A place to live: a place to work

Teleworking from home: the implications for planning and house design

[This article was published in 1995]


An increasing number of people are working from home, either on a full or part time basis, either as employees or as self-employed people. A survey carried out in 1992 for the Employment Department found that 1 in 10 employers use some form of home-based worker, 1 in 20 employs at least one person who could be described as a teleworker and a further 8.5% of employers have actively considered introducing teleworking [Huws, 1993]. By 2001, there will be over 10 million teleworkers, according to the Henley Centre for Forecasting [BT, 1993]. It has been estimated that the total number of homeworkers in the UK is now between 1.3 and 2 million, of whom just over half a million are full-time teleworkers [Smythe, 1994]. This is probably an under-estimation because a lot more people work at home than appear in the statistics.

The 1991 Census suggests that about 5% of the working population work mainly at home [Felstead and Jewson, 1995]. This represents a considerable increase over the 1981 Census results. The highest proportion of homeworkers are employers, managers and those in professional occupations. A report commissioned by Reed Personnel Services found that nearly 14% of large employers now use teleworkers [Reed, 1995]. These increases are probably due to the greater availability of computers, faxes and telecommunications and to the trend towards flexible working practices, such as temporary and fixed term contracts, part-time working and out-sourcing of technical skills.

What does this mean for the house building industry?

It is clear that an increasing number of people are living and working in the same place. This trend poses a number of implications for architects, those who supply homes and town planners. Since the full employment of the 1960s, when a relatively small number of people lived and worked in the same building, the home has been regarded as a place of escape from the demands and pressures of work. The 1980s and 90s have seen a considerable increase in home ownership, a trend away from the rented sector to house buying or some form of social housing. There has been a steady increase in the number of households having a telephone and, more recently, in those having a personal computer at home.

People who spend all or most of their working lives either at home or being based at home are confronted with a range of problems that stem from the fact that society has not adapted to this trend. Companies that insure household contents frequently refuse to cover computers used for business purposes. Local authorities can be confused about how they assess the need for planning permission in cases where small businesses are being from homes in mainly residential areas where offices or workshops would not normally be allowed. The Inland Revenue, it is said, will impose taxes on people who take their computers home from their offices to do work (on the assumption that they could also be used for domestic or leisure purposes).

What kind of homes are needed?

Where house building companies are designing new homes, particularly for those in the executive sector of the new build market, the requirements of working at home are not widely taken into account. Some higher priced houses now include a room that is intended to be used as a study. A few houses have been given garages that could be converted into offices or workshops. Quite a few garages have been converted even though not designed with such a move in mind. A number of design features could be worked on with a view to meeting the requirements of home workers, as for example, the placement of telephone sockets in the bedrooms. Home workers often use bedrooms as offices or work areas. Ground floor rooms that could be used for home working are as yet not widespread and tend to be confined to higher value homes.

Not all home workers are professionals sitting behind computers; some are craft workers, catering for the increasing demand for the products of country crafts, fine art, and decorative object d’art. Some home workers are piece workers, fabricating small items on a very labour intensive basis. These considerations relate both to new build and to conversion designs. Housing Associations converting or refurbishing properties might also take note of the trend towards home working by providing fittings that will meet some of the needs of home workers. Some houses could be designed with purpose built workshops in outbuildings. Some housing estates could be provided with buildings that could serve as neighbourhood offices or light industrial use, such as car repair centres or for craft working. Can certain rooms be designed so that they could be used either for bedrooms or offices, as dining rooms or as studies? Can certain exterior walls be designed so that out buildings or temporary structures can be added to them, for use as workshops?

What are the planning implications for working at home?

Apart from a few exceptions, local authorities have not begun to address the planning issues involved in the trend towards home working. Few have yet identified that the trend exists or, if they have, have responded to it. An exception is Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, which has adopted a Supplementary Planning Guidance Note on Business Uses in Residential Areas. Having recognised that working patterns are changing and that there are increasing numbers of people employed either full or part time at home, the Note sets out to establish criteria for deciding whether a business use from home requires planning permission. It tackles the question of whether or not planning permission is required for working at home. Use of any part of a house or flat would normally constitute a ‘material change of use’ that required planning permission. However, where someone is working from home in a small scale way, the grant of planning permission is not normally required. The criteria involved include:

  • the main use of the property must remain residential;

  • there must be no alteration to the exterior of the property;

  • no sign or advertisement must be displayed on the dwelling;

  • no person outside the household itself must be employed;

  • there must be no use of garage/sheds and ancillary residential storage in connection with the business;

  • there must be no nuisance to adjoining residents caused by noise, vibration, fumes/smell or unsociable hours if this has a noticeable effect on the privacy of neighbours.

