Rethinking Housing

Though the housing crisis is presented as a key priority, politicians, planners, architects and housing specialists continue to ignore the potential of different ways of organising our living arrangements, and particularly work-live homes and spaces. Here Frances Holliss, whose major research project The Work Home, is a comprehensive investigation of its past, present and future, outlines the current state of work-home related research, and illustrates the principle with some inspiring examples from San Francesco, Tokyo and Holland.

This paper is part of Fourth Door Research's guest research section

A major debate is taking place about the lack of low-cost housing in the UK, but there is something wrong with its constrained parameters. The much bigger - and potentially more important - question of what housing actually 'is' or should be, in the twenty-first century, is rarely asked. The current ideological concept of housing is that our homes places are where we cook, eat, bathe, sleep, bring up our children and watch TV. But a quiet revolution is taking place in how we live our lives, as a result of new technologies, more women in employment than ever before, corporate devolution of risk and structural unemployment, and this is no longer true for a substantial proportion of the population, globally. For these people, home is also workplace - this represents a challenge to current concepts of housing.

One in seven of the UK working population works mainly from home, and millions more part-time. This more than doubled between 2000 and 2013 (1) and continues to grow steadily. While homeworking is generally dismissed as of marginal importance to society, new research (2) finds that a staggering 95% of UK businesses employ less than 10 people - and that most of these are, or have been at some point, run from their owner’s home. When considered as a sector, these micro-businesses contribute a third of all employment and a fifth of turnover to the UK economy.

This trend is reflected globally. In Australia 58% of businesses are home-based; in New Zealand the figure is 66%. In the USA, it is reported that 53% of small businesses start-up from home and 70% succeed. $427bn annually is generated by ‘homepreneurs’, 35% of whom generate revenue above $115,000 annually and 8% generate more than $500,000 revenue annually.(3)

Proportion of the self-employed 50-64-year old who usually work from home, 2016, by gender
and country (Source: Policy Brief for home-based Business, OECD/ EU 2018 in press)

In addition to this economic impact, home-based work contributes to a more environmentally sustainable future.(4) By definition, it reduces commuting and therefore associated carbon emissions - there is evidence that this is the case even when ‘rebound’ effects, i.e. increases in travel that result from not commuting, are taken into account.(5) In addition, it increases the use of local services, stimulating the local economy and developing local social networks. At a macro level, it has the potential to intensify the use of overall building stock. The dominant practice of ‘going out to work’ results in buildings empty for half the time: housing during the day and workspace at night and weekends. Inhabiting buildings throughout the 24 hours, home-based workers therefore potentially reducing the overall size of the building stock and releasing buildings urgently needed for housing.

Despite the scale and importance of this working practice, we do not design for this working practice at either the urban or the building scale. This on-going design-blindness to home-based work has its origins in the early C20, when the ideas of two individuals and their associated movements contributed to a rigid separation of dwelling and workplace at both urban and building scales that continues to this day. Functional zoning was the main spatial strategy of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept. Separating dwelling from workplace at the urban scale, this idea - adopted and adapted worldwide - still underpins a great deal of planning policy globally. Sweated labour, the exploitation of unregulated and poorly paid, usually home-based, pieceworkers, was considered one of the scourges of the East End slum. Condemnation came from all sides. Trades unions, campaigning for a male family wage, argued that when women earned, often at home because of caring responsibilities, employers were let off paying men a living family wage.(6) They also objected to home-based work because its lack of regulation led to the exploitation of some of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.(7) Employers opposed home-based work because the increased degree of control they had over factory- or mill-based workforces resulted in greater profits.(8) The prevalent conservative idea that a woman’s place should be in the home, her role restricted to domesticity and motherhood, reinforced opposition to this working practice.(9) Even the social reformers of the time opposed it on account of the horrific physical conditions of the buildings that many of the poorest homeworkers inhabited.(10) Social reformers like Octavia Hill, responding to this widespread - albeit largely ideological - opposition to home-based work, ensured that the Model Housing built to replace the East End London slums was designed to prevent home-based work and managed through tenancy agreements that prohibited it. This practice remains widespread - most standard private and public-sector tenancy agreements in the UK prohibit this working practice.


