Occupational Therapy

By staff January 1, 2003

Poor John Ringling. The circus magnate may have been one of the first Sarasotans to work at home-in his case the Italianate elegance of Cà d'Zan-but his office was positively spartan compared to the home offices of today's executives.

Work-at-home professionals are powering a booming market that's driving the home office to new levels of luxury as more and more people commute no farther than a few steps from their bedrooms. Almost 20 million people did some work at home as part of their primary job in 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And Sarasota is no exception to the trend. Our weather, beaches and culture entice executives to relocate here well before the traditional retirement age. These sun-loving freedom-seekers aren't about to closet themselves within four walls of utilitarian space. From CEO to sales rep, interior designer to real estate salesperson, professionals want their offices to combine technological efficiencies with sybaritic pleasures.

Televisions are the newest standard feature. Do busy executives want to watch the soaps? Probably not. But CNN and stock market quotes appear high on the high-achievers' list of news to know. Upscale builders are meeting requests from moguls eager to monitor the market by means of built-in television monitors snuggled into custom cabinetry. Anchor Builders' model in Lakewood Ranch features not one, not two, but three televisions in what they term the "Captain's Quarters." Two televisions sit one on top of the other like cubist images within a custom-stained maple cabinet. The piece de resistance hangs behind the desk, where a wall-mounted plasma television screen is positioned flat against the wall like a decorative painting with motion and sound.

When surfing channels becomes thirsty work, the executive has only to walk two steps to the wet bar and under-counter refrigerator. The refreshment option is the newest luxury statement in upscale home offices, where wet bars and wine storage become part of what Lee Wetherington terms the "gentleman's retreat with a desk."

It might not always be designed for daytime tippling. Arthur Rutenberg's Rhapsody model, for example, includes wine storage in the office though, sadly, it's not cooled. The wine cooler is actually located in the kitchen. But the builder designed the wine rack within the office retreat as temporary storage, assuming the owner will need it for frequent dinner parties.

Of course, work requires more connection than a toast at the wine bar. That's where technology is the boss. Labor statistics show that eight in 10 people used a computer for the work they did at home and six in 10 made use of Internet or e-mail access. Builders now install built-in, structured wiring as a standard component of homes from the $200,000s and up. Category 5 Ethernet computer network wiring enables the owner to interconnect computers, phone and TV-video, not just in the main office, but throughout the home.

Doug Kubik, assistant vice president of Toll Brothers, says, "This is just the beginning. All homes offer the option of upgrading to certified systems or installing a high-tech home distribution system. You could turn on your hot tub driving in from the airport or plan to have your lights randomly operate in your absence."

Many builders seem to assume that office retreats are for men-witness the masculine décor, the "Captain" titles. Yet the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that women and men are about equally likely to do some job-related work at home, making those two-career couples compete for desk and shelf space. The marriage vows, for better or worse, seem easier to handle with separate offices, a fact that leads some couples, even empty-nesters, to move up to a four- or five-bedroom home where each can have a dedicated office.

Even if a spouse doesn't work, double office space has become the norm in upscale homes. After all, the computer is an integral part of daily life. The spouse wants access to one, not to mention the kids for their homework. So if the executive at home doesn't want peanut-butter-and-jelly smudges on the keyboard, then a second, more casual office becomes essential.

In homes starting at $500,000, homebuyers usually request separate work spaces. Says John Cannon of John Cannon Homes, "One is a dedicated office and another may be more multi-purpose, though his-and-her offices are common. His has dark wood and built-ins; the one for her may double as a guest bedroom." Cannon's $2.8-million Nariah model at Lakewood Ranch features a spacious den on the second floor, replete with custom built-ins and a private balcony overlooking a nature preserve. The wife's office near the kitchen features custom bookshelves and cabinets designed to hold another computer and related accessories.

On the other side of the coin, what if the home owner doesn't need full-time office space? Sure, entrepreneurs need a dedicated office. But some work-at-homes and snowbirds are content to merely use their home office as a supplement to an off-site space, whether in downtown Sarasota or an entirely different (and colder) state. Part-timers and efficiency experts solve a space problem by combining an office with less frequently used functions, such as a guest bedroom.

Here's where the Murphy bed comes into its own. Far from the lumbering and ugly panel that was the butt of jokes a few decades ago, today's models reside in sleek cabinetry that's as attractive as fine furniture.

"We've done homes from trailers to multi-million-dollar estates," says Joseph Baggiano of Murphy Bed Centers of America. He points to a display area in their showroom, a mere 9x10 square feet in size, in which neat custom-designed wall units hold everything needed for a functional computerized office plus a full-size Murphy bed that flips down at the touch of a finger. "What a Murphy bed does is recover the space," says Baggiano. The bed pops up, completely made up, and the office returns faster than you can download an e-mail.

When Jimmy Launce, a prominent Detroit DJ, moved to his local slice of the sun, he needed an office, a radio studio and a guest room. The Murphy solution worked in all three areas. "We came from a huge house and downsized, so we had to fit things in with a shoehorn," says Launce. "The modular furnishings could be adapted well to stack equipment and feed wire through the area behind the equipment. It's quite comfortable and it looks just like furnishings sitting against the wall, but we can use the room for anything."

Not all the upgrades in home offices are within the walls. Some consist of the views just beyond the window. After all, the professional in paradise wants to enjoy Sarasota's sunny skies. Ergo, most home offices these days are situated towards the rear of the house, where they overlook, at the very least, a pool deck or nature preserve, or for the extremely fortunate, the sea.

Designer Gwendolyn Sears just completed a home office in the Regent Club on Longboat Key where the owner wanted the desk positioned toward a stunning bayfront vista. "It's an awesome view," she says. Another custom home positions its office on a second floor balcony, completely open through an uninterrupted flow of floor-to-ceiling glass, to the expanse of beach and bay below.

Professionals at home don't want the industrial look of the traditional office. Here, they want to enjoy the ambience of leather armchairs, side tables in fine hardwoods, and built-in cabinetry that offers utility with the look of fine furniture. Craftsman Nathaniel Smelser meets the demand for custom furnishings with specialized pieces, such as the massive 10-by-20-foot cherry cabinets that span a wall in a library/office on St. Armands Circle. "The owners aren't even there often, but they wanted something spectacular," he says.

Even the ready-made market is replete with stylish options. At specialty retailer Office at Home, cold, utilitarian steel is decidedly absent from the showroom floor. The store caters to the homebuyer's need to create a warm, inviting office environment with tasteful furnishings that enhance his or her personal style. Every imaginable finish from cherry to cottage white, pine to mahogany is represented in traditional desks and credenzas and hide-away media centers that stash the day's clutter behind doors when work is over. Lee Parrish, store manager, notes that armoires are especially popular in a room not totally dedicated to the office, such as a family room or spare bedroom. "Wives love it," he says. "But men want a real desk."

The most surprising aspect, Parrish says, is that "people coming from up North think that the light woods are the thing here; but in reality, the dark woods are just as popular."

Parrish and others agree that Sarasota's home offices are starting to transcend the concept of work as a chore, as lucky workers labor surrounded by space, technology and the sensory pleasures of elegant furnishings, fine wines, poolside access and stunning vistas.

If this is work, sign up for overtime.

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