The pandemic might help us think more holistically about the ‘home office’, reseeding dynamism into high streets and housing developments as it goes.

Our homes were never designed to be offices. While some have found temporary adaptations acceptable for the longer term, many havent been able to find a healthy solution for living and working under one roof. Our experience in the pandemic has revealed people want to work from home, but for it to become truly accessible, we need to think about designing ‘work-ready’ homes from the outset. 

In the 1990s and 2000s, live-work units enjoyed a short spell of popularity. Purpose-built units that combine both functions, usually on separate floors or with separate entrances, were seen as sustainable alternatives to having people commute daily between office and home. In the UK at least, the idea didnt really take off due to issues of class use and unclear policy. The office parts of the units were eventually turned into homes to fill the greater need.

Now the pandemic has made working from home a mainstream idea, could the live-work unit or hybrid home be due a revival?

Wohnregal in Berlin by FAR Frohn&rojas is a six-storey building of sparse live-work ateliers that can be subdivided however the occupant wishes. Photos: David von Becker

Who would a live-work unit suit?

One version of the remote work revolution is a newly free generation of digital nomads served by start-ups like Anyplace (a global marketplace for apartments to work from with short leases and good WiFi); or the growth of third spaces that blend work with hospitality. But those who can benefit the most from flexible working are those with caring duties – for children, the elderly, or both – who usually want or need to remain in a fixed place. There are also scores of workers who need more than just a place to perch a laptop. They might require a properly serviced workspace with soundproofing, control of heating, ventilation and cooling or the room for equipment. Others need space for a few colleagues to work alongside them or to invite clients to while keeping their domestic space private. 

Our experiences of remote work differ greatly depending on whether we can afford enough space to do it in. Research by Stanford University found 49 per cent of American workers log in from a dedicated room, while 51 per cent work from a bedroom or communal area. The BBC recently highlighted the negative effect of unwanted sound at home on productivity, noting research from the US showing ‘non-white and lower socioeconomic status individuals disproportionately live in places with higher noise levels’. 

The Workhome Project, based at London Metropolitan University, found renters at a disadvantage in the pandemic. Many categories of self-employed and small business owners, who make up a third of employment in the UK, want to work from home but dont have the space. Dr Frances Hollis, member of the project and author of Beyond Live/Work: The Architecture of Home-Based Work told The Guardian: Contemporary housing is generally designed to tight-fit design principles and minimal space standards that ignore the spatial needs of home-based workers, especially those in non-IT-based occupations.’

What could live-work look like?

Architect Sarah Wigglesworth is an advocate of sustainable urban development. Her own live-work home at Stock Orchard Street, London pioneered the idea in 2001. For those without the luxury of a spare room, den, or loft, she says: ‘The key is to provide of a small amount of additional space in, or very close to, the home that gives your life flexibility. This could be a ‘half room’ – behind a sliding door off your living room or bedroom, so it can function separately and/or be re-combined with the other room if need be.’ 

Gensler also predicts the need for work nooks in future homes, its research finding that ‘10 per cent of survey respondents had access to a dedicated office space, but 73 per cent felt their residence could still easily support work.’ Tom Steidl, global leader of the architecture firm’s residential practice writes: ‘Another solution could be flexible “lock-off units” that come attached to a primary dwelling unit. Popular in places like Singapore, these secondary units are designed like a studio apartment and can function as a home office, an in-law unit, a mortgage-helper unit, or an extra bedroom when a family grows.’ 

Along with the growth of alternative forms of housing, like co-housing and multi-generational housing, developments that accommodate work could be designed more flexibly from the outset. Wohnregal in Berlin by FAR Frohn&rojas is a six-storey building of sparse live-work ateliers that can be subdivided however the occupant wishes. Mission Lofts in Washington DC has 156 units in which the tenant can decide to work, live or do both. Aiden Murray, senior planning consultant at JLL writes: ‘One of the key issues surrounding the success of live-work units in the UK in the past came down to obtaining a mortgage and whether it should be on commercial or residential lending terms. Mission Lofts’ success indicates that live-work units may evolve more easily from the purpose-built rental models such as co-living or build to rent.’

Cover and above: La Chapelle International includes 18 live-work units for artisans, small businesses and self-employed workers. Photos: Herve Abbadie, Luc Boegly

Live-work and the 15-minute city

The pandemic has made us notice the potential in our local neighbourhoods. Developments that allow us to carry out all our daily needs within a 15-minute walking distance are a key concept in sustainable post-pandemic regeneration and building more live-work developments could help us achieve it. The densely packed La Chapelle International in Paris, is one example. This transformation of a former railway station by Moussafir Architectes and Nicolas Hugoo Architecture includes 18 live-work units for artisans, small businesses and self-employed workers. Each has a street entrance for the business, and separate private access. 

Alongside new development, empty retail units could become adapted into live-work space with commercial function below and apartments above. The pre-industrial idea of living above the shop has come full circle. Wigglesworth says: ‘I think artists, makers and so forth will come to occupy high-street spaces with falling rental values and even healthcare and wellbeing centres will be found in empty shopping malls in the future. All of this needs combining with housing above so that we live once again in an environment of mixed use, keeping our carbon footprint as low as possible.’