From Shepherd's huts to treehouses, the trend for homeworking has produced some creative ideas for home offices
The number of people now working from home has increased to almost one in seven over the past decade. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, that’s 13.7% of the workforce and more than four million people. Of course, the figure for those who work remotely one or two days a week is even greater than that, but the challenges of creating a physical space that feels like an office, in which you can shut the door at the end of the day and ‘go home’, remain the same.
‘When we’re taking clients around houses, almost the first thing they do before really taking in the property is glance at their phone to see the quality of the mobile signal,’ says Charlie Wells of Prime Purchase.
‘These days, it’s all about connectivity and one of the first questions, once the mobile’s sorted out, is about the speed of the broadband connection.’
The key is to be able to be wherever they want to be and never be asked the question: ‘Where are you?’. ‘One of the top farms-and-estates lawyers in the UK that we use spends Mondays and Fridays at home in Northumberland, but you’d never know it because he has full connectivity,’ says Charlie.
What’s also changed is that, whereas 10 years ago, an operation to lay a cable from an exchange direct to a house might have been cripplingly expensive, these days, the costs have gone down and server security measures for VPNs (virtual private networks) have gone up. With the development of wifi repeaters, it’s even possible to bounce the WiFi signal up to woods or down to a lake so that no part of the property is out of range.
Jo Aldridge of Stacks Property Search says that she’s increasingly seeing clients become more creative in terms of carving out home working spaces. ‘The least effective arrangements are using the kitchen or dining table and regularly having to clear everything up; a small ergonomically designed, designated work space is better than a larger space that has to multi-function.’
She adds: ‘Take a leaf out of today’s pioneers of office design such as Google and Apple: invest in a good desk and chair, a comfortable timeout area and something nice to look at, whether that’s a great view or some wall art.’
Alan Tomlinson of Courtyard Designs in Herefordshire says that the company used to be regularly commissioned to build small garden office rooms—administratively easy as they often don’t need planning permission—but, these days, when people need their investment to go further, the more frequent request is to solve two needs at the same time, by building a two-storey garage with an office space above.
‘Most clients want a two-bay garage, but we’ve undertaken larger projects that involve four or five bays, which gives a generous loft space above,’ says Alan. ‘What’s increasingly important for clients is to flood the space with light, so we’re finding more people wanting one end to be fully glazed and, in some cases, have functioning balconies.’
Generally speaking, although these structures do need planning permission, planning officers in some local authorities encourage the building of home offices to reduce the number of cars on the roads. ‘They’re generally non-contentious and regarded positively, as long as clients aren’t seen as trying to slide a new dwelling under the permission,’ adds Alan.
An attractive alternative to a brick-built or oak-framed garden building is a shepherd’s hut. ‘The other day, I saw a moveable shepherd’s hut in a client’s garden,’ says Charlie. ‘It was a large-scale one that the owners tow and station on the side of the hill during the summer months and bring back down to the farm in the winter. It was fully kitted out with cables and WiFi. It’s all about having inspirational places to work.’
That concept is ‘not unheard of’, says Ben Wong of Norfolk-based The English Shepherds Hut Company. ‘Back in the day, the huts were small and lightweight, designed to be pulled along by a pony. These days, they’re higher quality, fully insulated and there are more things inside, so most people generally have them in one place, although we can provide them with a roadtowable chassis, so they can be moved much like a caravan.’
The company makes shepherd’s huts for various uses, including writer’s retreats, reading rooms, home offices and therapy rooms, but, more and more, it’s being asked for more complex designs. ‘Our smallest hut has a wood-burning stove and space for a small desk and, with a discreet solar panel on the roof, you can have it more or less off-grid.
‘But we’re seeing more interest in designs such as our Poacher’s Hut, which has a mini kitchen, stove, bathroom and underfloor heating as well as wiring for computers and printers.’
For a really inspirational home-working environment, a treehouse office is hard to beat. ‘I’ve got a client who’s bought a house with a small wood and is in the process of putting up a smart treehouse that will be his working space,’ adds Charlie. ‘High up among the branches of the trees with an open view along a vale, it’s a pretty spectacular place to work.’ Simon Martin of Bristol-based Squirrel Design has had plenty of experience creating alternative home-office spaces in country-house gardens (0117–325 8325). ‘We’ve made anything from a basic cabin with stilts to office treehouses standing 10ft–12ft from the ground.
The key difference in design from a standard play treehouse is that you need to position the space for the best light so that it’s not completely covered by the tree canopy as well as ensuring it has a good view. Often, you’ll try to have the core tree at the back rather than the centre, so that you’ve got a good usable space inside.’
The team at Blue Forest, in East Sussex, originally worked out of a treehouse office before the company grew in size and had to move to a more conventional space (01892 750090). Run by brothers Andy and Simon Payne, it was inspired by their upbringing in Kenya and was responsible for building treehouses for the Chewton Glen Hotel in Hampshire, as well as projects for the National Trust, among others.
‘All the work is bespoke and we’ve built very different things, from cocktail bars to dining rooms, bedrooms with fully plumbed hot tubs as well as offices,’ explains the company’s Catherine Hills. ‘There’s definitely a big trend of people wanting a work space that’s nice and quiet, but also different— a treehouse ticks all those boxes.’