Tuesday, December 19, 2023

My failed attempt at using a closet as an office

My partner and I both work from home. I'm very thankful for that as we have two young children and a commute would take up the same time we spend on getting them ready for the day. However, it's been quite a journey coming up with a home office setup that works for both of us.

We're fortunate that our 2-bedroom house in the bay area is fairly roomy - large living room, large bedroom, and a large addition to the house that looks very much like it was designed to be an office.

Here's the layout:

Blueprint of 2-bedroom house

Office #1: Built-in desk

The first obvious candidate for a home office was the "office" area, which even has a built-in desk. See how perfect it looks from the realtor's photos?

Photo of office with built-in desk

Which of us should take that? I'm often doing live streaming or video recording, so I need good lighting, good backdrop, and a high likelihood of people not moving through the space. I realized that desk wasn't a good fit for me, as it lacked all those things, so my partner put his multi-monitor setup there and has been quite happy with it since.

Office #2: Window desk

My next idea was to put a desk next to the window on the sunny side of the office and put a room divider behind me.

Blueprint showing desk next to window in office area

I tried this for a few days but realized that my partner's days are chock full of meetings, and I was constantly distracted by his fairly loud voice or I was constantly distracting him with my own loud voice. Even with our noise-cancelling headphones, we were too loud to be in the same air space, and were both convinced that the other one was definitely the loudest. I feared our relationship could not survive such a setup! 😤

Office #3: Closet desk

Our downstairs office area has a small room that was likely intended as an office, but is surprisingly well accessorized: a strip of very bright adjustable lights on the ceiling, multiple power outlets, and even a door. I decided I would attempt to use that closet as my office, and hoped that the door/wall would muffle the sound sufficiently.

Blueprint showing desk inside closet in office area

And thus begins a long, expensive, and ultimately futile adventure in trying to make a closet into something it's not...

Acoustic treatment

My first goal was to improve the room's acoustic characteristics, as small rooms suffer from bad audio due to reflections on the walls/corners. This involved:

Photo of purple and pink sound panels on wall behind a monitor


My next goal was to reduce the sound from my partner. This is notably a *distinct* goal from the first one, as this has to do with how waves travel through the walls, not how they travel within the walls. This involved:

  • Moving a bookcase against one of the external walls (mass reduces sound waves)
  • Attaching acoustic tiles to the door
  • Giving up on those tiles, hiring contractor to replace hollow core door with solid core door (most internal doors are hollow core for cost reasons, but solid core is much better for sound reduction)
  • Hanging an acoustic curtain in front of the door, on a curtain track so I could move it in front of door during meetings
  • Affixing magnetic strips around the door frame and sewing magnetic buttons onto that acoustic curtain, so that I could try to seal it around the door during meetings. (I never managed to achieve a tight seal, however).
Photo of acoustic curtain on a curtain track in front of door

Ultimately, I achieved a pretty high level of sound reduction, enough so that I could at least stream and attendees didn't seem to notice disruptive background sound. I could still hear my partner in recordings, so I tried to only do recordings when he wasn't in meetings (which was rare!), or I did post-processing to remove noise.


The best lighting is actual daylight in front of you, not overhead office lights. So I tried...

  • Replacing the existing office lights with very warm toned lights
  • Positioning a ring light using an adjustable arm
  • Buying Camo studio so I could more easily use my iPhone as a camera (better quality than most webcams)
  • Buying a wall mount holder to hold the iPhone at the right spot above my monitor
  • Buying LED lights for a little glow behind me
  • Hanging up canvas prints of famous women in STEM (printed at Walgreens photos) so that my backdrop wasn't just a dull gray
Photo of ring light Photo of iPhone wall mount

That improved my lighting to acceptable levels, I think, but you can judge for yourself by watching a video recorded with the lighting setup or checking the screenshot below.

Photo of Pamela in front of a purple-hued wall

Air quality management

As I myself started attending more meetings and doing longer streams, I started to worry about the air quality in my little office. Was I getting enough oxygen? Was I unintentionally decreasing my brain's ability to think? I first installed an Airthings air quality monitor to discover that my CO2 levels were indeed getting pretty high for meetings over an hour (1500+). Improving the air quality consisted of...

  • Hiring a contractor to install a grill in the office wall abutting the storage room and affixing a shelf to a wall in that storage room, so that fresh air could flow in.
  • Hiring same contractor to fix the window in that storage room so that I could keep the window open with a screen on all day without inviting the local wildlife in as well.
  • Buying a remote-controlled fan to forcibly blow the air in from the storage room when I could see my CO2 levels getting high.
Photo of ventilation grill in wall Photo of fan on shelf outside ventilation grill

That setup did actually work, and I was able to pull off a 6-hour live stream in my little closet, with decent CO2 levels throughout the stream. It was annoying to try to remember to open the window at start of the day and close it end of the day, so usually I'd just remember once a week to open the windows to freshen up the air in the storage room.

Temperature control

That closet had no particular means of temperature control like the rest of our house, and neither did the storage room beyond the grill. In the winter, I stayed comfortable enough by using a space heater at the start of the day while monitoring the air quality in case it increased VOCs (which it didn't seem to).

But then summer started. And oh wow, it got pretty hot (high 70s) in that little room, even with the fan, and I found it affected my ability to function well in meetings. We had also recently upgraded to a heat pump system in the rest of the house, complete with air conditioning, and I found myself fantasizing of a well conditioned office.

Office #4: Bedroom

After all that, this is the point where I finally decided that the closet-office just wasn't meant to be. I had already spent thousands upgrading it -- did I really want to spend thousands more fixing the temperature issues?

I moved upstairs into our bedroom, and setup a tiny office there, wedged between our bed and the floor bed that I share with our toddler.

Blueprint showing desk in bedroom Photo of desk wedged between two beds

To avoid my partner showing up on streams when he walks past me, I put up a curtain on a track (a wider version of the track used in the closet-office), and I start off each day by moving my curtain into place.

Photo of linen curtain on a ceiling curtain track

I reduce sound by closing the door and keeping my toddler's noise machine on during the day. As it turns out, just being on a different level helps a lot in reducing sound. I still struggle to make recordings without hearing my partner in the background, but it's basically the same level as it was inside the fully upgraded closet. Sigh!

I've written up my tale as a cautionary tale, but also because there are some improvements I made that may legitimately be helpful for your own office setup. TLDR: sometimes a closet is just a closet.

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