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Tuesday, 02 April 2013


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Looks like I have a namesake on TOP, unless that too is an April fool's conspiracy!

One does need to be mindful of toxic fumes from cars and etc working up into a space above. Otherwise I do hope it works out for you and relieves the cramped quarters.

Before you tear the roof off or your garage to put on another floor, how about looking into renting office space? It's a tax writeoff and it would free up space at home.

[I've looked into that. It's simply too convenient being able to work at home. Comments have to be moderated continuously. I work at all hours of the day and night. --Mike]

Do you use your garage to store your automobiles? If not, and if it's going to be studio space for things that aren't cold-sensitive, you could insulate the 3 walls and roof of your garage. (The printer and ink might not be a good idea, but surely scanners don't mind a bit of cold!)

I have a friend who long ago rented a room above a garage in Oregon, and the lack of insulation between the garage and the room above it ended up being a big problem. She ended up buying a bunch of fiberglass insulation and put it in herself, and gave her landlord the receipt.


My home office is 18 square feet.....it contains 2 flatbed scanners, 2 printers, a negative/slide scanner, a computer and a monitor. Some drawers for papers, a desk and a (swivel) chair.

So what will you be doing with all the rest of the space :-).

Greets, Ed.

If you need an affordable architect to look at the options I run a small firm that specialises in small, affordable and practical housing extensions.

Addition on top of the garage is definitely the way to go, and could be pretty economical. The best things about it are: 1. You can do it in stages, the envelope first(roof, walls, windows floor)in a way that is neighbor-friendly, and then gradually finish off the interior. 2. You could elect to make it more of a fair weather space, retaining your smaller indoor office for the really cold/hot times. 3. There's a ton of it you could do yourself, or as the assistant to a better carpenter/builder.

Could be a great project for you, and it wouldn't over-build your main home beyond local real estate values (something my wife and I are slightly guilty of...). If you did it smart, you could get 1:1 dollar value out of it in re-sale, which is pretty decent.

The embiggened garage sounds feasible. I can't guess how you would heat it, but if it's by electricity you'll need a bigger supply cable to the building. Phone cables and the like could go in at the same time.

Having seen photos of how much snow you get there I wouldn't go for an external staircase, which would be an accident waiting to happen. P.I.R. lights on the route between house and the new TOP World Headquarters would be very useful.

Have you thought about having just one extra room in the house loft, instead of a whole second story? This is quite common in the UK, when an extra bedroom is needed. The ceiling joists have to be supported and strengthened, and you could possibly have stairs from the existing office (which could be a TOP storage area) or above the cellar stairs.

There would be plenty of room for built in storage round the edges. A nice dormer window would be just the thing to gaze out of while composing articles. You may find that you have to raise part of the roof to gain headroom, but I don't know much about roof construction so I don't know how that would be done.

What's wrong with just converting the garage and parking on the street/in a driveway?

Dumb question: You seemed to have quite a bit of basement space in the photos you posted of your darkroom some time back; could the non-darkroom part of the basement be retasked as an office?

[Nope. The basement floods. --Mike]

Mike do you have space for a cabin in your back yard,if you have this might serve as an office?

[Thought of that. No room on the lot. The back yard is already barely adequate for the dog, the front yard can't be used because of setback laws, there's no room to either side of the house. --Mike]

I do not know your situation but it reminds me of a quandary I faced. Working from home was impossible. Limited space, constant interruptions, salesmen calling, and a refrigerator too damn close. The solution for me was to go downtown and rent a one room office on the third floor of an old building. Not only did it get me out of the house, I got a better tax write off too. My brother, however, went to a builder's supply store and bought a couple of garden sheds and built them back to back in his back yard. But then, he had the space and I did not. Just a couple of ideas.
Tom B

If you build it right (with plumbing and gas in the right spots) it could potentially be a bonus selling point to the next owners. It could be rented out as a studio apartment, house an elderly mother-in-law, or be an awesome room for a teenager.

[It could be all those things, but only if it has a bathroom. And plumbing it would add very substantially to the cost I'm afraid. At that point I'd be 80% of the way to the cost of a second story on the house. --Mike]

Lessee. A Yert, a hogan which will double nicely as a sweat lodge, a lean to, a big expedition tent from Cabelas, and my best solution, borrow Mike and Paula's very cool old Land Rover portable darkroom.