It has not always been like this. There is a rich history (11) of buildings specifically designed to combine dwelling and workplace (‘workhomes’12) in both vernacular and architectural traditions. Many express the dual function architecturally: weavers’ and artists’ houses had fully-glazed double-height studios above domestic-scaled living accommodation, the combined work and home visible from the street, while school-keeper’s houses were often embedded in the school building, for example.

Cash's cottage factory, built in 1857 in Coventry, is a development of 48 terraced two-up two-down weavers' houses each with a fully glazed double-height top-floor weaving studio. Such buildings, apparently peculiar to Coventry, were a compromise between home-based and factory-based work. A single shaft from a common steam engine ran between individual weavers' attic workshops in a terrace of 'top-shops', as the Coventry weavers' houses were called, driving all the looms. This brought the advantages of the power loom to the home-based weavers, allowing them to compete with factory-based weavers while maintaining their autonomy and enabling all members of the family to be involved in the weaving processes, thus combining childcare and domestic work with their paid work.
Huge, barrel-vaulted windows dominate the street elevations of a terrace of eight highly visible studio-houses, St Paul's Studios, on the Talgarth Road in west London. Designed by Frederick Wheeler in 1890, these had large double-height first-floor studios, ground floor living accommodation and housekeeper's accommodation in the basement.
A school-keeper's dwelling was often embedded in nineteenth century UK Board Schools, the domestic-scale home abutting the much taller classrooms.

Others, like Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet’s 1932 Parisian Maison de Verre, which combined gynaecologist’s consulting rooms with a family home above, are more enigmatic and functionally neutral - neither ‘home’ nor ‘workplace’ legible from the façade.

While the stereotype of the home-based worker in the 1950s was the ethnic minority seamstress at her sewing machine, this has shifted to the young hipster working on a laptop at his kitchen table.

But a study of the lives and premises of 76 home-based workers from across the social spectrum in urban suburban and rural contexts in England (13), selected to maximise the range of occupations and building types inhabited, found that the reality is far more complex and interesting. Home is workplace for people in diverse occupations across the social spectrum, from hairdresser to furniture-maker, chef to mechanic, vicar to psychotherapist, call-centre worker to artist, writer to child-minder and accountant or musician to architect. As we do not generally design for this, these occupations do not fit well into most conventional housing. The upshot of this is that home-based workers inhabit inappropriate spaces, often resulting in inefficiency, frustration and stress. While most work in their homes, a significant minority - generally artists and blue-collar craft-workers such as furniture makers or mechanics - live at their workplaces, often in light industrial buildings. (14) Three degrees of spatial separation between the dwelling and workplace elements of the ‘workhome’ have been found to exist: none, some and total. Preference in terms of these different spatial approaches depends on a) the occupation b) the nature of the household, c) the amount of space available and d) the personality of the home-based worker. (15) One of the unexpected findings of the study is that most UK home-based workers operate covertly, either because they fear they are, or because they actually are breaking some regulation or other. This invisibility makes it hard to make policy for this sector or, ultimately, to design for them. This is particularly a problem in the UK where housing is designed primarily for profit and not for people. (16) And as a result new housing almost universally ignores the issue of home as workplace.

© Henry Grant Collection/Museum of


The UK can learn from other countries here, particularly those with a different attitude to governance and regulation in this sphere. Some US cities have successfully implemented a planning category for ‘live/work’ buildings: the Vulcan in Oakland, California – a living/working community of artists - is a result of such a policy. The six vast industrial buildings of a disused smelting works have been converted into 60 double- or triple-height collective studios inhabited by around 350 artists, circus performers and musicians. These are generally organised around an open plan workspace, with a collective mezzanine kitchen and box-like private sleeping spaces accessed by ladders; circus-oriented studios are mirrored and have trapezes and ropes strung from the ceiling.

An atmosphere of serious creative work and an open door policy supports numerous collaborations between different inhabitants. Studios are arranged around five small courtyards where people gather to take a break, socialise and work together. There is also a Thai restaurant and a bike shop on the site, open to the public.

