x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Sofa beds and 'active seating' herald arrival of flexible spaces

The design world is reaching out with ingenious ideas and eye-catching innovations to ensure that home working environments are given the importance they deserve.

Battling Mumbai's incessant heat, pollution and traffic became a thing of the past for Prashant Chauhan the day he moved into his new office. The chic, 55-square-metre space with hand-built cabinetry, state-of-the-art technology and sleek, minimal furniture is as swish as any on the executive office floors of the city's glittering towers - and as an architect and designer Chauhan was responsible for creating some of them. However, to reach his own office, all Chauhan needs to do is open his bedroom door.

"Moving my office to my home was incredibly empowering, on both a creative and practical level," he says. "I love the flexibility of the space; it really is more of an office with living accommodation than an apartment that has a home office, but when you are working and living in the same place, it cannot suffocate you; you need to be able to really enjoy it."

In the past decade "work" for many of us has ceased to be a place and instead become an activity. Advances in wireless and mobile technology - in particular, widely available broadband - mean that people can now be as productive and efficient working outside the office as they are working in it - perhaps more so. Because of this, home working spaces have taken on a much greater significance; whereas a home "office" may once have stretched to a desk from Ikea and a spare kitchen chair, the design world is reaching out to ensure that home working environments are given the gravitas they rightly deserve.

"As an employee or service provider you become much more available and flexible, so the space to help you achieve all of this needs to be enabling," explains Chauhan, admitting that he took the concept to the extreme in his diminutive one-bedroom apartment. The living room was converted wholly into an office space; the kitchen was compressed to a small, albeit stylish, pantry "just like a kitchenette you'd find in many offices". He furnished the bedroom with a sofa bed so it doubles as an entertaining and sitting room when his office is "closed" for the evening.

"I see the home office concept as very futuristic - it's something we couldn't have envisaged even a decade ago and as the demand for it grows, design will increasingly adapt."

Torben Hildebrandt, the managing director of Twenty1, a newly launched commercial and residential interiors company based in Abu Dhabi, sees that adaptation first-hand and says that he is expecting Twenty1 to benefit hugely from the section of UAE workforce that is now home-based. "Much of what we sell may have been designed principally for contemporary offices but it works equally well in a home environment," he says.

"Furniture design is becoming extremely integrated and home offices are one of the big drivers of that trend."

He employs two designers, both of whom work from home, and quite often Hildebrandt himself will conduct business from his villa rather than the showroom in ­ Mina Zayed. "The home office has always been very popular with Scandinavians," he says. "There has never been the need to be in a conventional corporate environment for 12 hours a day as in other Western cultures, but that mindset [outside Scandinavia] is certainly shifting and, when it comes to designing their space, people now want to think about their overall lifestyle." Rather than hiding offices away in spare bedrooms or seldom-used dining rooms, designers have become increasingly ingenious in how they incorporate working and living space.

"I actually had my office as part of the family room in my London house," says Leila Garadaghi, an interior designer who runs her business from home in Dubai, "It was a very cool, Poliform-designed space. I really enjoy talking to my husband or friends while I'm working and I felt it was important not to be stuck away by myself."

In Garadaghi's Emirates Hills house, the flow of rooms made an open-plan office impossible but, although her workspace is in a separate room, it doesn't feel like it. Large glass doors allow her to see into the rest of the house when she's at her computer; water features in the nearby hallway create a soothing working ambience and another glass door opens on to the garden. "I stayed away from conventional office furniture; the desk is a dining table from Andrew Martin and the fun chair works well in the space and is practical - but it's certainly not an office chair." Like Chauhan, Garadaghi believes that the concept of a paperless office is a fallacy - so custom-made cabinetry hides the sundries of working life.

Comfort and style do not prevent the inclusion of cutting-edge technology, however, and a huge plasma screen is wired up to the desktop computer to enable her to make presentations and hold long-distance conferences. For those without the space and means to create a separate home office, the award-winning Australian architect Andrew Maynard's creative genius for cool space-saving solutions has won him many plaudits: "Each project [of Maynard's] begs a long, awe-inspired look and makes the future look like a very nice place to live," wrote Inhabit magazine and with Maynard's Design Pod, that future certainly includes the home office.

Although it was initially designed for open-plan commercial workplaces, the lightweight Design Pod, which resembles a large wooden laundry basket, folds out into an interchangeable configuration of shelving, desk and stool, with built-in Wi-Fi. When closed the Design Pod is completely mobile and can be wheeled around into any chosen environment. Maynard has followed the Pod with his Kinetic Office, a compact, moveable cuboid that also folds out into a mobile work station; closing it allows a home-based worker to "get away" from the office at any time. More eye-catching innovations were shown at the Grand Designs Live exhibition in Birmingham, UK, in April.

There the OfficePOD, a ­stylish, self-contained unit designed to fit into a small garden made its debut - and generated interest from all over the world. "We actually had the design for the OfficePOD at the start of the decade," says the company's managing director, David Forbes. "A lack of IT was the obstacle then - the concept simply couldn't have worked. Now, advancing technology has made OfficePOD more successful than we could have imagined." Rather than retailing to individuals, the company's sights are initially set on the corporate world, where large organisations will lease a pod for around £5,000 (Dh30,000) per employee per year. OfficePOD reckons that basing a central London worker at home rather than in the office will save a company an average of £9,000.

"We are about to go from prototype into manufacture with two pilot partners towards the end of the year," says Forbes. "When we do eventually market to the retail sector we expect a pod to sell for around £20,000. We can tell from the type of hits we're experiencing on Google that much of the interest is coming from home-based creatives, so it's likely that this sector will be prominent when we do start to retail."

As much as working from home benefits employers, the environment and workers, when the commute to work is only as long as it takes to cross a room, the lifestyle can be very unhealthy - no matter how swish the surroundings. The designer Philippe Starck thinks he may have found the answer, however, with his Home/Gym/Office, designed in partnership with Eugeni Quitlet for the Italian furniture company, Alias, and launched at the Milan Salone in April. It comprises a set of small weights - anklets, bracelets and collar - designed to be worn while working, as well as an ergonomically designed chair and a work table.

More ingenious is the idea of the Californian designers, Rottet Studio, for "active seating" in home offices, which is essentially a version of the large bouncy balls you'd find at the gym. The idea is that by forcing you to continuously rebalance, calories are steadily burned without your noticing and your "body core" strength increases. Much harder to avoid is Steelcase's Walkstation - a desk that requires the worker to walk on a treadmill as they tap at their computer - surely enough to send the most committed home office devotee back to a grey and ­soulless communal corporate space. That is, if such a place still exists.

Many designers - and employers - feel that, due to the increasing focus on home office spaces, there is a greater need for an immediate work environment that is malleable, tactile, personal and real. "I would say that offices are becoming more and more like homes," says Hildebrandt "If you look at many offices today you'll see desks that could pass as dining tables and meeting areas where people stand around, as if they're at a bar, rather than the traditional meeting room. Reception ­areas are completely interchangeable with home furniture and ­ambient lighting. It's about freedom and I feel that the informality of the home office environment is now being translated back into the traditional workplace."

Chauhan agrees: "I've worked on offices that have wardrobes for changes of clothes and full bathrooms, so executives have the same - often identical - features at the office as they do at home. It's almost as if the positivity and productiveness generated by the home office ambience has started to come full circle."