State of the Art

Work how you want, when you want, and where you want. Here's how four entrepreneurs built the offices of their dreams

Pete Nelson: A room with a view
Great home offices grow out of the same kind of foresight that great entrepreneurial companies do. They begin with people who can identify their own needs both as workers and as individuals. They develop with conscientious planning. And they flourish when their designers know how to adapt available resources to their exact specifications--investigations that may not end until an entirely unexpected solution has been invented. Great home offices, like great small companies, succeed because of fearless tinkering and an eye toward the future.

These days, more and more businesspeople are setting up shop at home. Some are telecommuters, while others have gone the route of moonlighting or full-time self-employment. Many have recognized that the kitchen table isn't always the best place to open a briefcase or a laptop and have rearranged the corners of their bedrooms, attics, and basements to make space for both routine and after-hours operations. According to a 1997 study conducted by the Emerging Technologies Research Group of FIND/SVP, 52 million Americans currently work at home in some capacity, and more than 11 million telecommute from a home office at least one day per month. It's a trend that shows no signs of abating.

The three home offices profiled here are triumphs of both business function and personal expression. They are as varied as the entrepreneurs who use them. These are offices that are a pleasure to come home to.

Bill Gates isn't the only maverick who's built a dream house outside Seattle. Pete Nelson has one with breathtaking views. It is shingled in cedar and radiant with windows. It is easy to get to, and a marvelous retreat.

It is Pete Nelson's home office. And it floats 10 feet up in a stand of 70-year-old Douglas firs.

Pete Nelson, a carpenter and general contractor, has been running his $600,000 P.J. Playhouse Inc. out of this space since 1995. The five-year-old company designs and constructs singlefamily homes in "Northwest shingle style," an idiosyncratic architectural blend of New England shingle style, Greek Revival, and Northwest contemporary elements. But even closer to Nelson's heart--and the basis for his growing fame--is his presidency of the World Treehouse Association. Nelson and his wife, Judy, are the fountainhead of a surprising revival in these high-wired days: grown men and women who dream about acting the part of the Swiss Family Robinson, do-it-yourselfers hammering together planks and beams. Together they run the World Treehouse Association's commercial arm, Nelson's Treehouse Supply, a seven-month-old outfit that offers design-consulting and building services for tree houses being constructed as far away as Japan, and that last year organized the association's first international conference. Judy manages the association's Web site, with the help of a friend, carpenter Jake Jacob, and is in the process of developing tree-house-related gift items such as T-shirts, postcards, and calendars to sell through Nelson's Treehouse Supply. The company also distributes Pete's two books, the first of which has been a surprising best-seller, with more than 70,000 copies in print.

When Nelson published his first book, Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on a Limb, in 1994, he didn't have a tree house to call his own--a fact he confesses in his 1997 sequel, Home Tree Home: Principles of Treehouse Construction and Other Tall Tales. After all, his kids were toddlers, and Judy wasn't enthusiastic about living that far off the ground. But there was a more compelling reason: the right trees just had not come along. Sure, Nelson had built a tree house in Colorado Springs, Colo., when he and Judy were college students, but once they moved to Seattle, the only appropriate trees were in the park next door. He had to wait until they found the five-acre setting that they currently inhabit in the modest suburb of Fall City, about a half-hour ride from Seattle. They had enough money to buy the land but not enough for a house, so they moved into a mobile home. And Pete's office went into the air. It works beautifully as an office, he says, and at the same time is a marketing tool for his consulting business: he uses it as a prototype to show to prospective clients.

Nelson's insulated 15-by-15-foot cabin in the sky is an appealing shingle style with dark green trim. Firs standing 125 to 175 feet anchor each corner. A stairway with rope banisters delivers visitors to the front door. "Before I built my office, I was a purist and I would have insisted on a ladder, maybe even a rope ladder," Nelson says. "But ladders are really for kids' tree houses. The stair system has many benefits--especially when you're marching 17-inch computer monitors and other equipment up and down. This way, it's not a hassle to bring up a briefcase every day."