Mike, the answer is staring you in the face... but you just missed it. Don't waste time and money trying to add on to your garage, just back your car out onto the driveway and leave it there, then you've got all that space for an office/studio and you can turn your current tiny office into a guest bedroom or library or screening room or whatnot. I'm from the Midwest so I'm all too aware of the car-pampering culture but here in NYC hardly anyone worries about such silly matters as shelter for a car... it's enough work just finding a parking spot! Seriously, life is short -- you've gotta prioritize: your life's work or some (replaceable) vehicle?

[Then I'd have to a) winterize the garage (which is on a slab), b) shovel snow off the cars all winter, and c) eventually sell a house with no usable garage, which would cut its value appreciably. Besides, we have space for two cars in the garage and space for two cars in the driveway, and three cars. Nope, no dice. --Mike]

OK then, you do have a huge garage….. so why not build a closed carport off the front and take over the garage for your office. You could even divide the floor space of the garage and have a nice workshop. Just a thought.
San Diego, Ca.

Well, could you just finish out the garage and leave the car in the drive or on the street? Might not be good for snowy winters I guess . . . but I've always laughed at the idea of pouring a perfectly good slab and building a perfectly good building . . . and then driving a dirty car into it! Makes no sense to me. Now your garage may not be perfectly good in those ways....

Could you spend the large amount of money it would take to flood-proof your basement? You know, have a crew dig way down all around your foundation and install gravel and drainage pipes, that sort of thing. Might be your cheapest bet (if it worked).

Since the garage is a no-go, have you considered calling in a waterproofing specialist to fix the flooding basement? It can be done, and you'll gain a usable and healthy basement and great peace of mind.

...love all these suggestions, Mike! You forgot to tell everyone on here, how bad the permitting process is in Wisconsin, and how it's almost impossible to get variances...great to do all the measuring you want, but don't even buy a box of nails until you're sure the city will let you do anything...can't tell you how many times I've known people who've even got signed variances in building out their homes and business, to have the city come back and cancel it once construction got started...it resulted in one guy I know, who was actually building a "wet" lab, to sell everything and leave the state!

My priority would be to fix the flooding basement situation. I certainly wouldn't buy a house with that problem. Once fixed, it would seem that the darkroom and some aspects of a 'lightroom' could coexist.

I was going to suggest the same thing that John does above; fix the drainage issues in the basement and make that usable space. A friend of mine did just that, with drainage tile around the perimeter and new gutters, and was able to install a carpeted living room. I'm in a similar spot with my house, and planning to partially finish my basement because that's the only way i'll get a second bathroom and indoor work space.

To John Krumm's point...

...it was the best thing my parents ever did. They had a house in a city, and were having wet basement problems back in the 1970's. They ended up doing the "full-treatment": house dug around the complete outside with a rubber liner bonded to the walls, drain tiles fixed and improved, and a sump pump put in (unheard of in the city at the time). They never had problems since that time, and the basement was totally usable (40 years!).

After they died, and we were selling the house, we had some minor leakage problems associated with needing to put additional soil around the exterior in certain areas and grading it away from the wall, their soil from the original process had settled and was tilting in toward to wall. Even so, it never added up to more than a few millimeters of water on the floor; it never got anything on shelves.

It WAS, expensive at the time, tho...

I've also thought that renting office space would be an option for you, but you say

"I've looked into that. It's simply too convenient being able to work at home. Comments have to be moderated continuously. I work at all hours of the day and night"

You can moderate comments and things like that from a mobile phone if you want. Because you rent space doesn't mean you have to do all the work there, but you could do the stuff that requires you to have that extra space for scanner, printer, whatever.

I think the "too convenient to work from home" is also a double-edged sword. Too convenient to just go and do something else and put off working.

I work "from home" but I still feel the need to "go to work". Because I can do most donkey work from a laptop my office is whatever cafe or gallery I fancy at the time, but obviously that wouldn't suit you.

Also would free up your current office for something else - model railway, maybe?

Mike, how about overflow storage? Shelves in some other part of the house, or even in the garage?

