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Working with Limited Space

Do your colleagues get a virtual tour of your home on a daily basis? Has your kid disrupted your thought process to drop Kleenex on your keyboard or sit in your lap? Does your spouse belly crawl behind you to avoid the laptop camera on the way to the kitchen?

Sydney Bopp with her puppy Pericles, or ‘Peri’, at her “cloffice”, the workspace she built into a bedroom closet in her Walter Street home. Photo: Noah Bopp

As the public health crisis drags on and remote work looks more and more like it will be the new normal into next year, Capitol Hill residents are coming up with creative solutions to find working space. Some are adapting the nooks and crannies of their homes; others are making renovations to suit their changing needs. Still others are adding whatever space is possible to make working from home a little less work for the family.

“I Can Close the Door at the End of the Day”
Some Hill residents are making simple changes to capitalize on small spaces, sometimes with something as simple as a piece of wood.

Sydney Bopp, her husband Noah and their two-year-old daughter live in a 1000 square-foot house on Walter Street SE. The couple was moving from room-to-room to work, depending on who was on childcare duty, if their toddler was napping, or who had a video meeting.

“Our coworkers were getting a full tour of our home every day,” Sydney Bopp said.

Noah scoured the internet, looking for solutions. Finally, he found a simple and elegant answer to the problem: he installed a shelf at desk-level in the bedroom closet. The two culled their wardrobes, stored out-of-season coats, and distributed items between the main floor hall closet and their daughter’s bedroom.

Robert Sestak of Sestak Remodeling Solutions frames the auxiliary unit in his own backyard in Fairfax, VA. In addition to being a show model for what he calls “wee work” space, it will be a classroom for his wife, a teacher, and his two children as they begin remote learning. Courtesy: R. Sestak/Sestak Remodeling Solutions

Now, Sydney shares foot space with cleaning supplies and a mop, but she said it is worth it. “It’s just changed the entire thing,” she said. “At the end of the day, I just close the closet door, and it’s just like leaving the office.”

Hill residents are improvising in any number of ways. Annette Lee described how she converted her dresser into a makeshift desk by laying one of her wedding presents, a particularly long cutting board, across the drawer for the keyboard. Maria Hernandez found space at the top of the landing in the upstairs hallway of her Hill East townhouse for a small desk and a chair that must be tucked into her son’s room at night to permit safe passage.

“I Actually Think We Need an Office”
Some are modifying long-planned interior renovation to suit their new work situations.

Hannah Morris and her husband, David, have been considering renovations to the main floor of their two-bedroom home since they purchased it three years ago, wanting to open the kitchen, dining room and living space.

In late August, contractors came in to do an invasive inspection, to examine what was behind the walls before work began. It was then, Hannah said, that she thought to herself, “I actually think this house needs an office.”

Both Hannah and David work for the federal government and are spending upwards of five hours a day in virtual meetings. Both would rather have a more professional background than a bedroom or kitchen. With fights over office space brewing, they decided a different direction was in order.

“I want to maintain a personal and professional line,” she said. “Our workspace has already entered our home, but I still have the power to say, “This is how much of my home it can be in.” I think those boundaries set us up for resilience.”

The kitchen will still be updated, an important change as the family cooks more often at home. But instead of opening the main floor, their contractor, Wall to Wall Construction (www.walltowallconstruction.com), is installing a wall to make a dedicated office space.

With many organizations not planning to return to the office before the new year, Morris said she had to prepare for the new normal, not only for themselves, but for a potential tenant or the next buyer.

“The reality is, these big open floor plans might not be the future if people are always working from home,” Morris said.

Thinking of Space in Innovative Ways
Megan Shapiro, of Jeanne, Phil Meg Real Estate (www.compass.com/agents/megan-shapiro) said that many buyers are looking for work space as they shop for a new home. “Pre-COVID, buyers might have mentioned office space in their criteria as a “nice to have,” Shapiro said.