Inside, the office is surprisingly spacious, with enough room for two small desks (one for his custom-built PC and the other outfitted as a drafting table), a file cabinet, a fax machine, a printer, and a reading chair. He has three phone jacks in the tree house but relies on his PCS Sprint digital mobile phone and uses the jacks for the computer's internal modem. There is room for a queen-size air mattress, which is pulled out when guests come to stay. "Everyone wants to stay here when they come, and I want to show it off, but you also need to get some work done," he complains with a smile.

When he sits at his computer desk during the day, running Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to keep track of project budgets and his profit-and-loss statements, using Intuit's QuickBooks to manage his accounting, answering E-mail, or surfing the Internet for ideas that Judy can adapt to the association's Web site, Nelson is face-to-beak with woodpeckers and wrens on the other side of the glass window. In the evening, after his 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old twin sons have gone to sleep, he often crosses the yard and goes back to the tree house for some uninterrupted design work, sitting at his drafting table on a kneeling chair under the glow of green-shaded shop lights. Breaktime gives him a chance for contemplation on the tree house's tiny green-railed porch.

Nelson and his coauthor, Gerry Hadden, wrote Home Tree Home on Nelson's PC in this tree-house office. There have been a few drawbacks, he admits: times when the wind was blowing so hard they would lose power and have to continue writing on laptops at the kitchen table in the mobile home below or when field mice chewed up and shorted out the electrical system. One day, Nelson promises, he'll replace the standard 10-gauge house wire that snakes up one of the tree trunks with a properly sized underground cable that will come up into a subpanel with its own circuit breakers. That should take care of the problems.

Tree houses are cheap--the Nelsons' cost about $7,000 in mostly recycled materials (remilled fir, hemlock, and cedar). They're convenient, conducive to concentration, and fun. So why haven't more people built their home offices in them? "In most places you can't get a permit for a tree house, so you have to be able to tolerate being an outlaw," Nelson explains. Conventional houses in Seattle are built to withstand 80-mph winds, and because it's difficult to establish similar standards for tree houses, counties and municipalities fear liability suits. Yet having a home office in a tree is a lot less risky than living there full-time. In a really bad storm, Nelson can always come back down to Earth.

Nelson says he learns new things about tree-house construction with every project he undertakes--including how best to customize his lofty structures for home-office use. His neighbor John Rouches had been part of the construction crew that built one of the tree houses described in Nelson's first book, and now the two carpenters are crafting a tree-house office for Rouches's financial-planning and investment consultancy, Wings Over Water Inc. The tree house, with its wraparound deck, will stand among 30-year-old cedars and have more than 175 square feet of interior space. Plans call for installation of cable TV, in case Rouches decides to run his communications over cable lines, and a 50-amp electrical service to run his two electric heaters and his office equipment--a 233 MHz Dell PC, a printer, a fax machine, and a personal copier. "When I was working in Seattle in a downtown office, I did all I could to get outside," Rouches says. "Now, since I answer to no one but myself, I need to stay motivated. Looking out at the pasture and the trees beyond gives me a sense of freedom."

This month Pete Nelson will be heading off to Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, in Gulfport, Miss., to build three tree houses as the first stage of a planned tree-house village, a memorial for a local girl who was killed in an automobile accident. Two of the tree houses are being designed by Mississippi architects who have been faxing their designs to Nelson; the third will be a Nelson original. Acting as both the structural consultant and the chief site architect, Nelson will strap on his tool belt and direct the efforts of a group of Navy Seabees and civilians who are volunteering their labor for a five-day building marathon.

"Originally, I thought what was important about a tree house was its architecture," Nelson says, "but I've come to realize that it's about trees, which means that you want as much light and as many windows as you can have. A tree is a living being. It gives off an energy you can feel."

Susanna & Will: Transition House
Anyone who has ever built a new home knows that a construction site can be an arena for the careful--and serendipitous--crafting of new identities. When Susanna Opper and Will Ryan decided to create a home-office suite in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts to accommodate their two established businesses and a new start-up, they knew that they had a single chance to do it right. Three zones--the private area, the business offices, and the transitional place where the house's entryway opens into a great room suitable for either business meetings or personal entertaining--would demonstrate to their friends and clients alike how life and work can be merged and enhance each other. It was, Opper muses now, "an expensive metaphor."