You haven't said what is taking up all this space. Is it desk?, cupboards? boxes?, shelves?

How much volume in the room is occupied? Can you trade floor space for wall space, maximise wall utilisation? Look at submarines for inspiration.

Speaking of which, another vote that you look hard at fixing the basement flooding problem, because that will impact the resale value of the property.

How tall are you, and how high are your ceilings?

You might be able to multi-level your office to an extent. Drop in a raised floor to create a 24" space under, put computers and files down there, accessible through lift-up panels in the floor. That's not really a specific suggestion, just a kind of outside-the-box idea that might stimulate an actual good idea.

[That's what I did in my old loft in Chicago--I had a raised office platform with storage space underneath. Of course, I had 14-foot ceilings there. Here, no room for that. --Mike]

I was going to suggest adding a prefab "backyard office", but from your description of the size of the back yard, even that probably wouldn't fit. I would look into resurrecting the basement, as others have suggested.

Here's a neat selection of them, though, if you're curious:


[Very cool! Wouldn't work for me because I have no yard space, but cool nevertheless. --Mike]

There have been many good suggestions, and while none of us understand all the issues and preferences to the degree necessary to offer a complete solution that works within your constraints I will offer 4 thoughts.
1) a comfortable, efficient working space and a tiny shooting space seems like a real quality of life issue --you're there 24-7--it's 'what you do'.
2) Lynn's suggestion of 'fold away / drop down hardware is a great partial solution. There are many 'fold away' workbench designs for a garage wall or basement wall (google fold away work table)
They fold up and flat to the wall when not in use--there are even ones that fold down from the back of a door.
3) a basement that floods is potentially (very) unhealthy, and negatively impacts resale value in a significant way. You might even be required to fix it as a condition of sale. So by doing it now you gain healthy free space that YOU can enjoy instead of the next owner. (might even be Tax deductable or at the least a capital improvement)
4) even if you hate all of the above , a shooting table on 2 plastic Home depot saw horses with a home made soft box suspended from the rafters would be imune to occasional wet basement issuses. - A shooting table that doesn't have to be set up & taken down is great fun, and quite practical.

One possible solution might be to turn your living room into your new larger office. Then you could make a cozy living room out of your current office space. It all depends on how much and how you use your living room now and of course the floor plan of your house. One good thing is that swapping rooms wouldn't cost much and if you ever want to sell your house, the rooms could be swapped again.

I know when you have visitors they may find the layout a bit weird but maybe they will see how important it is to be the President of the best photography site on the World Wide Web.

[Flatterer! [g] This is another idea I've considered seriously. The problem is that the living room is also a de facto "hallway"--the access way between the front room and front door and the kitchen and the back of the house, and includes the access way between the kitchen and the bedrooms. It's almost its main function--a big hallway--apart from the fact that it's where I sit to watch TV and there's some largely decorative furniture in it. The living room is largely wasted space in my house, and it's by far the largest room in the house, but it's almost impossible to repurpose it given the awkward layout of the house.

If I had the same exterior walls and the same amount of interior space but could design the floorplan for my needs, I'd be fine. But of course I can't do that. --Mike]

How about renting some office space? Or semi-industrial space? Perhaps a shared arrangement? I have a 400 s.f. addition on the back of the house, but I'm looking for outside space right now. I think that working from home really has its downside. Factor the cost and time of building or reconfiguring yourself like a boat cabin, and some rental space nearby might be a Godsend.

I'm assuming your office is a spare unused bedroom. If that's the case, are any of the other bedrooms any bigger? Since you are a single guy and don't have spousal approval to worry about, why not move a bed into the smallest bedroom and use the biggest one for your office?

[My son's bedroom is bigger (I gave him the master bedroom years ago, so he'd have room for his toys), but he entertains his friends in there, so he uses every inch as well. And my bedroom is smaller than the office. In any event, the office is a "parlor" (small front room), and wouldn't work as a bedroom because it doesn't have a door. --Mike]


"Well, not enough space for a tabletop to take illustration pictures. But most of what I need."

That's what the kitchen table and a folding lightbox is for...

Mike, I thought the solution would be obvious. The Kitchen! Kills two birds with one stone.

