How Working From Home Will Change Its Design

As needs change, so do priorities.

An architect lives upstairs
Architects live above the shop.

Lloyd Alter

One hundred and fifty years ago, if you didn't live on top of the store (like the architects do in the photo above) then you likely worked in your home. Writer and architect Eleanor Jolliffe discussed this recently in an essay, "The Power of Home." She points to Judith Flanders, who in her book "The Making of Home" (a wonderful read) describes how working people lived in the early 19th century:

"Among the working classes, the main room continued to be a place of labour. This might include sewing, weaving and other types of piecework, or taking in laundry, but also included many trades that with industrialization would shortly move out of the house to dedicated workspaces. An early-eighteenth-century widow in Birmingham kept a shop in her downstairs room, from which she also carried on her trade as a file-maker, the room therefore also containing an anvil and a bellows. Things were much the same in the USA, where in the late eighteenth century, 90 per cent of the population had beds or tools in the main room of their houses."
The making of Home cover
The Making of Home

Flanders goes back further in time and finds that rooms were not even defined by function.

"In Romeo and Juliet, written in the 1590s, the Capulets’ servants are ordered to ‘give room’, or make space, for the dancing by removing the furniture after the meal: ‘Away with the join-stools, remove the court-cubbert’ (a movable sideboard used to display plate) and ‘turn the tables up’, which was done by lifting the tabletop off its trestle legs, and turning it on its side to store it.... One-room living – or even two- or three-room living – was not conducive to heavy, single-purpose furniture. Instead small, light tables continued to be moved around the room to serve different purposes: the family ate on a table near the fireplace before pushing it against a wall so they could sit near the fire between meals, or sleep in front of it at night."

So in essence, we had people working from home in multiple-use spaces, using transformer furniture and dining on TV tables.

Smil Growth
A big book of Smil. Lloyd Alter

This all changed with the Second Industrial Revolution, between 1870 and 1910, and the genesis of the modern office. Vaclav Smil writes in his book "Growth" that this period saw the introduction of electricity, internal combustion engines, running water, indoor toilets, communications, entertainment, and the launching of oil extraction and chemical industries.

Woman's Place book cover
Temple University

Margery W. Davies wrote in "Woman's Place Is at the Typewriter: Office Work and Office Workers,1870-1930" (wonderful, and free from Temple University) that this all led to the development of the modern office, with its typewriters and vertical filing cabinets, which provided so much work for women, working in offices instead of homes. Men went to the factories or to management, but women took over clerical work. Davies writes:

“Although the typewriter was not responsible for the employment of women as clerical workers, its existence probably facilitated or eased the entrance of women into offices. It was such a new machine that it had not been 'sex-typed' as masculine. Thus women who worked as typists did not face the argument that a typewriter was a machine fit only for men."

So with the Second Industrial Revolution, living got separated from work.

And now we are in what Smil calls the Third Industrial Revolution, "begun in 1960 and still unfolding, with computers, the Web and mobile phones as its icon." The way we live and work is pretty much still a construct from the Second Industrial Revolution, but thanks to COVID-19, the third revolution has been unfolding with a bang. And we are partying like it's 1799, working from home on transformer furniture.

Many do not believe we will ever go back to that former construct, and that for those in the kinds of jobs where it is possible, the working-from-home cat is out of the bag. Consultant Kate Lister writes:

"We believe, based on historical trends, that those who were working remotely before the pandemic, will increase their frequency after they are allowed to return to their offices. For those who were new to remote work until the pandemic, we believe there will be a significant upswing in their adoption. Our best estimate is that we will see 25-30% of the workforce working at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021."

That's a lot of people; Lister estimates that it was 3.6% before the pandemic. We have wondered if the pandemic would change home design and revitalize our main streets; Eleanor Jolliffe has similar thoughts, writing in Building Design:

"While entirely working from home robs us of so much richness, an increased proportion of people working from home could bring real benefits to our cities. It may even help to rejuvenate local high streets and villages – as people stay closer to home, footfall increases in local centres and the resulting natural surveillance and community atmosphere Jane Jacobs writes of so eloquently may bring life back to quiet suburbs and country towns."

She also thinks it might change the way we design our homes to create a little more privacy for everyone, writing:

"Working from home may also lead to better space standards in new homes and an increased enthusiasm for high-quality outdoor spaces. Being at home for increased periods has given us all times when we wish to curl up in peace and quiet – cocooned from the realities of the world unfolding outside the front door. This, alongside the acoustic benefits of closing a door between you and a parter/housemate on a Zoom call, may lead to a change in the way we subdivide space and reduce the popularity of fully open-plan living. To attempt to crowbar my natural optimism into a trying year, perhaps we will come out of this with better homes and a better quality of living."

Like many people, Eleanor Jolliffe is looking forward to getting back to the office. But she thinks there are lessons to be learned from this experience. She tells Treehugger:

"Working from home has given us all an opportunity to embrace the humanity in our colleagues (and meet their cats!). Whilst this is welcome, the opportunity for a total realignment of work life balance and how society values different types of work feels unlikely- we may have been nudged into a marginally better direction though."

Treehugger has discussed everything from how the coronavirus might bring back the corner store to the return of the satellite office and the birth of the 15-minute city. Perhaps we are overthinking this, and the changes won't be as significant as we have suggested. But even a nudge in a marginally better direction would be nice.