Welcome to Your Home Sweet Office

Francie Dalton calls the computer nook in her Columbia home, with its relaxing woodlands view, her sanctuary.
Francie Dalton calls the computer nook in her Columbia home, with its relaxing woodlands view, her sanctuary. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

By Dan Rafter
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 18, 2006

Like millions of other people, Francie Dalton works from her home. But unlike most home offices, Dalton's workplace in her three-story house in Columbia is carefully planned.

Dalton's office is not a tiny desk shoved in the corner of her bedroom. It isn't a computer on her kitchen counter that she pushes aside whenever she needs to toast some bagels. It's not a pile of papers and pens balanced on the edge of her kitchen table.

Dalton, president and founder of business consulting firm Dalton Alliances Inc. has dedicated the entire lower floor of her house to an office that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. She can close her door to shut out the noise of the outside world if she prefers. She relies on a wireless laptop computer and uses a hands-free telephone so she can roam her home and still work if the mood strikes her. She sits in a chair specifically selected to provide the most comfort for those long nights in front of the computer. She even made sure she has her ideal view, her office windows looking out onto a wooded back yard filled with birds and other critters.

And for those particularly stressful days? Dalton's office includes a space for her exercise equipment. If she is feeling tense, she just hops onto her treadmill until the stress evaporates.

"It's important to get creative when you are putting together your home office," said Dalton, who adapted existing rooms in her house after buying it. "It needs to be a place you enjoy being in. The beauty of working from home is that you can be flexible. You don't have to be tied into any one location or any one way of working. You should take advantage of that."

The Census Bureau's "Working at Home: 2000" report, now a bit outdated, estimated that 4.2 million Americans older than 16 log a significant portion of their work hours at home. That was up 23 percent from 1990.

These home workers need home offices, and these home offices frequently demand computers equipped with Internet access, fax machines, copiers and scanners. Some home workers need extensive storage space for their papers and files, while others need shelves crammed with reference books.

The demands from this growing work-at-home contingent are changing the way builders design homes.

"The office used to be just another room," said Josh Rosenthal, director of marketing at Potomac-based Rosenthal Homes, a custom builder. "Often it was just an unused bedroom, a space that evolved into an office later on. Now the home office is more of a focus in the design process. Having a functional, well-thought-out home office is a specific desire of more homeowners. The level of finishes in a home office is much more of an important factor. Everyone wants it to function like an office but still look like a house."

Builders have become adept at hiding wires, blending file cabinets into a room's decor and making it easy for owners to make those computers and monitors seem no more obtrusive than a television set.

"I've seen so many changes in home design," said Greg Wessling, chairman and chief executive of HouseRaising Inc., a custom builder with headquarters in Charlotte. "I remember when people agonized over the ceramic tile in the bathroom. Now, they are more thinking of automation, wiring, technology. It's a big deal for people, and it's a great opportunity for builders who are really knowledgeable about this to gain a great deal of business."

Joel Sommer, president of Bethesda-based Sommer Homes, another custom builder, said planning for a home office -- and for the equipment such an office requires -- has become a more common task. Not all of his clients, though, want their home offices in the same space.

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