Opper has spent the past 15 years consulting to industry groups about groupware and networked computing systems in her role as principal of Susanna Opper & Associates. Her husband served as a corporate-sales and IS executive at IBM, CBS, and American Express before founding his sole proprietorship, Systems Sales Support Co., where he coaches sales teams on how to use technology to cover their territories more effectively and improve customer service. In addition to operating "his" and "hers" businesses, the couple is embarking on a shared venture called the Shawenon Center. They hope to work with small companies--or small teams from larger ones--for two- to four-day off-site meetings. The centerpiece of the retreats will be computer-mediated sessions in which state-of-the-art meetingware will facilitate and support brainstorming about strategic business issues, new product directions, and the allocation of resources.

All rooms in the two-story open-plan house, except the bedrooms and baths, are linked together by Windows NT, which runs on a local area network. There is a LAN outlet behind the faux Colonial desk in the kitchen, another in a custom-made recessed box under the conference-room table, and one in each of their private offices. Because the neighborhood is still wired with copper phone lines, the couple has contained the LAN's wires in a conduit implanted in the floor so that "when new technology comes in, we won't have to pull the walls apart to upgrade," says Ryan. The same kind of foresight went into planning the electrical system: they wired in excess capacity in case they ever want to install, say, a generator. "It's frightening to have to specify all the rough wiring before you know what the house looks like," Opper admits.

At the top of an elegant staircase rising from the main entranceway, a glass door opens into their home-office suite: a 20-by-16-foot conference room flanked by a long counter filled with computer equipment on one side and the entrances to the couple's matching 10-by-10-foot private offices on the other. The heart of the house LAN is located in this room--it's a Compaq server running Lotus Notes groupware and its Web version, Lotus Domino. A seven-year-old "roll your own" 90 MHz Pentium PC the two had custom-built from components runs their accounting and graphics packages. Copies can be printed out on a five-year-old NEC Silentwriter printer or the venerable Canon copier--the first office machine Opper ever bought when she hung up her shingle as a consultant in 1983.

The couple's private offices command the best views of the meadows, woods, and small private pond on the property. In fact, Ryan keeps binoculars close at hand so that he can watch the deer and other wildlife below his windows when he wants a break from developing curricula, making telephone calls, or scanning his E-mail. Though the offices are identical in shape and size, each occupant has arranged the space according to his or her own taste. Ryan has a stuffed recliner and a television as well as a window-spanning Formica counter and a 133 MHz Pentium laptop. He estimates that he spends 75% of his time on the road these days, but the laptop, loaded with Lotus Notes, keeps him linked to his clients. "I'm a recovering mainframe man; I used to think PCs were toys," he says. "Susanna got me into groupware." He teaches his courses at his clients' sites and then monitors the clients' use of the Lotus Notes system on a daily basis, usually for 30 days afterwards. He can replicate their data over the phone line, analyze trends in their database use, and then post comments to a public-discussion database or send personal E-mails to a sales rep for individual coaching. "I can be sitting in my bathrobe and slippers delivering high-quality service--and no one is charged for travel time," he says.

To design her office, Opper turned to feng shui principles--the classic Chinese art of positioning physical environments (homes, burial sites, and gardens) according to auspicious spatial arrangements. One feng shui notion argues that a person working behind a desk should always face the door, to avoid being startled or overseen. So Opper positioned her desk in an "L," which gives her the flexibility to face either the window or the doorway separating her private office from the conference room.

Early on, Opper and Ryan considered installing a sliding door between their offices. Instead, they put their phone lines on an intercom. The same intercom is connected to the doorbell, so if they are in the middle of a working session, they can invite latecomers upstairs without breaking their stride.

