One of the ironic things about establishing an architecture office is that you don’t really need an office. To get started all that’s required is a desk and a computer. But even though I could have run my new design firm out of a spare bedroom, I felt creating a professional environment for my business was as important as creating a nurturing home for my family.

After founding HiWorks in 2012, I shared space with colleagues for a few years before moving to my current office on Broadway just north of Loop 410. Located just seven minutes from my home, the low, two-story brick building was designed by O’Neil Ford and incorporated the same lift-slab construction technology pioneered at the Trinity University Campus.

First built to support the newly opened San Antonio International Airport, the mid-century warehouse was later converted into offices. It’s not the most remarkable Ford project in San Antonio, but it gets the job done. I leased a little under 300 square feet of space: plenty of room for a desk and a computer as well as some sensible IKEA furniture and an antique cast-iron drafting table I inherited from my grandfather.

Over the next few years, I designed a number of buildings in and around San Antonio. A typical day might see me sketching at the drafting table or building a digital model on the computer. That was the fun part. I also wrote contracts, sent invoices, and replied to far more emails than I’d like to admit.

Just as every building I designed was different, every workday was different, too. One day I might stare at my computer screen for nine hours straight while the next day I might drive 700 miles to visit a far-flung construction site. The buildings I was designing maybe weren’t as architecturally significant as what I had done at my previous employer, but I felt I was making a positive impact on the built environment. 

Brantley Hightower, the founding partner at HiWorks.
Brantley Hightower, founder of HiWorks. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Even though I often collaborated with other architects in town, I was technically a sole proprietor which meant I was my own boss. I may have been working more hours than I ever had before, but I had more freedom to shift my schedule to make time for other “extracurricular” activities. I wrote a book. I produced a podcast. I taught at San Antonio College. Perhaps most importantly, I was able to walk my girls to school every morning and take them to Six Flags if they had the day off. This flexibility allowed me to achieve that rare and elusive thing: a healthy balance between my work life and my home life.

Then 2020 happened. 

For many, the lockdown was a time of loneliness and isolation. For me, it was the opposite. I went from working alone to having three officemates, two of whom were quite loud and needed constant help with their remote learning

For as frightening as those first few months of the pandemic were, my family and I were lucky. We remained healthy and both my wife and I had jobs that allowed us to work from home. As spring turned to summer, my workload increased as people began to realize the importance of having a dedicated home office. Whereas clients once only needed a desk with a computer to occasionally fire off an email or two, they now required a dedicated space with a door. 

One artifact of the massive switch to online video telecommunication was the creation of a new type of space. Up until March of 2020, we mostly lived in our homes and worked in our offices. And then we all suddenly entered the uncanny valley of “Zoomspace.”

This new kind of space was neither truly private nor truly public. You may have attempted to create a “professional” environment in the area captured by your computer’s camera, but for most, it was still your bedroom or dining room. Because of this, your clients and colleagues received a window into your personal life they had never seen before. Did you mean for everyone to see that copy of Fifty Shades of Grey on your bookshelf? Did you intend to leave that empty cereal bowl on the table for three days running? Are your children always that loud? Even turning on a “virtual background” was revealing. Just what horrors lurked behind that sunny image of a tropical beach?

More than just the opportunities for embarrassment, working from home proved to be insidious in that it confused one of the most essential binaries of our lives. You may have been at work, but you were in your home. But just as we were working in our homes, we are also living where we worked. We may have saved time because we didn’t need to commute from home to work, but that also meant there was no meaningful separation between those two types of physical spaces and states of mind. Your work was always there whether it was 9:30 on a Monday morning or 10:30 on a Saturday night. 

Like everyone else, I was eager for things to return to something resembling normal and head back to the place where I work. Now that my family is vaccinated (our youngest daughter received her first dose earlier this month), I’m once again working in my little office on Broadway. Even though I now know I could work from home, I still prefer my office. I may only need a computer and a desk, but these past two years have reinforced how essential it is to have a dedicated space for work. I’ve come to appreciate that in order to maintain that healthy balance between my work life and my home life, those two things need to be separated — even if only by a seven-minute commute.

Brantley Hightower

Brantley Hightower is an architect at HiWorks. He also teaches at San Antonio College and is the interim editor of Texas Architect magazine.