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Homey home offices

As more people telecommute, work spaces undergo an upgrade

Saturday, October 24, 1998

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

John Jester admits he was a little worried when his longtime employer, IBM, decided in 1994 to try out the concept of "hoteling" at its Pittsburgh headquarters on the North Side. Instead of a fixed desk or an office, Jester, program manager for IBM Worldwide Global Services, would be expected to float from cubicle to cubicle each day.

  John Jester works for IBM out of the office in his home in Marshall. Light streams in through the window facing the back yard. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

"It sounded really dreadful to me," said Jester, who was in the process of building a reproduction Colonial Williamsburg home in Marshall.

He decided the time had come for him to trade in the daily commute to work for the comfort of home. And he decided that his office should be more than just a home for his computer; it should be homey, too.

The result is an office with all the latest technology - multiple phone lines, heavy-duty electrical system and soundproofing - and the classic architectural styling of a parlor in a 200-year-old colonial mansion.

In the office across the hall from the home's kitchen, builder Don Horn of Gibsonia installed floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases on either side of a tall mullioned window overlooking the back yard, oak flooring, taupe-colored paneling and chair rail, and an elegant, working fireplace.

In keeping with the office's homey look, Jester opted for an IBM ThinkPad instead of a traditional desktop computer because it can be folded up and packed away when he's not working. Jester is delighted with the result, where he has worked for the past three years.

"It allows me to stay focused," he said. "If you're not comfortable, the odds are you won't be productive at what you're doing."

  Related article:

These gadgets keep electronic-age workers plugged in

Jester is among the growing number of Americans who are opting to conduct their daily business from home. According to a 1998 survey, an estimated 11 million U.S. workers telecommute each day, up from just 3.4 million in 1990.

But even people who work outside their homes seem to want a well-equipped office to come home to. Professional Builder magazine last year reported that 60 percent of all homebuyers would choose a home office over an extra bedroom.

Pittsburghers are no exception, says Glenn Cottrell, a project manager with IBACOS Inc. of Pittsburgh, a research and development company that advises builders about what consumers desire in new homes.

"We're seeing more and more home offices both in new construction and in remodeling, from the pre-design stages on," he says, including the occasional "his and hers" offices in dual-income families.

The reason is simple: "If you look at the way corporations are downsizing, who doesn't bring work home at night?" says Cottrell.

Earl Taylor works in a basement office in his Sewickley home. The room is naturally lit through two windows and he works at a custom-made work counter along the two outside walls. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette) 

Ron Croushore, CEO of Prudential Preferred Realty, estimates that more than 50 percent of all new area homes selling for around $200,000 are wired for high technology.

And those aren't just single-family homes. According to Carol McCloskey, site coordinator for Elm Realty Services, dedicated office spaces are even turning up in townhomes, typically the dwellings of young singles and couples. About 30 percent of all townhomes at Oakbrook, in the Westwood section of Pittsburgh, contain a room that could easily be converted over to a home office.

"They won't even look at a house if there isn't space somewhere to hook up to a computer," she says.

Empty nesters Earl and Whitney Taylor are among the new-home buyers who had a home office high on their list of wants. Earl, who has worked as a manufacturer's rep out of his home for the past 30 years, said the spacious office was a big reason he decided to move from Edgeworth to a new home in Sewickley Heights Manor. Minnock Construction Co. of Ross has included offices measuring about 18 feet by 14 feet in all the homes in the Sewickley Heights development.

Builder Pat Minnock went against the trend toward first-floor offices to put his in what he calls the "lower level" - the basement.

"Many of the first-floor dens that I've seen are not really working offices, because they're usually squeezed into the front part of the home and as a result, are nothing more than a showpiece for a fancy desk," says Minnock.

But Taylor's office is nothing like the basement office he had in his old house. It had no windows, making it feel very much like, well, a basement. By contrast, his new office - which overlooks a large section of woods and is next door to an equally large family room - is one of the most comfortable rooms in the house. Nine-foot-ceilings and windows all around that catch the morning sun create what Taylor calls a "bright cheerfulness."

"It just doesn't feel like a basement," he says.

Because he "lives" on the fax machine and telephone, Taylor had the office wired with four separate phone lines. Three walls of built-in bookshelves and an L-shaped desk provide more than enough room for the computer, fax machine, printer and television. There is also an immense walk-in closet in the corner exclusively for storage.

Most people want the home office on the first floor, near the main activity spaces like the kitchen or family room.

"People want to be able to hear what the kids are doing, or smell dinner cooking in the oven," Cottrell says. "They don't want to feel like they've been banished to the attic or basement."

Many also demand some sort of barrier system to shut out sounds - and other family members - when concentration is necessary. Often, a good, solid door is enough, but homeowners are also choosing to soundproof offices with insulated walls and doors with sealed thresholds. Separate entrances are another option.

Jester, for example, closes his office off with a thick, glass-paned door.

"If it's closed, the kids know not to come in," he says. "But they can see me and know it's OK to stick their nose in in an emergency."

A successful home office should also should include electrical wiring capable of supporting the computers and other office equipment. Many builders, like Keith Scheidemantle Builders of Warrendale, wire home offices with fiber optics, coaxial cable, two or more phone lines and even satellite dishes.

"We want homeowners to be able to take advantage of what is coming up in the future," says Scheidemantle, who adds that two-thirds of his clients ask for a home office.

Of course, not everyone wants, or needs, a full-time office. Some people combine an office with a den or TV room. That's what Jim and Diann Morse decided to do when they remodeled their kitchen and put on an addition early this year.

Though Jim, joint owner of Allegheny Pipe & Supply, regularly brings work home from the office, "we wanted a space we all could use," says Diann.

That included the North Park couple's two children, 15-year-old Amy and 12-year-old Alex.

So, Don Northrup of Heartwood Design/Build/Remodel in McCandless, created a room off the enlarged kitchen that features separate work and recreation areas.

Two built-in maple computer desks, stained a vivid blue and topped with red Formica, allow the children to do homework while Jim completes paperwork. The desks are large enough to allow two people to work side by side. Twin leather chairs under a large picture window allow comfortable television viewing.

"Every now and then, Jim throws everyone out, and says 'This is my room,' " says Diann. "But most of the time, it works out very well. We use this room more than any other one in the house. It appeals to everyone. It's just cozy."

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