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Home-based work: a new theme for Liveable Neighbourhoods?

Vor der industriellen Revolution arbeiteten die meisten Menschen in ihren Wohnungen oder wohnten an ihrem Arbeitsplatz. Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts gab es jedoch eine weit verbreitete, größtenteils ideologische Missbilligung dieser Arbeitspraxis. Infolgedessen wurden die neuen Sozialwohnungen, die die Slums im Londoner East End ersetzten, so konzipiert, dass sie diese Arbeitspraxis verhindern sollten – und durch Mietverträge verwaltet wurden, die dies untersagten (Holliss, 2015). Mit dem Ziel, die Probleme der städtischen und ländlichen Armen zu lösen, war die zentrale räumliche Strategie von Ebenezer Howards Gartenstadt-Idee (1898) die funktionale Zonierung. Diese wurde in der Stadtplanung auf der ganzen Welt übernommen und angepasst und hat zu Gebäuden und Städten geführt, die systematisch Wohnung und Arbeitsplatz trennen. Ein Vortrag von Frances Holliss gehalten am BauZ! Kongress 2021.


Home-based work has, as a result, been generally hidden and ignored for a century in terms of social and economic policy, and the planning and design of the built environment. Even before Covid-19, this working practice was steadily growing, however, in part as a result of more women in employment that ever before and new technologies that reduce the need for people to gather in collective workplaces in order to carry out their work. By 2014, 14 % of the overall UK workforce were home-based workers, the highest rate since comparable records began in 1998 (ONS). And the economic contribution of the sector was not insignificant. In 2016, Houston and Reuschke found 95% of UK businesses to be micro-businesses employing less than 10 people, most of which were run from their owners’ homes, or had been at some time. These contributed a third of all employment and a fifth of all turnover to the national. Despite this finding, home-based work remained hidden from sight and absent from policy.

The Covid-19 pandemic has, however, transformed the picture and shifted this working practice into both the mainstream and the limelight, with almost half the UK workforce working from home in April 2020 (ONS), and this trend reflected globally and, where conditions have allowed, employers and employees finding it to be successful. Felstead and Reuschke’s recent study of 20,000 respondents, for example, found 70 % were as or more productive in June 2020 than they had been six months earlier. And almost 90 % said they wanted to continue working from home in some capacity, while almost half wanted to often, or all the time (2020). Other studies concur.

A paradigm shift

This can be interpreted as a paradigm shift with major consequences for the built environment. In the space of a few months the way we inhabit individual buildings, urban blocks, neighbourhoods and cities, and the way we use their transport systems, has transformed - and it seems probable that this change will, to a greater or lesser extent, be permanent. It is currently estimated that in the long-term, 30 per cent will work full-time in the office, 30 per cent full-time at home, and 40 per cent moving between the two (Thomas et al 2020).

This has substantial implications for Liveable Neighbourhoods policies, first introduced in Western Australia to combat high car dependency, lack of public transport and poor walking conditions in the suburbs of Perth. Promoting walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods that cluster around a town centre, the primary aim was to reduce car-use and encourage people to walk, by creating short and pleasant, safe, legible street-based pedestrian routes (Jones, 2001:36). There has been widespread adoption of such policies, across the world.

In 2001, Jones reflected “Of new businesses, 97 % are small firms, and 21 % of all businesses are home-based, with self-employment increasing by 59 % between 1976 and 1991. Older women aged between 45 and 54 now constitute a major proportion of the workforce. By 2010, some sources estimate that the majority of the workforce will be part-time workers. It is likely that more people will work at, or near home and will demand more goods and services at the neighbourhood level.” (2001:34).

These words have proved prescient - suddenly, tens of millions are working from home. The fine-grained mixed-use that results from people both living and working in their homes embodies the principles that underlie Liveable Neighbourhoods policies, and their close cousin, the 15 Minute – or even 5 Minute – City. Home-based workers both use and provide local services – think of the local childminder or curtain-maker, publican or architect, for example. Evidence from both the early Covid-19 experience (Chakelian and Goodier 2020) and previous research (Holliss 2007, 2015:) supports the idea that working from home increases people’s use of local shops, services and amenities, like parks. But it also enriches the neighbourhood in terms of the quantity and diversity of local services on offer. Win, win.

