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(Re-)Introducing The Workhome

The building type that combines dwelling and workplace

Trader Navinder Singh Sarao is accused of having triggered the recent £500bn Wall St crash - from a bedroom in his parents’ modest semi-detached house in Hounslow, UK. The image seems incongruous - we somehow expect traders with this sort of influence to inhabit flashy central offices, wear designer suits and operate lavish expenses accounts. But no.

Although generally currently invisible, a large and rapidly increasingly number of people, in a wide range of occupations across the social spectrum, is now carrying out ‘proper’ work in their homes.

In the USA home-based businesses alone contribute more than $530bn turnover to the economy annually; in the UK this is estimated at £284bn. And the home-based workforce is currently growing rapidly, worldwide. In the UK it increased 32% between 2001 and 2013 (See most recent statistics in Flexibility's It's Work But Not As We Know It report.).

But a century in which going out to work has been the dominant working practice has resulted in home-based work being overlooked at every level of society. And even though nearly 15% of the working population now works mainly at or from home and millions more either live at their workplace or are home-based for more than a day a week - the point at which it become spatially significant - we don’t organise our society, or design our buildings or cities, around this. This deserves more thought - how and where we work has a major impact on our lives, on the economy and, currently, on global warming.

From medieval longhouse to modern live/work units

The ‘workhome’ - the building type that combines dwelling and workplace - has existed for thousands of years in every country and culture across the globe. Its history can be traced from the medieval longhouse to the contemporary live/work unit (There's more at my workhome history page. )

It includes a vast array of buildings designed around the needs of home-based workers from silk-weavers and watch-makers who worked in top floor fully glazed workrooms that maximised the natural light on fiddly work, to firefighters who traditionally lived above the fire-station, or from shopkeepers and craftworkers who lived over their shops and workshops, to the teachers who lived in houses attached to their school or doctors and dentists who had consulting rooms in their houses.

Housing today, in contrast, is conceived as space to cook, eat, bathe, sleep, bring up children and watch TV – nothing more. Most home-based workers, as a result, do not live and work in ideal conditions. But they could. While this remains a popular working practice - for most the advantages heavily outweigh the disadvantages - today’s home-based workers sometimes have serious gripes about their working conditions. Research shows that most of these, including the most commonly reported - social isolation and problems with occupational identity - can be resolved through good design.

Exemplary contemporary workhome projects exist, but they are mostly outside the UK because historically governance systems are obstructive to home-based work. In the UK these include the planning framework which is organized around a mono-functional building classification system and a binary property taxation system that can be punitive to buildings that combine dwelling and workplace.

Veld van Klanken (Field of Sound), by 24H architecture outside Rotterdam is an example of an affordable workhome project for musicians - often home-based because they are on low incomes – who have a shared problem in that their work often disturbs neighbours. Thirty music studios are buried under a central grassy mound, the earth providing soundproofing; associated two-story houses are arranged in a rough oval around them. See the picture top right of this page.

This ‘live-nearby’ model is popular for home-based workers as it provides both some spatial and psychological separation between dwelling and workplace. It also means the workplace element of the workhome can be non-domestic, easing common problems with occupational identity. People can struggle to work effectively surrounded by domestic detritus. As a cluster of workhomes, with a central collective space for children to play and adults to hang out, it also addresses the issue of social isolation.

Japanese workhomeMany good workhomes are built in Japan because the rules and regulations there, for a different set of historic reasons, support and encourage home-based work. ‘Houses’ and ‘houses with small other function e.g. shop, office etc’, considered in the same planning category, are permitted development in eleven of the twelve Japanese Land Use Zones.

As a result, the workhome is an extremely common building type. House for Vegetable Seller, by Yoko Inoue of Atelier Knot (left), is a shop-house for five family members, built on six levels on a tiny 3mx 6m site in Tokyo. The ground floor shop spills out onto the road, while the upstairs home is accessed by squeezing past the till at the back of the shop. The grandmother tends the shop during the day while the father delivers vegetables to local restaurants. This is a modest workhome, meticulously designed to accommodate both family and work.

Economic and social impacts

Home-based work has the potential to contribute to a more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable future. It is popular because it gives people - from the Prime Minister in Downing Street to the person making Christmas crackers on the kitchen table in their council flat - more control over their lives. It allows people to work when and how they want to.

For many this means interweaving paid employment with the care of dependents. One of the shocks of becoming a parent of a school-age child is that the school day finishes at 3.30pm - half way through the working day for many of us. What are we meant to do? While some resort to a raft of childcare options, including nannies and childminders, others prefer, where they can, to fit home-based work around their children’s day.