Fix the basement. You will have a hard time selling it with a known basement flooding problem, regardless. A hole in the floor, french drains, and a permanent sump pump installation should take care of most of it I'd think.

Does your son still live at home ;-)

If the bedroom at your house is larger than the office, why not swap rooms? I live in a smallish 2 bedroom apartment and that's what we did. It seemed a terrible waste of space to sleep in the large room and work in the cramped second bedroom.

You have any idea how Brobdingnagian your living/office space seems to a Brooklyn apartment dweller?

First of all, does the scanner need to be out all the time? (my wife is always asking why all my lenses are always out , but I digress) I keep my scanner on top of a book case when I'm not using it and run a long cable to it sitting on a box when I need to use it. I also keep an old laptop specifically for scanning if I need it.

For a more generic "how do I expand my workspace when all I have is a driveway" solution , two words "Step Van"


This also allows you a mobile office/studio/large-format-mobile-wetplate-darkroom solution if you desire.

How large is Zander's bedroom? Now that he's off at college, would he be willing to move into the 11x11 room and you move your office into the larger space?


Fixing the basement is the way to go. We did ours a year February and wonder why it took us so long to do so. Not a drop of water since, and we would suffer through inches in the past! Not only does it protect the house (no mold, dampness, etc.) but it ADDS value when we eventually sell.

Being English a 11x11 is a medium sized room; definatley considered a guest bedroom. If you were looking for storage on a budget an ikea kitchen works great, i have one in my garage lots of cupboards and shelves all hidden lots of worktop space. Very cheap plus pretty easy to remove to resell the house.

If you'll try and optimize the space you already have you just have to take a look at these space-saving marvels: http://www.wimp.com/spacesaving/

I'm another who thinks a flooding basement is a problem asking for a solution. Not just for your office, but because all that water isn't good for the house and reduces its value. A dry basement family room is going to be a big selling point for any future time. A damp pit under your house is not.

However, I keep wondering if everything in your office needs to be near at hand. Seldom-used supplies could be moved elsewhere in the house, like the living room. Or even well off the floor of the basement, in plastic storage bins. Replace one of the decorative bits of living room furniture with an attractive armoire, use old trunks for tables. The office can be reserved for that which needs to be there.
Of course, once your organizer us done with you, there may not be a problem. You'll be able to run TOP from the local coffee house.

Mike, try to fix the basement. While doing it, install one or two egress windows for safety, light and resale value. The office (or two) you put in becomes another bedroom (or two), useful square footage added to your place when you sell.

[I appreciate all the concern about the basement, but it's not a big concern--it only floods occasionally, after at least three extremely heavy rains, and it doesn't even get the entire floor wet. I have two dehumidifiers which take care of the water in a day or three. But it makes it impractical to finish it out. Waterproofing the basement is well beyond my means. I've priced it.

Also, I can't put a (salable) bedroom down there anyway, because in my area bedrooms can't be below grade.

But thanks very much for all the considerate suggestions! I hope I don't sound ungrateful. It really is a problem that resists solution. --Mike]

We have a compact bedroom, and my partner has lots of clothes. During a remodel, we put in what is now generically called a "California closet," although that is also a brand name. If you go to the California Closet website, and click on "office," you can see what one of these organizations can do for you. (As I said, it's become a generic term, and there are lots of builders who do something very much like them, for a range of prices.) I think you can also buy do-it-yourself California closets.

I'd add that I have a studio in the not-inexpensive town of Santa Fe. I don't know exactly how big it is, but probably ~500 square feet, and includes a sink and toilet. Lots of the other people in the place have Internet service and also do a bit of microwave cooking...I wouldn't be shocked to learn that one or two of them live in their studios. It's in the industrial/studio/self-storage part of town, and I pay $520 a month.

I also find that getting out of the house makes me more productive, because there's nothing to do there but work. (I've carefully avoided installing either the Internet or a TV; when I want some action in the place, I have to flush the toilet.)

My advise? Learn to live with less stuff. You have a stuff problem, not a house problem.

How about buying a "toy hauler" type trailer and parking it in one side of the 2-car garage?
You could then set up your "mobile office" with the garage as a weather shield.

My office is about the same size.

