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October 9, 2020

Designing Home in a Post-Pandemic World: WFH Is Here Forever

John Sheehan


Whether it's the bedroom floor, the kitchen table, or the fire escape...with or without kids, spouses, roommates, or pets...we are figuring this Work-From-Home thing out. Sort of. 

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The Home Office/School/Daycare Center can look like anything and be anywhere these days. Developing some sense of routine can be challenging - if not impossible. Multi-tasking has taken on a whole new meaning.

Desperate times demand desperate measures. Private business can be conducted anywhere with a good connection. 

If we take our queues from the Tech Gurus of Silicon Valley (new reality TV series?) then working from home is an employee option indefinitely. Facebook, Twitter, and Google have all publicly announced that their staff can go remote - forever. So how will we as architects support this major lifestyle change?

Ideas abound for DIY home office hacks and high-art precedents from our past attempts. Here are a few:

Pinterest is awash with "Cloffice" photos and ideas. These are converted closets doing duty as an at-home desk space/cubicle/alcove/niche/corner office/world headquarters. While this may in some circumstances be perfectly acceptable, it may not go the distance as a longer-term solution. Besides the loss of storage (where will your clothes, shoes, suitcases, and skis go now?) there is the whole question of light, air, and elbow room. 

All well and good to repurpose that hall closet into an at-home office...but where will we store the paper towels, skis, and mop? While practical on some levels - "Clofficing" could get claustrophobic pretty quickly. 

Most mental health experts see value in creating some psychological separation between where we work and where we rest and recreate. It is fair to say that the novelty of using an ironing board as a stand-up desk will soon wear off. Architects will need to invest thought in marking thresholds between these different realms. In the smallest of homes - paint, lighting, and furniture may be the only available options. Bigger homes will offer opportunities for alcoves, porches, and dens. Still larger homes will move work into "outbuildings" - sheds, writing huts, and gazebos in the garden or yard. 

"Necessity is the mother of invention" goes the old saying. Sometimes necessity is just a "mother." One has to appreciate the handy trash bag tied to the end of the board here...convenience, right?

The occassional desk - Victorian and High Design Modern. Pictured at right - a design by jazz-era Irish Architect Eileen Gray for her masterpiece residence on the coast of Southern France - Villa E1027. If chic is what you seek, this might make the perfect laptop stand.

Writers are a clever lot - that is certain. Working from home has been part of their realities for generations. Some have built hideaways - both grand and modest to ply their craft. Pictured left is Mark Twain's writing gazebo - a quaint garden folly complete with fireplace to ensure year-round use. Right is the shed of George Bernard Shaw. Barely 8 feet square, it accommodates a single bed as well as his writing desk. Its finest feature was its ability to pivot to follow the path of the sun.

Multi-family buildings will likely see the rise of co-working spaces at their ground floors. Apartment dwellers will wander downstairs to spread out in a lounge with a variety of desks, long tables, and soft seating - to enjoy that "Third Space" experience within their collective home. Savvy developers will invest budget and energy in making these functional and attractive to prospective renters. On-site day care for at-home workers with kids may also become a feature in more multifamily developments. 

Would you rent an apartment here? Developers may soon make a coworking space a significant part of the amenity package in their multi-family buildings.

On-site daycare may be another amenity to emerge from the ashes of the pandemic. Savvy developers will partner with providers to offer this very welcome convenience to young families working from the units upstairs or down the hall. 

The requirements of WFH may call into question the practicality of the now ubiquitous "open plan" of our modern homes. Compartmentalization may need thoughtful reconsideration. Convertibility and diurnal flexibility may offer paths forward in the planning of our Office-Home-Classroom-Gyms. The Japanese have wrestled with his puzzle - and have (for centuries) made an art of compact, highly efficient use of domestic space. Smarter storage solutions as well as paring down (thank you Marie Kondo) will become more important for most homes.

The home gym quickly converts to the bedroom by way of an ingenious storage wall in this loft. Homes that have the built-in capacity to flex over the course of a day will become the norm. Movable, folding, or pivoting walls will be part of the solution.

This antique tansu staircase demonstrates the cleverness and efficiency of traditional Japanese interior architecture. Flexible, dual purpose, and movable storage will assist us in making our domestic spaces smarter and more "convertible".

Finally, as fewer members of the home commute to work, families may decide to own fewer cars. Ride sharing services and driverless cars may also hasten this rethink on multiple car ownership. Thus, the two and three-car garage of the standard suburban home may disappear. (Could this mean the return of the super-cool carports of yesteryear? Hello Usonian House!)

This floor plan of a garage - with a house attached speaks volumes. Too much space devoted to autos. As private ownership of vehicles will the size, shape, and prioritization of the typical merchant-built home. Hallelujah!

Frank Lloyd Wright's personal love of cars was legendary. He was an "early adopter" (remembering that he was born in 1867!) and owned many, many cars over his long life - including Crosleys, Jaguars, Packards, Cadillacs, and Mercedes-Benz. He insisted that all the cars he owned be painted his signature Cherokee Red - a choice that would have made them picture perfect sitting in the carport of any one of his Usonian homes.

Watch this space as we move forward through the end of this wacky year. We will continue to post on how the new normal will play out in our domestic settings. We are trying to keep a sense of humor while also taking to heart the challenges and losses associated with this sudden change. We wish you the same. 

Working-From-Home has rendered the nap-under-the-desk completely obsolete. George - where are you now?