As mobile technologies proliferate, the definition of “office” is transforming. Even a mere laptop and a high-speed Wi-Fi connection can unmoor the toiler from the tyranny of the stationary desk. Crystal ball readers see a future of Baby Boomers unwilling or unable financially to fully retire. Instead, they’ll work from home, commuting to commercial offices only sporadically. Chances are, they’ll also downsize their living quarters to reduce maintenance costs and effort. They may urbanize at the same time, moving from suburban single-family dwellings to in-city condos or townhouses.
Such changes among our biggest cohort, along with economic pressures that confront every age group, will put space at a premium. But really, who needs that paneled, book-lined office anymore? Even homeworkers who have an elaborate, dedicated office usually find themselves plugged in at the kitchen island, preferring a command center perch to a hideaway off the hub. The home library is now gigabytes of memory in a whisper-thin e-reader.
For residential architects, these changes mean a revolution in your thinking about the home offices you design for yourselves and for your clients. Perhaps instead of a separate office, we’ll see a storage alcove for files, a private “phone booth” for conference calls, and a disappearing studio pod for messy projects. Meanwhile, much quotidian work will get done on a screened porch, at a counter in the kitchen, or in a favorite family room chair—anywhere that light and vista come together in an inspiring way.
A case in point is the house architect Mark Hutker, AIA, designed for his family a few years back. The new homestead replaced a small starter house he had added onto over the years. The second time around, he was accommodating active teenaged children, a creative spouse, and the inevitable budget constraints of working professionals. The result was an open plan with various zones to facilitate the fluid patterns of habitation. He also designed a workstation visible from the kitchen, but at a slight remove from the hubbub. It turned into the perfect homework oasis for his children.
Designing today’s home office is not unlike Rem Koolhaas’ challenge of designing a public library in an age when few people read physical books anymore. The result of his efforts in Seattle remind me of the movie Tron, which depicts an imagined world inside a computer. But really what Koolhaas accomplished was to bring people together as a community, while giving them just enough space and privacy to occupy their own interior world at the same time. With the right design in place, families and couples can coexist happily this way—even in smaller quarters.
Certainly the faltering economy has slowed down the pace of change, but when I think of how much we are evolving as a culture I remain bullish on the practice of architecture. There is so much to reinvent in our houses as we reinvent virtually every task in our daily lives.
Today’s synthesis of life and work is simultaneously a move back and a leap forward. Living above the store worked well for centuries when commuting was impossible. With nightmare traffic nearly everywhere, it has become so again. The commutes we grin and bear now may soon prove unsustainable, and that’s a win for architects.
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