Bought a cheaper version of this: http://www.amazon.com/Fujitsu-ScanSnap-iX500-Scanner-PA03656-B005/dp/B00ATZ9QMO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1364972298&sr=8-1&keywords=fujitsu+scansnap

Paid the kids (student age) $10 per hour to sit and scan all my paperwork. That cheap little $300 Fujutsu scanner converted over 100,000 pages of documents to PDF in 2 months.

I had a big, expensive HP document scanner before - but these are better.

Any paper I really need to store hard copy of is kept in two old fireproof safes 5' high kept in the garage - each of which cost me $1,000 reconditioned, and are probably 30 years old.

Get rid of any paper you don't need as hard copy; get any hard copy you don't need urgently out of the office. You'll have more room - then some careful design and dedicated furniture will give you lots of space.

My office design started with "where do the 3' high 1970s Wharfedale speakers sound best?"...

Think cubic. You're a tall dude. You've got lots of floor-to-ceiling space on your "sunset" wall to accommodate shelving and a stand-up desk (and maybe even a worktop for the printer?). Alternatively, you can remodel your existing window into a cantilevered bay window extending from the floor level up.

Make it deep enough to accommodate the printer's footprint (or a window seat). I suggest a rectangular "bay" plan to maximize the usable additional floor space, and minimize the cost of roofing over the bay window. Say, a shed dormer (to maintain ceiling height) or a lean-to shed (cheaper but lower headroom).

Good luck on your reno!

Take a look at some Dutch interiors (I'm sure the web can help if you don't fancy a trip over....). They are masters at fully utilising small spaces.

You need to look (like they do) not just at the floor space, but at the room volume - consider getting kitset furniture, or custom built to maximise the storage and working areas.

(The furniture on the wimp video is great!)

Mike, along the lines I mentioned earlier.. I've just visited a close friend who is into sewing. Similar problem: very small room, sewing machine, overlocker, storage for a gazillion fabrics and threads, need for large flat workspace around machine and for cutting out.

She found a sewing cabinet on lockable casters at a craft fair. The sewing machine rises up out of the cabinet on a spring loaded platform, locking flush with the work surface. There are leaf table extensions on several sides that fold out and up to make a large, stable work surface. When stored, the cavity top was covered so it could still be used as a desk. It was very clever and space efficient. Even the piano-hinged swing-out supports for the leaf extensions contained storage compartments.

This mobile cabinet was the same height as adjoining work surfaces. When not in use it took up little space against the wall.

There might be ideas you can use there.

Another thought: do you have access to CAD software? That's probably the easiest way to evaluate design ideas. Kitchen showrooms often use CAD to work out designs on the spot.



If there was a Nobel award for interior design, well this is it.

Greets, Ed.

Mike, I once had a tiny cubicle of an office with similar space constraints. So I constructed a ceiling-suspended working board based on the old navy-style suspended tables found on sail ships: two pulleys, climbing rope, an oak board. Cheap and rock-solid.
If you can fix hooks for elastic bike cords somewhere, the suspended table can be fastened to the walls or the ground when lowered. Pendular oscillations will be sufficiently dampened for use as a scanner table.

Wish I had a picture of my contraption, but the whole thing looked something like this:
Maybe you can start with one of those or something similar?

Well Mike, the upside is you won't be tripling your commute to work. See there is always a silver lining...

Too bad, I really liked the idea of you having an office above the garage. There is a coolness factor to the notion - Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli did some great work in an apartment above a garage, in Milwaukee no less.

The flooding basement issue can be fixed by cutting a hole in the basement floor and installing a pump with float switch. Something you probably want to do anyway to avoid mold problems in your house. Once done, you just doubled the useful footprint of your house. Buy a good quality dehumidifier piped to a drain and Bob's your Uncle.

Hi Mike

I did the same thing but different with my garage. Instead of building on top I had it jacked up then filled in the space underneath to save building a new roof.

I was up against some zoning related height issues, plus i didn't want to overpower the house visually, so i split the difference and jacked it up 6 feet, ending up with a 7 foot tall space for garage and office, which works fine for me.

Total cost was about 20 grand, doing some of the work myself.

