest. Remember to strike the keys or click the mouse softly instead of pounding or squeezing.

* TAKE LOTS OF SHORT, QUICK BREAKS to reduce static postures. Look away from the screen and blink hard frequently. Every 30 minutes get out of your chair to move your body and stretch. If you need a reminder, get one of the software programs that give prompts at prescribed break intervals.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stockwell, Lisa; Goldstein, Michael; Rizzo, Terrie
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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