Arise DeskZilla

I use a standing desk when working in my office (and if I could find a light weight portable option I’d use one on client sites as well). Many of the greatest leaders have used standing desks.

There are proven medical benefits to getting off your backside when working. It’s worth bearing in mind that sitting for a living is an invention of the late 19th and early 20th century. Prior to that most people did have to move around a lot. But standing desks can be expensive. So a theme has developed over the past few years of hacking functional standing desks that are ergonomically aligned using a low capital investment model (for which we must read “it don’t cost much if you make a mess of it”). The source of raw materials is a certain Swedish home improvements store famed for their meatballs that I won’t name here because they are very protective of their brand name. But a good source of ideas for how to repurpose their stuff can be found here.

About 18 months ago, after a flare up of back trouble, I did a bit of research (using the hacks site linked to above and a few others) to see how I might best build a standing desk on a near-zero budget. I started with a few basic design principles:

  1. Aim for “minimum viable product” – it had to meet ergonomic requirements for me and my height, but I guessed it how I worked, laid out my work, and how the desk would need to function would evolve as I changed from sitting on my ass to moving around.
  2. Reuse or recycle things I already had – I had a desk already. I wasn’t going to junk that. I also had a pretty cool laptop stand with cooling fan and USB ports.
  3. Kaizen principles – I’d look to find ways to reduce waste of effort and time when working, and accept that the desk would not be perfect as I’d always find something else to improve how it works for me and with me.
  4. MacGyver rocks.

Ergonomics

Some basics. If you don’t have your standing desk set up correctly you will simply make things worse for yourself. Do some research. Buy a measuring tape. Think about posture, stance and positioning. I train (as often as I can, which isn’t often enough) in Aikido so I am very concious of my centre point (hara) and the need to have hips and back aligned correctly for good movement and energy flow.

Some good resources for standing desk ergonomics I found during my research are here, here, and here. A recent resource that covers off some good “dos and don’ts” can be found here.

Introducing DeskZilla

DeskZilla was the result of my research and my design principles. It was built entirely from parts purchased from Ikea (oops I’ve named them), with a few extra bits thrown in to make minor adjustments.

Picture of deskzilla standing desk

First iteration of DeskZilla.

The parts I used were:

  1. A Vika/Amon desktop (no longer available). It is 100cm wide and 50 cm deep. For alternative table tops, see here: Ikea TableTops
  2. An Ekby Jarpen shelf for the monitor and laptop level, with three Ekby Tore clamp brackets (3 ensures shelf doesn’t bow in the middle). Ikea actually illustrate the use of the brackets on a desktop on their website now.
  3. Capita legs for the desk (which require a little MacGyvering with a drill to make some new screw holes for them as they are not meant as desk legs). I went for these as they could be adjusted up to 17cm high. Note that the Capita legs aren’t MASSIVELY extendy, they adjustable to compensate for uneven floors in the furniture they are supposed to be used on. But a centimetre or two can make all the difference.
  4. Two power blocks from Aldi that bolted onto the desk. I put them on the rear edge to stop DeskZilla from sliding backwards.

Total cost, a little over €70.

A key point… it is really important to measure your existing desk and the height/depth of each component to make sure things are going to be at the right height.

What I have with Deskzilla is a modular system where I can move the monitor and laptop down on to the lower level and move the keyboard and mouse down to the lower desk and use it as a sitting desk. The monitor is almost exactly perfectly positioned for a sitting desk when on the first level.

I had to add a pencil box under the keyboard to move it up a centimetre and a half or so for better ergonomics when typing. The monitor is now raised up on a hardback books to improve positioning (more on that in a moment).

Evolution, Phase 1

Almost immediately DeskZilla began to evolve. While the monitor was almost perfectly aligned, I found that video conferencing was a great way to double check.

Rule of thumb: if you have a webcam in your monitor your eyes should be in line with the lens. A hardback book fixed that.

After a few weeks of use I noticed I was getting stiffness. Some gym mats from Argos on the floor provides an anti-fatigue feature, and I still have my chair and can switch to sitting if I get too stiff and sore any day. The body is a bugger and some days you can stand without issue for hours (I pulled a 27 hour straight working day on a project last year… standing almost the entire time) and other days it hurts like heck after a few hours.

Second rule of thumb: listen to your body and adapt each day.

Evolution Phase 2

DeskZilla will evolve again soon. Experience with the monitor, and the hassle of bending to get pens, post-it notes etc,  tells me that it might make sense to swap the Ekby shelf for one with drawers that has the same length and a bit more height. The Ekby Alex shelf looks like a contender. The only reason I rejected it in Phase 1 was cost – it would have been over 50% additional on the budget.

I also need to think about raising the desktop a little to remove the need for a pencil case under the keyboard. That could be achieved through castor guards or something like that (the things that you put on furniture that is going on a wooden floor), another option is some half-inch wooden blocks  between the Ekby desktop and the Capita legs to give a small height boost. That last option would be a good call for anyone over 6ft 2″ who wanted to use this recipe, and could be a way to incrementally tweak the height to what you need rather than relying on just the leg extendibility.

Finally, I’ll probably invest in a folding bar stool type chair, or an ironing board chair to use when fatigue kicks in to take the weight off my ankles and knees.

Some key lessons about standing while working

  1. Think zen and do yoga. Simple stretching movements keeps fatigue at bay and helps strengthen core.
  2. Don’t stand still… move around and shift posture.
  3. Get used to working in shorter bursts and then changing position. I used to sit motionless for hours, now I work in 10 to 15 minute bursts and then switch posture or position… any longer and I stiffen up, which can hurt and break concentration any way. Movement keeps the brain awake!
  4. Two monitors makes a massive difference, but only if you aren’t having to crane your neck to see it.
  5. Your workspace will evolve around you. Find a natural movement and flow for you and settle into it. If you force it you’ll find it just doesn’t click for you.
  6. Breathe. Take advantage of your posture and position to take deep breaths and relax into your work.
  7. Each day you will need to improvise something to tweak a factor to improve comfort and flow. Accept that and get on with it
  8. The Desk is NEVER finished if you are building your own, (and it’s never perfect if you bought it off the shelf)
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