Opper and Ryan have tried to think of everything. The only "shadows in paradise," they say, are things not amenable to individual solutions--like the telecommunications infrastructure in Berkshire country. The couple live too far away (eight miles) from Bell Atlantic's central office to get ISDN lines, and private T-1 lines, they feel, are too expensive. There is no cell-phone tower nearby, and the hills cut off most signals. Ryan believes that the solution will ultimately consist of going to satellite, since satellite-based direct TV signals are already available locally.

For now, the best they can do to address their entrepreneurial needs is to join forces with their neighbors. To that end, Opper has joined the board of directors of Community Development Corp. of South Berkshires Inc., which has a representative on the Telecommunications Task Force of the Berkshire regional-planning commission. "One strategy is to build a consortium of interested business parties [to close the gap in the infrastructure]," says Opper. "I'm confident that this is a problem we can solve."

Fred Fay: Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
When Frederick A. Fay was 16 years old, he broke his neck in a trapeze accident.

Sent to a rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Ga., for six months of intensive physical therapy and the practical lessons that would prepare him for his new life as a quadriplegic, Fay found himself in a setting whose tone had been set by a famous polio patient, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt had bought the property, located on the outskirts of Atlanta, in the 1920s, when it comprised just an inn with hydrotherapy equipment. He'd added amenities such as a nine-hole golf course that was completely accessible to people in wheelchairs.

Fay was surprised--and outraged--when he returned home to Washington, D.C., to find that "every single curb was like a Berlin Wall telling me that I was not welcome to travel farther than a block." Lobbying to get access for the disabled immediately became his life's work; achieving it has become his life's triumph. Fred Fay's disability-rights rÉsumÉ since the 1960s is long and varied. It includes work that led to Medicaid's reimbursement of personal-care assistants and federal funding for community-based independent living. This past fall, he received the Prince Charitable Trusts' prestigious Henry B. Betts Award, which carries an unrestricted $50,000 cash prize, for his advocacy efforts. These days, he works full-time moderating the mailing list Justice for All E-mail Network, which he helped form in January 1995, right after the congressional elections. Relying primarily on the labor of volunteers, Justice for All works with state and national organizations that advance the rights of people with disabilities to get word from Washington, D.C., to the grass roots.

Yet in retrospect, the challenges of organizing and fighting for access to physical space were just a warm-up for the challenges he has taken on in the 1990s. Fred Fay wants all disabled men, women, and children to have complete, unfettered access to cyberspace. Whether they are blind or deaf. Whether they live independently or in an institution. Whether they started using modems 30 years ago--as Fay did, when he managed a small computer-programming information center in IBM's Federal Systems Division--or have never touched a computer before.

Fay's astonishing home office provides proof that the greatest disabilities most of us suffer are a lack of ingenuity and a failure of imagination. When a spinal-cord cyst progressed up his neck to his brain stem 18 years ago, Fay went from sitting upright in a wheelchair to lying flat on his back full-time. He designed and then moved into a contraption he calls a "wheelbed," which is controlled by a motorized joystick. Glancing in a well-positioned rear- and side-view mirror, he rolls down the halls of the simple ranch house in Concord, Mass., that he shares with his life partner, Trish Irons, and crosses a widened threshold. Once inside his office, he rolls the wheelbed into a three-sided work space made of wood and counterbalanced industrial-metal shelving. It is as intricately laid out as the interior of a space capsule.

Everything in this compact environment is made to the measure of the man. An array of electronics--fax machine, printer, VCR, cable converter, classy six-speaker stereo, shortwave radio--along with more mundane objects, such as his toothbrush and drinking water in plastic milk jugs, are placed within the span of Fay's arms, much of it on an oversize lazy Susan. Plexiglas shelves over his head slide out so that he can read books through their transparent surface. Two hefty computer monitors, their screens facing downward, float a comfortable 20 inches from his eyes. The CPU boxes themselves rest unobtrusively on the floor, at the base of the shelves.

