Turn closet space into office space

Here's a plan to truly maximize household space

By Rick Campbell

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When I was growing up, the kitchen table was our home office-the place where kids gathered at the end of the day to do their homework and where our parents sorted out the monthly household bills. Today, computers are used more and more to help us accomplish these tasks, creating the need for a dedicated home-office space to accommodate equipment, supplies and access to the Internet. When space is in short supply, finding a suitable location to set up shop can be a challenge.

We solved this problem in our home by constructing a built-in office, tailored to fit in the opening of a closet and custom-designed from the ground up to meet our specific requirements. The entire renovation was less expensive than a room full of traditional office furniture, and the simple, modular approach made the office easier to build than typical furniture projects.

Getting started
There is no materials list for this project because every installation is different. The dimensions of the available space, as well as your personal requirements and budget, will determine the final design.

I got started by removing the closet doors, interior shelving and the trim that was in the way so I could inspect the space and take accurate measurements. Then I prepared detailed plans that included a 1/2" gap on the top and sides to compensate for sloping floors and out-of-plumb walls. The gap was covered with trim after the unit was installed. I was also careful to leave a two-inch space at the back for computer cables and air circulation to keep sensitive electronics cool. It's best to leave as much space here as you can.

Base cabinets
All of the cabinets are made from 3/4" melamine panels screwed together using simple butt joints. Before assembly, cover the exposed panel edges with adhesive-backed melamine trim using a standard household iron. After the office insert is installed, cover any screw heads with plastic caps to make them less visible.

I started construction at the bottom by cutting out panels to make the two identical base units that support the desktop. Each base unit consists of a pair of side panels, notched at the bottom to receive a solid birch kickplate, a base panel installed directly above the kickplate and cross braces connecting the sides at the top. Use two braces at the front, separated by a narrow gap to accept a pullout work surface. Secure four rails inside the cabinet to form channels to support the sliding panel. A stop block attached to the top prevents the work surface from being brought out too far. Cover the cabinet backs with hardboard panels cut to fit flush and nail in place. Be sure to leave a two-inch opening for ventilation and the passage of cables directly behind any electronic components.

Customize the interior of the cabinets to suit your specific storage requirements. This may include drawers, adjustable shelving or designated areas for equipment. In one base cabinet I installed a vertical partition to separate the computer hard drive from a unique two-level drawer arrangement used to store CDs and other odds and ends. Notch the partition to fit around the cross braces at the top and meet the base panel with a simple butt joint at the bottom. Drive screws through the braces and the underside of the base panel to hold the partition in place.

The drawer assembly consists of shallow upper and lower trays joined to a melamine panel at the back and a painted medium-density fibreboard (MDF) drawer face at the front. The drawer face covers the entire width of the base unit and will look like a pair of cabinet doors. To create the simulated raised panel effect, I secured a 1/4" plywood template to the drawer face with double-sided tape and followed around the edge with a handheld router equipped with a guide collar and a bead-and-cove profile bit. I also made a pass down the centre of the “door” using a curved radius V-groove bit and a straight edge to serve as a guide.

The melamine and MDF makes the drawer assembly heavy, so don't skimp on the hardware. I used a pair of heavy-duty full-extension drawer slides attached to the bottom tray to carry the weight and make it easy to get to items in the back. The other base cabinet has a similar two-level storage unit, but this one fills the entire cavity. I put the printer on top and paper storage underneath.

Next, I prepared the 3/4" birch ply desktop and secured it to the base cabinets using screws and L-brackets. The desktop profile curves outward in the centre to provide additional room to work and a place for the keyboard.

Complete the layout of the curved section by tracing along a thin strip of wood that has been flexed to form an arc. Cut out the straight sections first, using a circular saw and a board clamped to the plywood to serve as a guide, then tackle the curved part by following the layout line freehand with a jigsaw.

For a finished look, I capped the exposed plywood edge with thin strips of solid birch.

Upper cabinets
There are four modular cabinets above the desk that are screwed together to form a hutch, with enough space under the two centre units to house the monitor. These modules are not as deep as the lower cabinets, allowing the hutch assembly to be set back from the front of the desk to maximize the work area.

Drill holes in the side panels for the adjustable shelf pins before the cabinets are assembled. The shelves are birch ply, capped on the front edge with wide birch strips that overhang at the bottom to make the shelves look thicker than they actually are. Roundover the top and bottom edges of the strips at the router table before you apply them.

Measure and cut the hardboard panel that covers the back of the hutch, but don't tack it in place until the cabinet modules are dismantled and moved into position for the final installation. The hardboard back extends slightly below the level of the hutch so it can be tacked to the rear edge of the desktop. Install a cord grommet just above the level of the desk to organize cables.

To avoid clutter and wasting valuable workspace with a desk lamp, I chose to light the monitor area with a pair of low-voltage halogen pot lights recessed into a melamine panel. The light panel is separated from the underside of the centre hutch units with 3/4"-thick cleats to form a wire chase. I concealed the entire assembly behind a solid birch valance attached with screws and L-brackets.

The face-mounted cabinet doors were constructed using the same method described earlier; install them with euro-style hinges.

Access hatch
Cover the opening between the base cabinets with a removable panel to provide access to cables and wires in the back. The panel consists of a painted wood frame with grooves cut around the inside to accept a hardboard insert. Join the frame at the corners with biscuits and handholds recessed into the top and bottom rails to make the panel easier to remove.

I installed a standard forced air grill near the bottom to permit heat from equipment to escape. Cleats screwed to the base cabinets allow the vent panel to be held in place with Velcro strips.

Wall and ceiling panels
Melamine panels encase the top and sides to tie the unit together and hide the interior walls and ceiling. Before measuring for these panels, I screwed a 3/4"-thick melamine spacer board to the top of the hutch to provide clearance for the cabinet doors.

I cut holes in the top panel for three additional recessed low-voltage pot lights and ran the wiring for these lights, and the ones installed earlier, to standard household light switches located on one of the side panels. You'll plug a cord running from the switch box into a standard grounded outlet after the unit is installed.

To prepare for the installation, I rolled back the carpeting and underlay to provide a solid footing for the unit and ran wiring for telephone lines, data connections and electrical outlets to the centre of the back wall so they could be accessed from the removable panel.

Next, I assembled the modules directly in front of the closet opening so it would be easy to see how they would come together and so I wouldn't have far to move them. With a the help of an assistant, I pushed the unit into place.

I secured the side panels to the wall studs using three-inch screws with decorative cup washers under the heads. Use a shim behind the screws to fill any gaps between the cabinet and the wall studs. That way all of the pieces will fit nice and tight.

With the unit securely in place, I installed trim around the outside edge, followed by a bead of paintable caulking to fill any gaps in between the unit and the walls. I finished up by laying down new tack strips, rolling the carpeting back into place and trimming the excess to fit.

It took no time at all for our useful new built-in office to become the most popular destination in the house. It turned out to be a cost-effective solution to our household space problems and it has opened the door to the possibility of adding additional built-in cabinets and nooks in other underutilized areas of our home.

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