As an architect with nine employees, working in a mews office at the bottom of her garden, said “Another point [about home-based work] is that it creates and supports a mixed economy. I can think of at least five other neighbours who live and work in [our] Square, in addition to ourselves, all of whom go to the local shops, go out to eat at lunch time, have clients coming to the area, use the public spaces and public transport throughout the day. It is an ideal urban model in the ‘Jane Jacobs sense’ that there is an integration between different activities bringing life throughout the day which impacts economically and socially. It means also that I can stay involved in various local community and school things that would be difficult to get to if I worked in a separate place. It seems to me that more people are working from home now in this local area… and this definitely has a positive impact on the quality of life and urban spaces.”

The 24/7 inhabitation of the neighbourhood associated with home-based work has, therefore, significant potential to support Liveable Neighbourhoods policies – as well as substantial implications for travel strategy and policy, and for the design of the built environment from the scale of the district, the block, the building, to that of the individual (work)home.

A diverse workforce

A primary finding of more than fifteen years’ research into the architecture of home-based work has been that one-size-does-not-fit-all. There are four variables: the occupation, the nature of the household, the amount of space available, and the personality of the home-based worker. Home-based workers are usually considered as individuals, but to design well for them, they need to be considered as an overall, albeit extremely diverse, workforce. An analysis of a sample of 76 home-based workers from across the social spectrum, in a wide range of occupations, in urban, suburban and rural contexts in England (Holliss, 2007, 2015) uncovered eight sub-groups that have distinct spatial and environmental needs. Although it is not possible to estimate what proportion of the total home-working population falls into each category - and other sub-groups will undoubtedly also exist -these give us an idea of the different sorts of home-based workers and an indication of their distinct spatial and environmental requirements.

  • family care-givers
  • ‘backbones of the community’ (i.e. clergy/ shopkeepers/ funeral directors/publicans etc)
  • professional and managerial
  • 24/7 artists
  • craftworkers
  • top-up (ie people who use home-based work to supplement a low household income)
  • live-in (for example residential care-workers/ historic house managers/ live-in carers etc)

While both home-based, it is clear that the senior-social-policy-researcher mother-of-two has radically different spatial and environmental needs to the single sculptor making vast constructions from rusty steel. Design principles found to support home-based work include spatial generosity, flexibility and adaptability. In the UK, however, forty-three percent of homes built since 2002 have been profit-led tight-fit, purpose-built flats with an average usable floor area of 55m2 (MHCLG 2018). And maybe unsurprisingly, a recent study shows comfort during Covid lockdown has had a direct relationship to the age of the home – with older homes performing consistently better (Carmona et al, 2020). People inhabiting smaller, less flexible homes that lack the potential to adapt have generally fared badly.

Good practice

For some years, pioneering buildings have been designed and built around the needs of home-based workers, particularly in the Netherlands and Japan where local governance conditions are favourable to these dual-use buildings. The following examples of good practice illustrate a series of design themes that have emerged from the research.


Veld van Klanken (Field of Sounds) musicians’ co-housing scheme in Hoogvliet, Rotterdam (24H Architects, 2012) is an example of social housing built to meet the spatial and environmental needs of a specific field of home-based business. Thirty-eight terraced h webs of rules that determine what sort of buildings can be built where, and how they can be inhabited. Barely ouses in five blocks surround a grassy hill under which are buried thirty music studios. The ‘live-nearby’ (Holliss, 2015:93) format provides the spatial separation many home-based businesses prefer between their dwelling and workspace, while the earth covering the studios provides the necessary level of sound insulation - as well as, on top, a free collective social space. The musicians that inhabit the development include ten drummers.

Piazza Ceramique (Jo Janssen Architects, 2007) is a mixed-use scheme on a site zoned for live-work (woon-werk woningen) in Maastricht. As well as standard apartments, the development includes twenty office-apartments. A central atrium provides free-to-use collective space in which home-based workers can interact and socialise. Each office-apartment has two entrances, one into a small lobby and a small space, the other into a larger more highly serviced space. Either or both can be used as home or workspace, to give a ‘home-dominated’ or ‘work-dominated’ (work)home (Holliss 2015:89). Separate entrances allow for effective spatial and acoustic separation between the dwelling and workplace aspects of each office-apartment. The structural design allows internal walls to be removed or rearranged at will, making the office-apartments infinitely flexible and adaptable. Seven terraced (work)homes also each have two entrances, and the scheme includes nine separate work units. Current businesses operating in Piazza Ceramique include architecture, photography, graphic design, dentistry and debt collection.

