How to create the perfect homework space
Homework is serious business, especially in Boston, where academia is adored and entrée into elite institutions is as competitive as Tom Brady on Super Bowl Sunday. So it’s no surprise that high-end homes are being fitted with homework areas that would make junior executives green with envy.
Kids aren’t necessarily getting the equivalent of the corner office, but gone are the days of a desk and bookshelf shoved into the corner of the bedroom. Today’s homework areas are carefully sited, fully wired, custom-built spaces designed for maximum efficiency and often family togetherness. “My clients want kids out of their rooms and engaging with the family” when it comes to homework, Milton-based designer Beth Bourque said.
Arlington designer Meghan Shadrick concurred. “Designing a homework space has definitely changed. Parents used to ask for desks tucked away in bedrooms or hallway niches, but [they] now ask for discreet areas in and around the kitchen and living room.”
Such spaces tend to be communal — that is, up for grabs by whoever needs them. For instance, for a Weston family of six, West Newton-based designer Jill Litner Kaplan called for double built-in desks in the kitchen and another two in the adjacent study, which is also outfitted with armchairs and an ottoman. Family members settle into whatever space feels right that night.
Melrose interior designer Justine Sterling said that although her second-grade daughter has a desk in her room, she’d prefer not to be by herself. Luckily, Sterling is putting on an addition that includes an eat-in kitchen area that will house a custom bench with drawers to hold homework materials for both of her children. When it comes to the messy stuff, however, she holds firm. “All cutting and gluing is done in the crafts studio downstairs,” she said.
Mobile computing and the Internet are partially responsible for the shift, allowing kids to work pretty much anywhere and inciting parents to keep an eye on the screen. Still, when kids get older, usually around age 12, Dedham designer Christine Tuttle said, they are ready for their own personal spaces. But they still keep in touch. Brookline designer Kate Patterson , whose teens have moved from the kitchen island to their bedroom desks, jokes, “When they need help, they text from upstairs.”
Sometimes kids and parents have competing ideas as to what’s most important. For a mother and daughter in Jamaica Plain, designer Heather Vaughan created a custom desk-vanity combo with enough drawers for makeup and school materials. Instead of a corkboard, a pretty mirror hangs above and a lift-off acrylic top provides a place to save mementos.
In a Milton home, Vaughan carved out space underneath a stairwell for drawers and a desktop that pops out of the wall, providing a place where the teen can work on her laptop. “As kids get older, they entertain more in their bedroom,” Vaughan said. “This leaves space for a sitting area. Plus, it’s nice to tuck away work at bedtime.”
Karen Swanson, a kitchen designer at New England Design Works in Manchester-by-the-Sea, devised a workspace behind cabinet doors in her 13-year-old daughter’s room. Swanson points to the unexpected benefits of privacy. While her daughter does homework on the bed, she uses her desk to decompress. Books Swanson read and passed on to her daughter sit on shelves above the desk. “I found a poem she wrote about memories triggered by old books; it was beautiful and poignant. I love that she has a place to express herself,” Swanson said.
Other families find creativity — and productivity — in numbers, establishing full-on kid work zones with individual desks assigned to each child. Bourque designed one on the second-floor landing in a new home in Milton for parents who consider helping their three children with homework sacred family time. “They want the kids to learn from the interactions with their siblings,” Bourque said. Gail O’Rourke, owner of White Wood Kitchens in Sandwich, created a similar space for a family with three kids in Lincoln. The location in the home encourages the kids to bring their book bags and homework off the main floor and onto their level, keeping the clutter to a minimum in the kitchen and living room, O’Rourke said. There is a lot of storage, the counters are durable (Formica), and a large bulletin board and white board are excellent for the kids to showcase their work, post reminders, or solve problems on the fly, she said.
Elizabeth Benedict , a Chestnut Hill-based designer who has four children (ages 7, 9, 12, and 14), turned a sunroom in her Chestnut Hill home into a highly functional kids’ office — complete with desks, matching monitors, and plenty of drawers — where they do homework, get tutored, and have guitar lessons. The décor is cohesive with the rest of the house, and the room is accessed by glass pocket doors just off the kitchen, so the children don’t feel cut off from the rest of the household. “It’s a great way to make this normally clumsy room useful,” Benedict said. She has designed three others since completing her own.
As part of a whole-house renovation of a one-story mid-century modern home in Hingham, Kyle Sheffield, senior associate at LDa Architecture & Interiors, designed a second story for the family’s kids, ages 8, 10, and 1. Adjacent to the mudroom, where the kids drop their backpacks, is a dedicated stairway to their wing of the house. Upon arrival at the second-floor landing, there is a simple desktop and pin board, with power and USB charging stations spanning one wall and a large storage and printer cabinet lining the opposite wall. The client likened it to a college dorm suite with singles around a common area and shared bath, Sheffield said. The older kids play instruments — electric guitar, violin, and the harp — and hold jam sessions up there in addition to doing homework.
In a Brookline brownstone, Cambridge-based designer Kate Maloney Albiani worked with the Glass family to create a homework lounge on the second floor alongside the parents’ home offices. The three kids offered Maloney insight into how they envisioned using the space, which included FaceTime study sessions and collaborating with classmates on school projects. Maloney chose love seats with firm cushions conducive to working on laptops and a solid-wood coffee table around which they could gather. Two desks are simply staging areas for books and papers.
Homeowner Amy Glass said, “I guess you could say our space is an interesting reflection of how homework has changed.”