Home office ideas for open-plan living

home office setup
© McCulley Design Lab

These days, a home office isn't just a place where you work on your computer; it's also a studio.

More and more of us who work with keyboards and screens are doing it from home these days. When the lockdown happened and I first wrote about home office design two months ago, I advised, "Keep it simple and don't spend a lot of money. If you are going to be working from home permanently I would have different advice, but nobody knows what is going to be happening." But it is becoming clear that many of us are not going back soon, and it is time to think of the longer term.

One designer who is giving this a lot of thought is John McCulley of McCulley Design Lab, "a multi-disciplinary San Diego design firm specializing in interior design, experience design, building design and integrated branding." He has designed a series of interventions for the wall-less "great room" that is so common in modern houses and apartments, "a series of ways that homes can transform into productive workspaces — with or without construction."

Working from home has been a topic of discussion on TreeHugger forever; we have long touted the environmental benefits. This is the kind of transformer furniture that has long been a feature; I worked with Julia West Home years ago, before everyone had notebook computers, to design furniture that could bring big computers into little small spaces, and Graham Hill famously built his LifeEdited apartment with its moving office/wall. I have also been working from home for 20 years and teach at Ryerson School of Interior Design, so I thought, hey, let's do a little constructive criticism of this.

secret bookcase folded up© McCulley Design Lab

The Secret Bookcase design is perhaps the most universal in application, it can go almost anywhere. All folded up, it looks like... a bookcase.

Bookcase folding out© McCulley Design Lab

The bookcase rotates out from the wall 90 degrees, and a screen rolls out on the other side.

Bookcase unfolded in home office© McCulley Design Lab

There is an elaborate side-table that folds down; in this image, it is holding a printer. In other iterations, it has another computer. On the side, there is the "fake lightglass" windows" to bring in light and make it feel more like an office with a window.

finished open office setup© McCulley Design Lab

I have a couple of minor cavils here.

The side table is elaborate and looks like a big deal to unfold, but is it really needed? Hardly anyone prints much anymore, and it seems like a throwback. Look at the New York Times image of the home office from 2008 and you needed all that for printers, scanners, external hard drives and digital cameras; most of that is is all in our phone and computer now.

But perhaps the biggest issue I have comes from thinking about what the home office actually does now, besides being a place to work, and that is being a home studio for Zoom meetings. For this, you do not want the fake window on the side, but you want it in facing you, preferably lit with Hue RGB color-tunable bulbs in it. As tech expert Shelly Palmer notes, "Your face will be illuminated to the point where people watching can actually see you." Dual monitors are also really wonderful for Zoom type meetings; you can see all the people on one screen and the presentation on the other.

The foldout screen behind should be green, and wide enough or close enough to fill the entire field of view of the camera in the computer; this lets you change the backgrounds at will and really get a clean break between the real you and the virtual background. When I designed my home office I put a neutral wall behind as a backdrop, but it's a bit too narrow.

Perhaps even a better idea would have been to have another bookcase that folded out; the big design surprise for me is the obsession with bookcases and the carefully curated books that are on the shelves. There are whole websites and Twitter feeds devoted to this.

Top view home office© McCulley Design Lab

The design also doesn't address the issue of children and pets zoom-bombing your presentation or meeting, and there is no serious attempt at acoustic privacy. But that may all be too much to ask; what it does offer is an attractive and comfortable place to work which can be closed up at the end of the workday; one of the biggest problems people have is that they never know when or how to quit.

sliding panel setup© McCulley Design Lab

John McCulley shows a couple of other designs that are interesting, like this one in a larger room that has two workspaces; the smaller, instant one on the right, and the bigger, foldout desk setup on the left. I am not going to go into detail here because it has many of the same issues, the key one being that setting up for decent video should be absolutely top of mind when designing a home office. I am on a lot of Zoom meetings now, and have seriously had my fill of terrible lighting and distracting backgrounds, all from people who wouldn't think of not getting dressed or brushing their hair before they went onscreen, but still look awful.

And I will again point to Shelly Palmer for the most coherent and complete set of technical tips for setting up at home.

my desk during passivhaus meetingMy desk during Passivhaus meeting/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I must admit that that last image of John McCulley's with the giant TV next to the computer has inspired me to try an experiment. These technologies are not just used for work; every Wednesday night I grab a glass of wine and get together with a few hundred Passive House nerds (here you see the two screens in action.) This week I will try to set up in the room with the big TV and see if it improves the party experience. We are all using these new technologies in new ways and trying out new ways of working. The big TV shouldn't go to waste!

Home office ideas for open-plan living
These days, a home office isn't just a place where you work on your computer; it's also a studio.

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