Jeff Harting, president of FGH Architects, had just finished a spectacular gut rehab of a Wilmette home overlooking the lake. The project was undertaken for a family with school-age children, and one hurdle was creating a kids' homework area as impressive as the house itself.
Harting's Northbrook-based company designed a second-floor children's space with desks and computers on one side of the room, and on the other an art project area with a counter for paints and crafts, and a sink to wash brushes.
"We have it in the center of the house, with pocket French doors that can be closed off," he explained. "We're conscious of not giving children complete privacy. That means parents can walk by and check on what they're working on, to make sure they're not on Web sites they're not supposed to be viewing."
More and more Chicago-area new-construction houses incorporate a dedicated homework zone. And as these spaces become more popular, architects and builders are boning up on their own lessons in how to more thoughtfully design them.
The trend is a natural reflection of our ever-growing reliance on computers and the Internet, said Paul Lankenau, architect at Geneva's Havlicek Builders, a custom home builder constructing homes in the western suburbs. "I've worked with Havlicek Builders for 20 years, and things have really changed over that time," he said. "From a simple built-in desk in the kitchen or a second-floor loft space, there now appears to be interest in a dedicated room or alcove, generally adjacent to the kitchen. What that allows is a separate area dedicated for computers or work surfaces, yet close enough that parents can monitor computer usage and homework activity."
It also means the jumble of computers, printers, fax machines, routers, wires, paper, folders and other office accoutrements can be closed off when needed, he said.
While most builders, developers and home buyers agree homework zones are terrific features of a new home, differences abound on where they should be located. As Lankenau mentions, many are sited right next to the kitchen. But also popular is upstairs space. Let's take a look at the merits of each:
Heart of the home. Among those who believe homework areas are best in or near kitchens is Wendy Andrews, co-principal of Chicago's CA Development, whose communities include Mayfair Crossing, Residences of Old Irving Park and Edgebrook Glen in Chicago.
At Mayfair Crossing and Residences of Old Irving, several models afford buyers the option of putting a workstation at the edge of the kitchen. "That's what we have in our home, and I love it," Andrews said. "Having it in the kitchen is ideal for the whole family. The kitchen is the heart of the home, and this is an ideal place whether it's the kids' homework, looking up references online, or checking recipes while cooking."
Elgin's West Point Gardens is another community with kitchen-based homework zones. The Middlebury single-family home design has a dedicated homework area in the kitchen, with a large desk that fits into the décor and features Internet connectivity, said West Point Builders president Patrick Curran. "We put it [in the kitchen] because from my own experience with five children, they tend to use the computer an awful lot. And we wanted to monitor their computer use."
At the Des Plaines townhomes being built by Lexington Homes, the homework area is in a medium-size den adjacent to the kitchen and dining room, said Jeff Benach, the builder's executive vice president of sales and marketing.
Upstairs. Other experts believe placing homework areas in second-floor settings is more appropriate, although some admit such areas are not overseen as easily by parents. At Sunset Ridge Estates in Richmond, Spring Grove-based KLM Builders features a second-floor family room adjacent to the bedrooms that can be used as a homework zone, said president Kim Meier. "The way we're furnishing them is that each child has a desk in that room," he said. "It's a big space perfect for their homework projects, and they are wired with CAD 5 wiring."
Placing the homework nook on the second floor was a response to feedback from buyers who had purchased KLM homes in the past, Meier said.
These owners reported two things they missed in their homes were a second-floor laundry and an upper-level family room that could double as a homework room, keeping the homework clutter tucked far away from the living and dining rooms and kitchen, he added.
The second floor is also the preferred homework center of agent Kathy Dames of ReMax Realty of Joliet.
"You've seen the second stories with a gabled roof, where there's an alcove below the steep roofline, usually within a bedroom?" she asks. "These are excellent places for a small work area that's semi-private."
Design tips When designing a homework zone, or having one designed for you, study up on the trend and keep in mind the following considerations: Dedicated lines and outlets. Although many people have wireless equipment in their homes, it's wise to maintain a dedicated computer line for reliability and speed, said Paul Lankenau of Havlicek Builders. "And don't forget all the outlets you need for the equipment," he added. "A rule of thumb when you have a counter is an outlet about every four feet." Windows. Preferences vary on whether or not to locate homework areas near windows, but the observation of Jeff Harting of FGH Architects is worth noting. "You don't want to feel you're in a closet," he said. "You want to have a view out, whether the window is across a hallway and brings light in through pocket doors, or whether it's in the space itself." Concealing office equipment. Slide-out drawers for printers, keyboards and other devices can help contribute to more orderly homework zones. "They're usually in a vented cabinet below the countertops," Harting said. "When you have guests over you don't have to feel like you have to cordon that area off." Lighting and finishes. Homework zones should offer the same welcoming feel as the rest of the home, to help ensure they're enthusiastically used. "These rooms are typically finished with as nice a level of cabinetry, lighting and finishes as any other room in the house," Harting said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun