The home office, it seems, is going the way of the fax machine.
Interior designers say families are finding more inventive uses for their homes' extra little rooms — optimistically called "bonus rooms" by real estate agents.
With the spread of wireless Internet and portables devices such as tablets, it's common now to send spreadsheets and emails from any room in the house, not to mention the nearest coffee shop. In fact, among major home-renovation projects, home-office improvements provide the puniest return on the investment when a home is resold, according to Remodeling magazine's 2013 "cost vs. value" report.
So instead of that dust-collecting desk, many families are seeking creative ways to customize these alcoves as game rooms, dressing rooms, small theaters and more.
"I get this question a lot," says Elizabeth Cb Marsh, an associate interior designer at Jenkins Baer Associates in Baltimore. "Especially in large, new-construction homes, there are these bonus rooms that are just there."
When her clients make over a pre-existing office, she usually recommends trying to preserve any built-in features, such as shelving or cabinetry. If the space is large enough, she says, one option is to create a billiards room. Find a small (7-foot) pool table to place in the center of the room. If there's a wood counter, retrofit the top with a waterproof material such as stone for an elegant wet bar, and if you have the budget, install plumbing for a small sink. Add bar stools, a high-top cocktail table and a pendant lamp over the pool table.
A smaller office can have a second life as a luxe dressing room, according to Marsh. Whether you draw inspiration from Downton Abbey or certain Beverly Hills housewives, the first step is to install a wall of shelving for shoes and clothes. Keep the decor minimalist, she advises, with a neutral paint color, a pair of sconces and a tufted ottoman in the center of the room. Add a floor mirror and a vanity, and accessorize with vintage hatboxes, a dress form or an antique trunk. If the room has windows, be sure to hang light-filtering curtains to protect your clothing.
Families with children have even more options for converting an office space. These days, it is common to transform a dull study into a kids' homework hub, says Pam Ginocchio, co-founder of the children's design blog Project Nursery.
To begin, she recommends giving each kid a workspace: a small metal desk in a fun color with a clip-on lamp and a comfy swivel chair. Create a comfortable reading nook on the floor with beanbags. Then mount floating shelves from floor to ceiling and display books with the covers facing out to entice young readers. Appoint one wall as a place for scribbling ideas or displaying schoolwork by applying a layer of magnet paint and then chalkboard paint from floor to ceiling.
Consider allowing a computer for older kids' homework, but try to banish video games and other distractions, says Project Nursery co-founder Melissa Fluhr, who stresses the value of a quiet, contemplative space.
If contemplative is not your family's speed, Fluhr suggests using the bonus room as an off-off-off-Broadway theater. For a kid who likes to perform skits, play songs and choreograph dances, build a basic plywood stage in the corner of the room. Above that riser, hang a rounded shower-curtain rod and a pair of dark, tab-top curtains. Hang costumes and dressup clothes in a cubby, and store puppets, musical instruments and other props in a toy chest. Finish by hanging a mirror at tyke height so children can watch themselves rehearse, and don't forget to add a few comfy chairs for the audience.
If your child has another obsession, turn an undersized room into her special hangout. For example, if she is into outer space, turn it into a mini planetarium with a dark-painted ceiling and a night-sky projector. Just be prepared to update the theme in a year or two when your child's interests inevitably leap to something else.
"Having this little bonus room almost gives you the excuse to go wild," Ginocchio says. "You don't have to spend a ton of money or think, 'What's going to be my return on investment?' It's a chance to have fun."