Houses built with space for making a living

Two front doors: one for the family, the other for customers

December 21, 2003|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

Ron and Laura Luna moved into their suburban dream house last month - a three-bedroom Colonial in Orange County, Calif., featuring walk-in closets, a spacious kitchen and a view of the Santa Ana Mountains.

And a public restroom.

That's a requirement along Front Street, where the houses are not just for living. They also are for making a living.

The 22-home enclave in Ladera Ranch, a master-planned development east of Mission Viejo, is a tentative first step in a new suburban lifestyle: hybrid dwellings deep inside a residential neighborhood where people live in one part of the house and do business in another.

These aren't just houses with converted dens and high-speed Internet connections for home-based entrepreneurs and telecommuters. Front Street truly merges home and work, with occupants allowed to hire employees and put out business signs, and with parking set aside for customers. Ron will run his real estate business and Laura her concierge service out of the home.

Among the other businesses in the neighborhood will be a day-care center, a hairdresser, a recording studio, a house-cleaning service, an insurance agent and a wedding-magazine publisher.

The family enters through one front door, and customers enter through another front door - on the other side of the house. The business and residential sides of the single-family, detached homes are divided by a reinforced fire-resistant wall.

The development, among the first of its kind in the country, represents the leading edge in the transformation of the American suburb from residential refuges into modest centers of commerce.

"This will be in the architecture history books in 20 years," said urban historian Tom Martinson. Changes in home design "eventually reflect where we are as a society. There has been an incredible change in the way we live and work," he said. Front Street "addresses the fundamental question of how people [can] work at home."

In suburbia, retail villages now link townhomes to storefront dental offices, video stores and day spas. And new master-planned communities often boast their own boutique "downtowns" with offices, stores and entertainment.

But sprinkling commercial buildings within a suburban community is one thing, experts say - planning and designing homes for commercial use is another.

For some, this is a step too far.

"Nobody minds the CPA or attorney" who works out of his home, said Elizabeth Binsack, director of community development for Tustin, Calif., which resisted a similar proposal by another developer. "But people have a problem with the electrician or the plumber who parks his work truck in the driveway. And you can't make one legal and the other illegal just because it isn't pretty."

Other conflicts - over noise and odor that businesses can produce, for example - go beyond aesthetics, Binsack said. "You have to be careful what type of commercial uses you bring to the residential areas. What if someone wants to run a coffee shop?"

These concerns are built into zoning laws that have led to legal trouble for many who set up shop in the suburbs. This last summer, a 56-year-old New Jersey woman lost a four-year battle to obtain a zoning exception allowing her to work as a masseuse in her house.

And an Orange County judge in June ordered a Laguna Hills, Calif., woman to shut down her home-based musical-instrument repair business because it violated local zoning ordinances.

Had she repaired musical instruments only as a hobby or had the New Jersey woman treated friends for free, they would not have violated their local ordinances.

Some say this distinction no longer makes sense.

"It shouldn't be illegal simply because you are making a living doing it," said Christopher L. Hansen, founder of the New Jersey-based Home-Based Business Council, which advocates reforms in local zoning laws to accommodate home entrepreneurs. "What we have is an anachronistic system based on an industrial age model."

Indeed, there is ample evidence that Americans want to work from home. Hansen's group estimates the nation has about 25 million home-based businesses, up from 17 million a decade ago.

And according to the National Association of Homebuilders, nearly a quarter of the houses built in the United States today have home offices - compared with 15 percent five years ago. A home office is defined as a space in the house devoted and designed for work, not simply a converted den or bedroom. It is the most-sought-after feature in new homes, according to the association.

They're popular among accountants, attorneys and architects - the kinds of unobtrusive businesses that can discreetly, if not always legally, operate in residential neighborhoods. In many cities, home-based businesses are allowed as long as the owner doesn't receive clients, hire employees, post advertisements or store products in the house.

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