The guidance note advises those thinking of working at home to discuss their proposals with their neighbours. In some cases the Council may impose a temporary permission in order monitor the effects of the business on neighbours. There are other planning issues that are more to do with structure plans than individual houses. Some of these issues are to do with the volume of commuter traffic from outlying areas into city centres. Traffic congestion is now endemic in our cities and towns. The more that local authorities can encourage people to work at home for two or more days in each week, the more commuting traffic can be abated. Clearly, only certain types of work are amenable to home working. Local authorities could play an active role in promoting ad hoc home working with employees and employers. There are good environmental reasons why they should do so.

The rise of the neighbourhood work place.

Not everyone wants to work at home. An alternative is the provision of neighbourhood offices: places that are equipped to offer people desks on demand, computers, telephones, faxes and photocopiers. Telecottages are an example of small business centres that have equipment, particularly computers, that can be hired by the hour. The advantages of these local work spaces is that they enable people to either to walk to them or to travel along different routes, rather than travel into the centre of town and out again. By encouraging flexible hours of use, traffic movements can be evened out. Secondly, such centres provide a broader range of equipment than most people would have at home, particularly if they work away from their offices on an ad hoc basis. Apart from centres catering for office workers, there are nursery units for people who are engaged in more physical work, such as crafts or small scale manufacturing, light engineering and so on. These can be located away from the areas that attract the greatest traffic flows.

For young people there are an increasing number of foyers, buildings that provide accommodation for youngsters to live in and space for work and training. Some tower blocks have been converted to use for single people and some provide common rooms for study or work. High rise flats, unsuitable for families, could well be adapted for mixed residential and occupational uses. Some of the office accommodation that has been over supplied could be adapted to this kind of mixed tenure of living and working. Again, it is likely that planning policy would need to be amended to facilitate this. Central Government might actually encourage the adaptation of surplus office buildings through modifications to Business Rates and Council Tax charges.


There really is no reason why the home and the work place need be so inexorably separated. The distancing of home and work is a recent phenomenon historically; our ancestors had little choice but to live and work in the same buildings until the industrial revolution brought whole sale changes to the size of factories and mills.

The availability of information and telecommunications technology now allows the home and the workplace to co-exist. This demands that we adapt our attitudes, our culture and our behaviour accordingly. A great deal of down-sizing is going on in firms and public bodies. There is less zeal for the construction of huge office buildings, for people being brought into city centres in their ten of thousands, for a 9 to 5 existence that is dependent on commuting long distances. More and more people are aspiring to self employment, leaning to live on and by their own resources. Competition is favouring the businesses that have lower overheads, than can achieve a high level of productivity without over burdensome overheads. Companies in the service sector are realising that they can reduce their costs by reducing the amount of office accommodation that they have to maintain. Some are dispensing with expensive fleets of company cars.

These trends are conferring an environmental advantage, a green dividend that many companies and local authorities would wish to secure. Our travel systems are straining to cope with the increasing demands made on them. Those who, for one or two days a week, do not have to get into their cars or wait for buses and trains, can increase their performance and out put. They can avoid some of the ills and illnesses resulting from commuting stress and sick building syndrome. Where more people are at home during the day, there is less burglary. Much can be done by housing developers and local authorities to encourage and enable home working. There are many reasons why they would want to do this.

This paper was written by Trevor Locke © Copyright reserved 1995


BT (1993) The indispensable guide to working from home published by BT 1993. BT (1995) Welcome to Network Services: your user guide.

Farrant, Sue (1995) A Beginner’s Guide to Teleworking, Thames Valley Enterprise Ltd, Newbury College, Oxford Road, Newbury, Berkshire.

Felstead, Alan and Jewson, Nick (1995) Working at home: estimates from the 1991 Census, Employment Gazette, March 1995, pp 95 – 98

Huws, Ursula, (1993) Teleworking in Britain A report to the Employment Department is available from the Research Management Branch, Employment Department.

Huws, Ursula (1995) A Manager’s guide to teleworking.

Murray, Bill (1995) Vital statistics: results of the telecottage survey, The Teleworker, Vol.2. No.2. Feb/Mch 1995 pp 14 – 16

Reed (1995) Shape of work to come: a major research survey and report on changing patterns of work in UK organisations, by Reed Personnel Services and the Home Office Partnership.

Smythe, Kate (1994) Teleworking, in Local Work, Sept/Oct 1994, No.55, pp 1 – 11

(published on this blog 23rd October 2015.)