A walk around my new "active office" with standing desk

lloyd alter office
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter

I have been working at a standing desk most of the time since 2009. When we renovated our house to downsize, I had the opportunity to design exactly what I wanted for my new office. It's in a small space, only 6'-6" wide by 7', a niche at the bottom of the stairs halfway below grade, but within that realm I could do what I want. Here are the basic principles:

A standing desk cannot stand alone.

Robert Propst of Herman Miller discovered this when designing the Action Office, testing out different workstations. He "found himself constantly in motion, moving from one working area to another, standing to sitting. All this activity made him feel more productive, alert, vital."

It's why I dislike adjustable standing desks. Studies have shown that people who use them tend to migrate to sitting most of the time. The shape of the top should also be different on a standing desk, compared to a sitting one; I wrote in an earlier post:

© Herman Miller

That's one of the reasons that I think adjustable height standing desks are a mistake. Look at Propst at his standing desk; it is wide and shallow. That's because when you are standing, you can easily move side to side. Your sitting desk is deeper and narrower, because your arms can only reach so far from a fixed point.

We have so little stuff on our desks now, so how much space to we need?

© Harvard Innovation Lab via Fast Company

Then there is the whole original purpose of the desk, to be the repository of all that equipment like telephones and computers and the paraphernalia that we used to use. It's all gone away, as was wonderfully demonstrated in this Fastcompany coverage of the transformation of the desk. (watch the whole visualization here)

In fact, as Mark Schurman of Herman Miller explained last year in our discussion of standing desks:

As a trend the sit/stand issue has obviously picked up momentum in recent years, but in some ways it’s ironic as the primary concern (sedentary work styles) has also been shifting, with the miniaturization and mobility of technology, coupled with flatter organizations and more emphasis on collaboration, increasingly leading knowledge workers to spend less time at a personal workstation.... This doesn’t mean standing work/desks are inappropriate, but it does suggest that at least for many it is perhaps less of an issue than it might have been 5+ years ago when most people were tethered to individual workstations by their technology needs.

When it is so easy to pick up your computer and move to another surface, why spend money on a lifting desk when you can just move? Have a different view? Get different light?

Keep moving.

© The Herman Miller Collection

So even though my space was tiny, I decided that there is no reason to be fixed to one spot. I have a classic Herman Miller 1952 George Nelson designed desk that I love, so when I want to sit down, I have a place to sit. I picked up the design of the top of the desk and Canadiana Cabinets built me a 4'-6" wide by 18" deep unit. I would have preferred wider but ran out of room. But still, I am on my feet and easily move from one end to the other. When I want to sit, I unplug the computer and sit. I don't have access to the big external monitor but that's fine, I don't need it just to write.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In fact, I don't sit very much. I walk down the hall and back when I want to collect my thoughts or feel I have been standing too long. The entire floor of the house becomes an extension of my office. As Nikil Saval wrote in Cubed:

As George Nelson, one of Herman Miller’s most illustrious designers, stated loftily, “The Lord never meant a man to be immobilized in one position … These are not desks and file cabinets. They are a way of life.”

It's an active office.

I can't call this an Action Office because Herman Miller did that first, but I call it an active office, where I have different places to work according to how I feel, a long corridor that I can pace up and down, along with fresh air and a view through the big window.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Inside, there is enough room for a power bar and wiring, some files, and my prized Joey Roth sound system, although I have to build a shelf of some kind for the sub-woofer that's now sitting on the floor. Since the floor is concrete, I bought a Sublime Imprint anti-fatigue mat and I really don't know how I lived without it. I used to rest part of the day on a drafting stool but with the mat I can stand almost all day and never notice.

In other notes: I have always hated drywall, so the exterior walls are concrete block (the insulation is outside) and the ceiling and interior walls are wood. More photos of the renovation to follow! And while I may have designed the standing desk, David Colussi of Workshop Architecture designed the space and Greening homes built it.

Tags: Standing desk | Work


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