The slower PC--a Gateway 486DX 100--is dedicated to Fay's environmental controls, including the thermostat and the air conditioner, as well as incoming faxes because, as he explains, when a fax comes in on the modem, it briefly ties up the computer screen. His second system, a 133 MHz Pentium PC built to his specifications, is used for word processing, E-mail correspondence, surfing the Internet, and watching CNN or C-Span via a WinCast video card. An A/B data switch allows him to add a camera and a microphone to the system so that he can participate in videoconferences with colleagues and friends. When Fay won the Betts Award and he couldn't travel to the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C., for the ceremony, Bell Atlantic donated three high-speed ISDN lines so that he could address the crowd in real time, he says, and "not look and sound like a Charlie Chaplin movie played in slow motion."

Fay does have some limited arm and hand motion. He types with his thumbs and can move his wrists, but he can't grip things with his fingers, so he puts his keyboard squarely on his chest and uses a trackball instead of a mouse. He was a beta tester for an early version of some voice-activated dictation software, but he didn't make much use of it, because It. Made. You. Talk. Like. This. However, in December he bought himself a new dictation package as a Christmas present--NaturallySpeaking, Preferred Edition, from Dragon Systems--excited by reports of its fluidity and its ability to flip from one application to another. He has rigged up a shaving mirror on a universal joint so that he can look visitors in the eye, an arrangement that he laughingly refers to as "my version of OmniVision."

"I was in a hospital bed for a few years in the early 1980s while the cyst progressed," he explains. "And since I was stuck in one place, I wanted to have everything I use throughout the day within five or six feet of me. I started out with a pair of TV tray tables and rapidly ran out of space. Then I remembered that as a kid we had a lazy Susan in the middle of the dining-room table." He designed his own lazy Susan--a two-tiered device with a diameter of four feet that anchors his home office--"pretty much in my head," he says, and then used "some cheap Apple II CAD/CAM software and sketched what I had in mind." Next, he opened the telephone book and sent out requests for construction proposals to local carpenters. "I went with the person who seemed to best understand what I was trying to achieve." The cost? About $300.

Most, if not all, of Fay's adaptations are made of inexpensive components. RadioShack and Sears, for example, sell the simple BSR X-10 technology that allows people to hook their appliances and environmental controls to a computer and a central remote control. For Fay, this technology means that he can open the sunroom curtains or turn on equipment without asking for help.

Perhaps the most valuable thing in terms of his mobility and communication, however, is a two-line portable headset telephone. "It allows me to have both hands free to answer the phone, and I can conference two lines," says Fay. "The only problem is that the battery keeps running down, so I had to buy two. I use them on alternate days, so I can use one while the other is recharging.

"It's always easier to get manufacturers and policymakers to make things appropriate for and accessible to disabled people if what we're advocating has a mainstream application," he continues. "Curb cuts benefit not only people in wheelchairs but a woman pushing a delivery cart, a man pushing a baby carriage, or kids on bicycles or skateboards. There are 54 million Americans who are disabled in some way, and that's a huge potential market for developers." Some high-tech manufacturers have already realized the possibilities--for instance, marketing voice-activated software to people with repetitive-strain injuries or those who have never learned to type. Some of Fay's simplest fixes, like putting his remote-control unit on a C-hook so he can leave it hanging in full view, would be a boon to anyone who has a habit of losing small electronics on a cluttered desk or among the furniture cushions. Fay is enthusiastic about expanding the use of hands-free voice-input systems to, say, surgeons who need to dictate notes while operating or quality inspectors who handle goods on factory assembly lines. He dreams of all patients in hospitals or nursing homes having Internet access from their beds and babies in cribs learning to activate sensors to control their environments before they learn to speak.

"Fred is constantly pioneering technology for the rest of the disability community," says his friend Judy Brewer, who directs the Web Accessibility Initiative at the International Program Office of the World Wide Web Consortium, in Cambridge, Mass. "He's the incomparable tinkerer. He assumes no barriers in how innovative he can be in designing the technology in his environment. Specialized adaptive technology that makes it possible for disabled people to participate in all spheres of life is important, but we have to look at technology as a whole. Mainstream technology design that's based on an idealized norm of an able-bodied person doesn't capture the entire user market. With the technology sector of our economy so competitive, universal design is in everyone's interest."