Flexible homes: Interior designer shares tips for making the most of your space in a post-pandemic world

From converting nooks to repurposing that spare bedroom, Nancy J Ruddy reveals how to create the perfect flex space

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With people spending more time at home for work and personal activities as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, designers and homeowners have been looking for smart and effective ways to reimagine home environments to adapt to new lifestyles and the next chapter of work-life balance.

A variety of design strategies for creating a sense of well-being in our physical and emotional lives will continue to remain relevant in a post-pandemic world. I believe that the definition of the “work week” will forever be changed.

Even when we all get back to a more normalised mode, working from home will remain on the schedule for many.

Flex spaces

A key element in successful design – and given that homes are now multifunctional centres for work, schooling and home life – is flexibility for changing needs. Designing areas to suit more than one purpose, or what is referred to as “flex spaces”, gives people the option of expanding the functionality of their homes and allows for different uses throughout the day and in the evening.

Demarcate your living room for work and leisure activities. Photo: CetraRuddy

A flex space that is thoughtfully planned can evolve from a media room, to a nursery and then to a remote school or office. Homes designed with flexible workspaces, such as studies or dens that double as guest rooms, or kitchens that feature nooks outfitted with work desks, have been catapulted into the spotlight, and the value of a flex home office has become a necessity for people to maintain full-time focus.

Simultaneously, while maximising space and functionality is essential, it does not need to take up added square footage; this is particularly critical in small homes and dense urban environments, where every square foot is valuable.

Choosing the right spot

The first step in creating a comfortable workspace is identifying a good location. I have carved spaces for clients out of pantries, niches along a hallway, deep window openings, linen closets, nooks in a bedroom, and via repossessed attics and basements.

Fitting your workspace with a desk, an ergonomic chair that allows movement and promotes good posture, healthy and photogenic lighting, and shelves and storage that enable you to “shut down” at the end of the day are all important elements. This idea of shutting down can also be achieved spatially through small doors or panels that help separate work from leisure.

If your home layout permits, another option might be to convert a small alcove or portion of a room into a child’s study area, office or home library, and enclosing the space with glass doors to maximise visual and acoustical privacy while letting in as much natural light as possible. Implementing the design with natural materials in neutral tones and textures creates a sense of calm, which promotes wellness, as does the use of natural wood, textiles and stone, and plants.

Neutral tones and textures create a sense of calm. Photo: Scott Francis

Light up the way

Access to light and the proper use of artificial light can physically improve a person’s energy, disposition and health. This extends to creating workspaces at home – spaces that are close to natural light are preferred.

If you can create a remote work or learning space that provides even a small glimpse to the outdoors, where you can see the changing weather and moving forms, and hear the sounds of people or nature, the senses are kept active and the brain energised. A lower level of ambient light with a stronger lower task light reduces eye strain. The use of circadian lighting systems that vary throughout the day to reflect the body’s natural rhythm also creates vitality.

While there are many design strategies that can be used to promote wellness, I find that highlighting the opportunities to connect to the outdoors while at home, and maximising access to daylight and fresh air in our living spaces, can be some of the most effective, especially as many people have been spending much more time indoors over the past year.

Bring the outdoors in

Set up a comfy chair by a window with great lighting. Photo: 200 East 59th Street

One strategy to promote connectivity to nature is through “inside-out living” by incorporating real, accessible outdoor space – even in urban settings – in the form of balconies, terraces or loggias.

Biophilic design, which incorporates the scientific knowledge that mere visual access to nature reduces stress is a principle that has been used from the ancient Gardens of Babylon to the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. Depending on the scale, these private or shared outdoor spaces can even be used for recreation or remote working.

Surround yourself with plants in keeping with the philosophy of biophilia. Photo: CetraRuddy 

Another strategy to bring the outdoors in is to design spaces with large corner windows, skylights or floor-to-ceiling glass. Combining this increased window space with multiple operable panes allows for increased cross-ventilation, reducing the need for air conditioning while promoting natural airflow.

While the pandemic has made it a short-term priority to incorporate designs and features that maximise flexibility and wellness in the home, these are likely to remain desirable attributes long into the future. It is our role as designers and homeowners to create inspiring spaces that promote well-being and enliven the spirit.

Nancy J Ruddy is the co-founding principal and executive director of interior design at architecture, interiors and planning firm CetraRuddy, where she leads research and design for innovative residential, cultural, and workplace projects