I don't know if the Schaumburg IKEA is like the Red Hook IKEA (I've been, and actually shot a short film in the Schaumburg IKEA, but that was 9 years ago; plus, the Red Hook IKEA might be doing things to appeal to NYC clientele that others don't do), but here in Brooklyn, IKEA has several display apartments set up in impossibly small areas that use space *extraordinarily* efficiently. It's really impressive. My wife and I always seem to get ideas from it, even though our space isn't nearly so restrictive. Especially given your budget constraints, it is worth a look next time you're in the Chicagoland area.

Hint: vertical space is way more flexible than you'd ever think of on your own.

I know what you're going through, Mike. I'm writing just now on my blog about moving my darkroom from its previous cluttered but relatively spacious room to a smaller room that I'm going to have to work very hard to keep clean and tidy. I'm kind of half way through the move (it'll be a four part blog post!) and the only advice I can offer is to ruthlessly look at everything in your office and bin it (or Ebay it) if you can't absolutely justify it's existence.

Some careful design seems to be the answer. My wife and I share a 2.6 m by 2.4 m study. After much angst, it has been converted to one wall of benches with storage under for 2 x printers plus scanner, plus an old Macbook used as a print server. Shelves over the top for books. The opposite wall is wall to wall storage. We put in a high-speed modem/router, bought two laptops and two iPads, and spread out our work on the dining room table.


Don't know if this will really be of any help, but I recall you like wood-worky & builder-ing-ly stuff, so it would at least be interesting for you.

Here in Japan there any many fascinating ways to make do with cramped living spaces. Maybe in a better book store (Chicago perhaps?) you could find some inspiration from books on Japanese small space architecture, or maybe even find some of the Japanese magazines dedicated to this kind of thing? You'd need the ones offering solutions for already built cramped spaces though, not the ones presenting elegant spartan small spaces for visual consumption.

Also, Ikea (& I presume others) have bunk-bed desk combos. The top base can be used not for sleeping, but as shelf space for printers, etc. Not a very elegant solution, but maybe as a starting place for adaption or ideas.

Take care.

Tanking the basement or pumping and dehumidifying must be the way to go unless there are some obstacles we don't know about.

[I was quoted $18,000 for waterproofing the basement, but told I should lay tile "just in case." Good enough reason not to? [g] --Mike]

Since you have a two-car garage and three cars, this means that one of the cars will be outside, and you'll be moving snow off of it all the time. So, how about a cheap carport cover (metal frame with metal roof) to keep the snow off two cars, and then partially remake one area of the garage? You don't need to go all-out, just do enough to make a comfortable space.

You can build a little office within the garage, which just sits in the garage, but doesn't actually modify it. The concrete slab floor can be "winterized" using slab foam panel insulation. This comes in two inch thick sheets, and you can then put 1/4-inch plywood on top and flooring panels. Done. Build a frame for the rest of it out of 2x2s within the space allotted by the garage functionality, some insulation, and you're done. Then when you move, just disassemble it and chuck it. So: cheap insulation, cheap C-D 1/4-inch plywood, cheap 2x2s, and you'll have an office in your garage for maybe $1,000.

A plastic shed would be better; not so much of a problem with condensation.

Er, I dunno what happened to my comment that the above P.S. refers to, but this was about what I said:

Install a plastic shed in the basement. mount it which ever is the greater of 6" or twice the depth the basement has ever flooded to above the floor level. 6" is enough room to get a mop under and to allow ventilation.

Seal all the joins, but make sure that there is a bit of ventilation higher than ground level. Possibly a pipe to the outside. Put lighting in it. Install shelving and a table to suit.

Install a tubular heater with a thermostat set to 10 Celcius/50 Fahrenheit. Install indicator lights on the outside of the shed so that you can see that the heater has a supply and that the thermostat is working without going in. This should be on it's own circuit breaker/ fuse at the 'board, to reduce the chance of the breaker or fuse operating.

This will give you a waterproof box that is mostly underground, but which has ventilation to the outside above ground level. That's what a tanked basement is.

A sump pump might still be a good idea.

In the worst case, if the basement floods and you lose all electrical power, at least it's not so much of an emergency to remove the shed contents.

By the way, it's not unknown for leaking basements to be caused by something that concentrates water in one place, like blocked or inadequate roof drainage, or the shape of the land.

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