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What to look for in the home office

Will Wiles

Forget worthy co-working spaces, Soane’s little box is the place to get things done

It is distinctly unnerving to be presented with a place that has been designed with your specific needs in mind, only to find it completely, specifically, perfectly wrong. Is it the place that’s wrong, or is it me? Am I defective on some level? Why do I hate this so much?

That’s the way I feel around co-working spaces. They are, in theory, ideal for a self-employed writer like me: a conveniently situated, warm and comfortable place full of creative (but quiet!) young people where I can turn up, plug in, and get cracking. They have reliable wifi and pleasant cafés. They are, objectively, very nice, and theoretically the answer to all my problems now that our second child is old enough to need a room of her own.

Subjectively, no way, José. And while I might be defective, I don’t think I’m alone. Whenever I go to a co-working hub – which is surprisingly often, as they are increasingly popular as event and meeting locations – I’m routinely told that it’s like something out of The Way Inn, my second novel, a horror story set in the sterile utopia of out-of-town conference centres and chain hotels.

Maybe it would make a good setting for another novel, but where would I write it? As I say, the room I use as a home office is needed for other things. In fact it is already used for other things. It has become something of a dumping ground for surplus furniture, broken laundry driers, large toys and assorted household detritus. This is only natural where space is limited, and I don’t resent it – indeed, it has led to something of an epiphany.

This breakthrough came in the congenial surroundings of the Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Though Soane’s work touched every corner of that remarkable house, the room where the architect actually sat down and put pen to paper is strikingly small – hardly 2m by 2m. Standing arms outstretch, one can almost touch both walls at once. And that’s in a kind of corridor or connecting space between larger rooms. But it’s enough – indeed, it’s rather desirable.

Making space for work at home needn’t mean an expensive third or fourth bedroom. In househunting, I’ve started looking out for under-used spaces between rooms, or corners of irregular layouts. The only real requirement is a closing door or other partition. But why not just a corner of the living room? Isn’t that separation an expensive luxury? Not really. The issue isn’t just privacy, although of course that matters. It’s also important for the self-employed to maintain some psychological boundaries between work and living. Screening off the desk isn’t just about creating a little citadel, it’s also about protecting the living space from the creeping, conscience-pricking presence of the Toad, Work, as Larkin put it.

The RIBA Journal’s recent Room Within a Room competition provided some thought-provoking examples of the ways that architects might subdivide space to carve out congenial corners for work. It took as its guiding spirit Antonella da Messina’s Renaissance painting St Jerome in his Study, in which Jerome is depicted working in a raised wooden structure placed within the vaults and tiles of a much larger space. This study ‘is not a public space, but a resolutely private one,’ Edwin Heathcote writes about this painting in The Meaning of Home (2012). ‘The saint has constructed his own world within the bigger building, and is surrounded by the objects that define his existence.’

You can’t do that among the glaring composite surfaces of the co-working centre. For the time being, however, our house-hunting is on pause while the country wavers between Norway Plus and Mad Max exits from the European Union. And where is the mastermind of that whole disaster? In his writing shed, of course.

Out of the box

Estate agents have picked up on the work-from-home market. Upstairs or basement rooms that are too small to conscientiously be called a bedroom used to be labelled ‘box room’ on agents’ floor plans – now they are labelled ‘study’.