“Now, I am working with families and couples who have prioritized one or often two dedicated office areas in a home, one for each adult working and Zooming from home, with an eye towards a space that will look professional on camera,” she said.

In response, realtors are staging homes to show the ways in which spaces can be utilized for remote working. “Buyers really need office space, and our staging and photos are the way to make them think of spaces in innovative new ways,” said Shapiro.

It might be tempting to move to the suburbs, where the cost per square foot is much lower. Capitol Hill homes regularly run upwards of $500 and even $600 a square foot. Meanwhile, Shapiro recently sold a 2,080 square foot, four-bedroom home in Rockville for $490,000 (about $236 per square foot); she sold a rare 2,422 square foot four-bedroom on the Hill in August for $1,470,000, ($607 a square foot).

“Wee Work” Auxiliary Units
Robert Sestak, Founder of Sestak Remodeling Solutions (sestakremodeling.com), said that folks like Hannah and David are not alone in deciding to renovate to meet their needs. Many of the clients he has on Capitol Hill are now moving ahead with projects they have had under consideration for years, especially renovations to unfinished or partially finished basements, he said. Those decisions are being influenced by the pandemic, leading to requests for at-home gyms, playrooms and office spaces.

Recently, some residents have been asking Sestak about adding auxiliary units, small buildings located on the same lot as the principal residence, to solve their space concerns. Sestak refers to these as “wee work” spaces. The Floyd family, who live in Southeast, approached Sestak to talk about building one in their backyard.

A freelance consultant, A. Floyd usually works from a 4’ by 5’ cubicle in a nearby co-working space. At about 8’ by 8’ or 64 square feet, the proposed unit would be much larger. Sestak estimates it will cost about $21,000 to build. Floyd reckons they will recover some of the cost from the rental fees they will no longer have to pay.

The Floyds are also parents to two children under two years old, with in-home care in their three-bedroom townhouse. During the day, noise and activity makes it difficult to conduct meetings or conversations; at night, when they are often making international calls, the voices could wake the kids, ruining not only the call, but the mood of the following day.

The outdoor unit would be a small space, but the couple says that is exactly what they are looking for – a little separation between work and home life that allows them to still be part of their children’s daily lives.

“Having the flexibility to have some separation between home and work when we do have to quarantine, I think, is really–mental-health-wise–beneficial,” Floyd said, “but also helps me be a mom in the house when I need to be a mom, but also be a professional when I need to be a professional in the office.”

Sestak, who has built a showroom auxiliary unit on his own yard in Fairfax County, Virginia, said there are more constraints on such units in the District than where he lives. “You need to get a permit for any new construction here,” Sestak said, “and there are historical concerns [in the Historic District].”

Hill families have had to be creative and sacrifice time, money and convenience, but they know they are lucky to be able to do so. While they acknowledge the allure of extra space in the suburbs, they say the benefits of Capitol Hill living are priceless.

Community Keeps Families on the Hill
Sydney Bopp said she loves her Walter Street home and community. Neighbors along the street have banded together to make the best of what she calls “a crummy situation,” hosting a socially distanced wedding,  a street dance party and frequent porch visits.

“If we had moved, it would’ve just been the three of us, somewhere else,” Bopp said. “This would be even harder with nobody else around.”

As she begins work on her office renovation, Hannah Morris said she knows she is lucky she can work from home and to be in a financial situation that makes renovations possible. “We feel fortunate in this community, especially thinking of our more affected neighbors,” she said, “and there’s a lot we can give to this community that we love so much.”

Morris said she and David love the Hill too much to make a move to the suburbs. They could not leave neighbors who have supported one another so much during the pandemic, even doing group grocery runs to reduce stress on the employees on the front lines.

“We really love our community and how much we help each other out, how much we support each other,” she said. “While the pandemic might change what living on the Hill looks like, we don’t think it’s going to change that spirit.”

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