Schiecentrale 4b (Mei Architects 2008), built on the site of the old port of Rotterdam, is a seventeen-story block of 156 purpose-built (work)homes - 65–135m2  and sold unfinished so that the owners can design their own layout. Double metal-stud party walls make it easy to combine units if necessary, again internal partitions are non-structural, so the units are flexible and adaptable, and all spaces meet the necessary fire regulations so the functions are easily interchangeable. Each (work)home has two entrance doors from a deck-access, which so part can be used as office space. This makes the work visible to passers-by and allows clients to come and go without entering the domestic space. The scheme includes a range of communal facilities, including a supermarket, gym, semi-public deck, sun terrace, playground and child-care facilities


Klarheit (Koh Kitayama + architecture WORKSHOP, 2008) is a mixed-use building in Tokyo with six (work)home units sandwiched between a ground-floor commercial space and a fourth-floor bar/ restaurant. The units are arranged, Unité-like, on either side of an internal corridor that has been designed as a semi-public street. Floor-to-ceiling glazed ‘shop-fronts’ make the workspaces public, light the internal access way and create transparency between units. Inhabitants are therefore aware of each other’s movements. Each workhome is entered through its workspace. Larger units have a spiral staircase up to their protected private living spaces while the smaller ones have ladder-like stairs down to theirs. Materials and floor-to-ceiling heights are consistent throughout, with no concessions to ideas of home or workplace. The flexibility of Tokyo’s governance systems means that, though designed as workhomes, these units can also be inhabited purely as workspace or purely as dwellings. The public bar/restaurant and terrace on the top floor provides space for inhabitants to meet their clients and each other, as well as being accessible off the street by members of the public. Stylish design and panoramic views across Tokyo ensure its commercial success

Challenges of silo-based governance

These schemes illustrate the ease with which buildings may effectively be designed to accommodate home-based work. Challenges to achieving this are, however, often deeply embedded in twentieth century governance structures initially designed to keep dwelling apart from workplace. Housing and employment are often regulated by separate silos that do not work effectively together. These bodies generate rigid webs of rules that determine what sort of buildings can be built where, and how they can be inhabited. Barely acknowledging the existence of home-based workers or the buildings they inhabit, such regulatory frameworks are at best unsupportive and at worst punitive to the sector. The UK planning system is, for example, organized around a mono-functional building classification system that accommodates dual-use buildings with difficulty. In addition, UK property taxation is organised as a binary system that charges residential and non-residential differently and often results in double-charging for buildings that combine dwelling and workplace. Silo-based structures such as these contributed to the failure of the late twentieth century ‘live/work’ movement in the UK and continue to present challenges in the delivery of dual-use buildings and truly mixed-use neighbourhoods.


Home-based work emerges as a new theme for the Liveable Neighbourhoods agenda. Residential neighbourhoods can be re-appraised as sites of employment. More people inhabiting these neighbourhoods by day, instead of commuting to a central place of work, increases demand for local services, such as cafes, shops and parks. Where visible and supported, the home-based workforce also provides a range of local services. Acknowledging this through policies that encourage walkable truly mixed-use neighbourhoods has the potential to contribute to a reduction in car-use, an intensification of the use of the overall building stock, and a stimulation of local economies and local social networks.

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Carmona, M. et al., Home Comforts: How the design of our homes and neighbourhoods effected our experience of the Covid-19 lockdown and what we can learn for the future placealliance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Place-Alliance-Homes-and-Covid-Report_2020.pdf (accessed 23 Feb 2021)
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Howard, E., To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898)
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Thomas, D., Morris, S. and Ralph, O. ‘Coronovirus Turns the City into a Ghost Town’ Financial Times (Jul 17 2020)


Dr Frances Holliss
London Metropolitan University
mail: f.holliss@londonmet.ac.uk

© Enzberg