Vulcan's Oakland live/work community inside and out

The Netherlands

A number of exemplary workhome projects have been built in the Netherlands in the last ten years. Veld van Klanken, or ‘Field of Sounds’, is part of the WIMBY! (Welcome In My Back Yard) Project, generated by Crimson Architectural Historians in 2001 to bring new life to Hoogvliet, a neglected suburb of Rotterdam. It is a musicians’ co-housing project, consisting of 38 two-storey houses arranged in five blocks around a roughly oval grassy hill. Many musicians are home-based because they have low incomes - they tend to share the problem of either disturbing or being disturbed by their neighbours. At Veld van Klanken this is solved by burying 30 music studios under the central grassy mound, the earth providing soundproofing.

Deep Underground – recording studios at Veld van Clanken, part of the WIMBY district, Hoogvliet, Rotterdam – Photos and plan - 24H Architecture

Eight further music studios are attached as ‘parasites’ to houses at the four entrances to scheme, for people who prefer this spatial arrangement.

The hill was intended as a space where children could play and musicians gather to socialise and collaborate. This has not been wholly successful, maybe because the housing association responsible for the development did not have a policy that residents had to be musicians and as a result approximately half are not. The scheme works well for musicians who live and work there, in 2017 these included ten drummers and a pop singer. For non-home-based workers, however, this is an ordinary housing scheme and they appropriate the expensively sound- and damp-proofed workspace that is allocated to each house as storage space, including for a motorbike – a reversal of the more usual tendency for an under-used garage to be used as home-based workspace.

Photo © 24H Architecture
Photo © 24H Architecture

Plan © MVRDV

Self-build is emerging as a successful strategy for building purpose-designed workhomes in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Nieuw Leyden is a development of 357 houses master-planned in twenty or so blocks of eighteen back-to-backs by MVRDV at Leiden; design for home-based work was not part of the original brief.

On each block, the architect and client for each house had to collaborate with their seventeen neighbours over the construction of the collective lower ground floor concrete garage, and the individual house structures. After that, each team had a free hand to design and build their house as they wished, within the limits of a design guide that determined the height, top floor set back and overall plot size for each house.

Plan © MVRDV
Home from work - GAAGA’s Nieuw Leydon workhome,
in Leyden, The Netherlands – Photos © GAAGA

A maybe unexpected consequence of each house being designed to the specific spatial requirements of each household is that eighty per cent include a small office, studio or workshop. The development, as a result, teems with home-based work, occupations including furniture restoration, photography, ceramics, art, architecture, furniture design and manufacture, textiles, and the renovation and sale of vintage lamps.

Award-winning architectural practice GAAGA’s Nieuw Leyden   workhome has a ground floor office with living space on two floors above. A wall around the front garden separates the office from the pedestrianized street, creating a more private atmosphere in the office.

A senior manager at Microsoft for whom home-based work is mandatory has her office on the second floor of her Nieuw Leyden home, while her furniture-designer-maker partner has his workshop on the lower ground floor. Neighbours gather to chat on the sofa he has designed, made and installed outside their workhome. A strong sense of community is apparent, in part because the houses face onto a pedestrianized street that creates a safe space for children to play and people to hang out. Only the east/west circulation in the development is vehicular, providing access to the collective garage under each block, where two car, and a number of bicycle, spaces are allocated per household.

Piazza Ceramique – Outside…
Photos © Jo Janssen Architects
...and in

Piazza Ceramique, designed by Jo Janssen Architects in 2007, is a good practice design for home-based business on a site zoned for ‘live/work’ (woon-werk woningen) in Maastricht.

In addition to standard apartments, the development includes 20 innovative ‘office apartments’, each of which has two entrances; one opens onto the primary spaces and the other onto an additional multifunctional space. The building has, by law, to be used for the dual function of dwelling and workplace, but individual inhabitants can choose how they allocate and inhabit space to meet the needs of their particular situation. In some cases the inhabitants use their larger space as the living space, with a considerably smaller office next door. Others use the larger space as their workspace and the smaller space as private living space. Architecturally, the scheme is functionally neutral - the functions carried out inside are not legible on the exterior and can change over time.

The scheme also includes seven three-storey workhomes, each of which also has two entrances, and nine separate working units. Current businesses operating in Piazza Ceramique include architecture, photography, graphic design, dentistry and debt collection.

Apartment with….


