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Home is where the work is

Review of Beyond Live/Work – The architecture of home-based work

During the recent general election here in the UK, housing has been a key issue. The parties competed in promising how many new homes they would build. An extended ‘right to buy’ for social housing tenants is lauded and condemned. A new government-supported ‘rent-to-buy’ scheme is proposed. Rent controls for private landlords re-emerge from the dusty vaults of failed government regulation. Changes to inheritance tax thresholds and the suspension of stamp duty are proposed to appeal to homeowners and home buyers.

Yet amongst all the furore and finger-pointing over housing policy no one seems to be asking: what kinds of homes should we be building?

To me, that ought to be the central question of housing policy. Find out what kinds of homes people need in the post-industrial age, and then how many of each kind would make a good mix.

And here’s a good starting point: Beyond Live/Work – The Architecture of Home-Based Work, by Frances Holliss. This is an exceptional, thoroughly researched, original and in many ways pioneering work of relevant and accessible scholarship about the history, distribution and architecture of ‘workhomes’ (as the author calls them) across the world. Arguably, no new homes should be built before everyone responsible – politicians, civil servants, local planning authorities, developers, architects, planners, social housing providers and infrastructure providers – has read this book and taken on board its significance.

Beyond Live/Work takes us on a well-illustrated journey from medieval merchants houses to slum dwellers in south Asia, from loft-living in Manhattan to the Japanese machiya, via gentlemen artists’ homes incorporating studios, craftworkers’ ateliers and the worldwide phenomenon of living over the shop.

Working in, over, under, next to, behind, in front of the home is an ancient, diverse and highly practical arrangement. After reading this book you will probably be asking yourself, why did it cease to be normal practice?

There are of course answers to this – but not ones that we should continue to find compelling. In the industrial age, much work was noisy, dangerous or toxic, and best not carried out at home. The collectivist mentality and the quest for economies of scale meant that the factory or office became the norm instead. Those days have passed, and workhomes are returning – but policy remains stuck in the last century.

Increasingly, work can be done from anywhere – including the home. There’s been a pronounced rise in the numbers who work from home, in particular the self-employed, start-ups and microbusinesses. This is even though the great majority of homes are not designed to be suitable workplaces, and local facilities to support businesses are often scarce.

Holliss puts regulatory regimes under the spotlight, and speaks of government bodies that

“generate rigid webs of rules that determine the sort of buildings that can be built where, and how they can be inhabited. Barely acknowledging the existence of home-based workers or the buildings they inhabit, these regulatory frameworks are at best unsupportive and at worst punitive to the sector, despite its growth and modernity”.

This often forces legitimate businesses to operate under the radar or in the grey areas of regaltion that is not fit-for-purpose.

One notable exception to this is the way the planning system in Japan is supportive of home-based enterprise. “Planning policy,” the author notes, “permits 49% employment use, or 50 square metres (whichever is smaller) in any dwelling”. This should at least be the starting point for a modern approach to the workhome.

Perhaps we should go further. Planning regulations at the moment in most developed countries and many emerging economies start from the point of view that you need to have a good reason for working at home, for breaching the ‘mono-functional’ use allocation of a residence.

We need to abandon this negative bureaucratic approach and start from the other end. Planning authorities should be required to come up with compelling reasons why work in particular instances shouldn’t be carried out at home. There should be a default position that mixing working and living in the same building is normal, unless it’s causing an identifiable and material  problem.

Beyond Live/Work has dozens of case study examples and illustrations of the wide range of workhome styles and the occupations of the people who live in them. It’s a thought-provoking treasure trove of information and ideas, which is also supplemented by a website full of resources including a ‘pattern book’ of work-home design. I recommend it highly. 


19th century studio houses for gentleman
artists in London

May 2015


A thoroughly researched and pioneering work

Beyond Live/Work - The architecture of home-based work by Frances Holliss is a timely and relevant study of the phenomenon of home-based work.

There's a guest article by Frances on Flexibility outlining her study and its contemporary importance.

Flexibility verdict:  A must-read for all those involved in housing development, housing policy, planning and economic development.

Buy Beyond Live/Work

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



"No new homes should be built before
everyone responsible – politicians,
civil servants, local planning authorities, developers, architects, planners,
social housing providers and infrastructure providers – has read this book and
taken on board its significance".




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