As well as being popular, home-based work contributes to growth in the economy at three different levels.  Big corporations like BT find their home-based employees are happier, and therefore more productive. They have high retention rates after maternity leave and make significant savings (£5,000 per annum on each of their 12,000+ home-based employees in the case of BT) by reducing the size of their property portfolios.

Most businesses start-up in the home - including, famously, start-ups byWalt Disney and Steve Jobs, both of whom started in the garages of family members. And home-based work also enables some of the most disadvantaged members of society to be economically active - making and mending, trucking and trading, at a very small scale.

Environmental impacts

And the environmental argument is strong. Home-based work can reduce carbon emissions by helping us to travel less, heat less and make less, while simultaneously Improving the quality of people’s lives. This seems to be a win/win solution. Most UK workers drive a car to work; significant numbers also use public transport. If large numbers stay at home, this can reduce CO2 emissions both directly - in terms of a reduction in the number of miles driven annually - and also indirectly, by reducing the number of trains and buses that have to run.

When people go out to work, they warm their homes in the morning and then let them go cold during the day, warming them again in the evening when they get home. And inversely, workplaces are heated in the day and allowed to go cold in the evening and overnight.

This is inherently wasteful. In addition, employees are far more likely to be profligate with heat when their employer pays the bills, keeping offices at high temperatures and leaving windows open in the winter with the heating on, for example. In contrast, research shows that home-based workers are frugal with heat because they have to pay the bills. This energy cost-consciousness can also contribute to reducing carbon emissions. 

Finally, home-based work intensifies the use of the overall building stock. Going out to work leaves homes empty all day while workplaces are empty at night and over the weekend. This is wasteful. Workhomes, in contrast are occupied throughout the 24 hours. A more intensely inhabited building stock could, potentially, be smaller overall.  BT, for example, reports that teleworking has ‘substantially contributed to halving the size of its property portfolio’.

The public policy questions

All this seems so obvious, but as Ken Worpole says in his review in Architecture Today, ‘politicians, planners and architects have yet to acknowledge this, let alone do anything about it’. A major shift in how we live our lives is happening, but it is largely invisible as a result of regulatory frameworks that prevent or even prohibit it (as in the case of most Tenancy Agreements in UK social housing). And this is a vicious circle - the invisibility of this workforce means it does not even appear on the political agenda. That it doesn’t appear on politicians’ horizons means the rules and regulations are not changed. And on it goes.

These buildings - and the work that is carried out in them - enrich our cities. Home-based work contributes to the development of neighbourhood social networks and the local economy. But only if it is visible. When hidden because people fear they are, or even are, breaking some regulation or other, it leads to fear and secrecy.

I became interested in this field when I set an architectural student project for a building that combines dwelling and workplace more than ten years ago. Expecting to find half a dozen books on the subject in the RIBA library, I found nothing. I was surprised because I have chosen to live and work in such buildings for much of my adult life -  including a shop with living accommodation, an old Lincolnshire smithy comprising a tiny cottage with large workshop next-door, and a terraced house in Cambridge with a light-industrial building at the bottom of the garden.

Researching this subject from scratch, I uncovered some beautiful and unexpected buildings. This was the start of a research journey that has involved a PhD, an AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship, research trips to Japan and the USA, a project with home-based-working residents of social housing in London, as well as numerous presentations, papers, chapters in other people’s books, and finally a sole-authored book: ‘Beyond Live/Work: the architecture of home-based work’ . I hope it may help to put this important issue on the map.

Veld van Klanken (Field of Sound), workhomes by 24H architecture near Rotterdam

May 2015

(Re-)Introducing: The Workhome

In this guest article, Frances Holliss, architect and Emiritus Reader in Architecture at London Metropolitan University, takes a look at the poorly understood phenomenon of the 'Workhome'.

These are far more comon around the world than is usually thought, and have a long history.

Frances makes the case for bringing the workhome back as a major element in the urban mix.

Beyond Live/Work: The architecture of home-based work (2015) is available via the links below from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com


Beyond Live/Work: The Architecture of Home-based Work from Amazon.com

Read our Flexibility review here

“a century in which going out to work
has been the dominant working practice
has resulted in home-based work being overlooked at every level of society

“A major shift in how we live our lives
 is happening, but it is largely invisible
as a result of regulatory frameworks
that prevent or even prohibit it”

“These buildings - and the work that is
carried out in them - enrich our cities”




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