Japan’s social, political and economic history sets it apart in this field. The tradition of home-based work has been continuous there since feudal times. And, maybe as a consequence, important areas of Japanese policy and governance, blind to the ingrained separation of dwelling and workplace in the West, accommodate this working practice and facilitate the development of workhomes. Planning policy, for example, permits 49% employment use (or 50 square metres; whichever is smaller) in any dwelling, in even the strictest residential districts in Tokyo. It is common, as a result, for people to live at their workplace or work in their home, and purpose-designed buildings that combine dwelling and workplace are commonplace. Half the buildings designed by leading Japanese architects such as Koh Kitayama and Atelier Bow-Wow are workhomes of one sort or another; the same applies to many other architects.

Naka Architects’ 2014 scheme for ‘Apartments with a Restaurant’ in central Tokyo is designed around the idea of creating space for the ‘small economy’. Exploiting the fact that mixed-use buildings are axiomatic to the Japanese planning system (17), this development combines five live/work apartments, each with private sleeping and bathing space behind a sliding screen, with a small ground floor community restaurant and a collective basement office.

… restaurant – Photos and plan © Naka Architects

The three different functions are linked by a ‘roji’, or alleyway on three different levels that wraps around the building, providing shared terraces onto which the live/work apartments open.

The restaurant, used by members of the public and residents alike, is accessed from the street while the basement office is for the use of residents only.


These examples of design for home-based from the USA, Netherlands and Japan provide a sharp contrast to UK, where housing, designed primarily as assets in a property-based economy, tends to be produced to a cookie-cutter mould, often with little more than flamboyant balconies or exterior cladding distinguishing one from another.

Defined by the number of bedrooms rather than floor area, it provides a standardised investment product, primarily designed to maximise the return to the investor and developer rather than providing spaces appropriate to the daily lives of the inhabitants - or with an eye to a more sustainable future.

This is unlikely to change, unless policies are put in place that slow down the overheated housing market. The problem of a massively disfunctional and overinflated housing market is not confined to the UK – it is a global phenomenon.  But it seems that the examples from around the world, e.g. Japan and the Netherlands, where home-based work is actively designed for, are relatively exempt. This may be because in these countries there is a more realistic idea of what a house really is/should be.


Dr Frances Holliss is an architect and Emeritus Reader in Architecture at London Metropolitan University, known for her research into design for home-based work. She completed a doctorate on the architecture of home-based work (The workhome… a new building type?) in 2007, which she developed and disseminated through an AHRC-funded Knowledge Transfer Fellowship award 2009-11 ( Holliss is director of the Workhome Project, a research unit that investigates design for home-based work. Published widely, including ‘Beyond Live/work, the architecture of home-based work’ (Routledge 2015), she speaks internationally on the subject.

1. Reuschke D. and Houston D., Microbusinesses and the City, (2016) WORKANDHOME project (


3. The “Homepreneurs”, Innovation DAILY [accessed Feb 2018]

4. Ibid p168-197

5. James, P., Is Teleworking Sustainable? An analysis of its Economic, Environmental and Social Impact, (2004) USTEL, European Communities.

6. The aim of trade unionism, according to Henry Broadhurst, Secretary of the TUC, speaking in 1875, was ‘to bring about a condition … where wives and daughters would be in their proper sphere at home, instead of being dragged into competition for livelihood against the great and strong men of the world’. TUC Congress Report (1875), p. 14, cited in M. Davis, ‘An Historical Introduction to the Campaign for Equal Pay’.

7. D. Bythell, The Sweated Trades: Outwork in Nineteenth-century Britain (1978), p. 214.

8. Ibid. p. 235.

9.See Victoria and Albert Museum article: J. Marsh, ‘Gender Ideology and Separate Spheres in the 19th Century’.

10. S. Pennington and B. Westover, A Hidden Workforce: Homeworkers in England, 1850–1985 (1989), p. 98.

11. Holliss, F., Beyond Live/Work: the architecture of home-based work, (2015) Routledge pp6-78

12. Ibid pp1-3

13. Holliss, F., Beyond Live/Work: the architecture of home-based work Routledge (2015) pp80-120

14. Holliss, F., Beyond Live/Work: the architecture of home-based work Routledge (2015)

15. Ibid – see design guide, pp80-120

16. See Anna Minton’s book Big Capital (2017) Penguin for a detailed analysis of this phenomenon

17. See (accessed 7 Feb 2018)