Are You Designing a House? Or a Home?

I know it’s a cliché. I would yet like to remind ourselves of the fact that while engineers build houses, it is the residents who make them into homes. Houses are made of bricks and mortar. On the other hand, the building blocks of home are communication, bonding, and understanding.

My father and mother built their first home several decades ago. Since we were a family with inadequate means; before the new house was built, we had to make do with a shoe-box style rented accommodation during our growing years. Then father worked very hard and mother tried to save every penny she could. They were lucky to get hold of an inexpensive plot of land a bit away from town. What was their philosophy of home design? Simple- they wanted it to cater to their needs and aspirations. When a small-time architect arrived to talk to them, my mother said that all she wanted was a huge living room that had doors and windows on all sides. The father agreed. The place had to be large, open, and airy- that was their only requirement. Since the architect was less imposing (and extremely accommodating), he built a house that had a disproportionately large living room. There were no bedrooms in the house!

The house violated all principles of design. Yet, my parents never regretted their decision. Our family enjoyed the forced togetherness that such a design brings in. In fact, as time passed by, we grew an attachment to the place, and the little-left want of privacy disappeared altogether. As they grew older, and as their children left their abode, my parents needed a place where they could constantly see each other and be with each other. Their ‘ill-designed’ house was now perfect for their need. As age made them feeble, they benefited more and more from the lack of walls. They wanted air, visibility, lots of sunlight- and they had it all in abundance. Like all families, my parents had a number of ups and downs in their lives, they had their share of good and bad decisions. Yet, this was one decision they took pride in: their well -designed home that might appear as ill-designed house to many.

Now, that was an example of a ‘bad’ house design that turned out to be a perfect home design for the people who lived in. The focus was on communication and bonding among the family members, and not on professional expertise or knowledge of design. Perhaps that is why the design that these two people created made them content and gratified.

When we design homes, buy furniture and artifacts, the objects and things are not an end in themselves. They are just there to provide us opportunities to build communication and trust within the family. Imagine a small family that goes to shop, be it for large beds, a sofa set, or glass panes for windows. It does not really matter whether they know the basics of aesthetics. It does not really matter whether they make decisions based on the principles of design science. As long as they are all together in that decision, it gives them a sense of belonging, a sense of ownership of their abode. With this sense of ownership and belonging, the family as a whole is elevated to the next level of awareness and of living. When they are together in that experience, the family bond gets enriched and strengthened as they continue to live in the new home. To put it simply, expertise in design is not an essential ingredient to design a happy family home. What is essential is the togetherness, the communication, the shared experience during the designing effort.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to appreciate this simple fact all the time. One of my acquaintances, for example, thinks that she understands all about furnishings and their placement. Actually, I think she really does. She has done a host of research, has seen a number of homes, and has an innate ability to put all elements together. However, since she became such an expert in design, her husband and other family members are unfortunately unable to match her expertise. In discussions, she gets frustrated as they don’t understand the ‘basics’. As a result, some family members are sometimes excluded from discussions, visits and consultations. At times, the family members excuse themselves when the discussions get too technical for them. The husband and her sons have mixed reactions to this experience. Sometimes they feel that it is best to leave all the decisions in her expert hands. At other times, they feel concerned whether their needs will be really addressed by the design of their new home. However, the most serious case is of the husband. When he spoke to me frankly, he said, “Anil, just because I know about design less than her does not make me less of a husband. Minimally, it does not make me less of an owner of the house. It might be just me, but every time I speak of a design issue, I feel as if I am being ridiculed. Worse, every time this happens, I feel I am going a bit away from my home, my family, and, worse, my wife.”

I can feel how the husband would experience a home where he does not belong. The home was not designed for him. Worse, he was only secondary to the design. He will have a new house, but probably not a home.

Why is this sense of belonging so crucial? Psychologists have attempted several studies to address this phenomenon. There is a recent study by Lambert that concluded that when social relationships provide a sense of belonging, humans feel life has more meaning. This effect was discovered in an experiment in which participants were blindfolded and were asked to think of people or groups to which they really belonged. Then they were asked about how much meaning they felt life had. This group was then compared with two other groups where participants thought about the value of other people in their lives and the support that others had offered to them. Compared with these two groups, participants who had been thinking about the groups they belonged to felt the highest levels of meaning in life. Thus, a sense of belonging proved to be superior to the value of others and assistance or support received from others. In simple words, do offer support to others. But what matters more than such support is assuring others that they belong to you or to your group. Humans have a greater need for a sense of belonging than assistance or support in their everyday lives.

Although bonding in a relationship is important, what is more important is the assurance that you are ‘fitting in’ with others. This feeling is associated with higher levels of meaningfulness in life.

Other studies in psychology have shown that the reverse is true as well. These studies have shown that human beings who feel excluded in a relationship tend to feel that life has less meaning. In severe cases, such loss of meaning can lead to psychological imbalance or depression.

When I and my wife were designing a small apartment we bought several years ago, I had recently returned from Paris. I was fascinated with the use of bidet in bathrooms in the hotels that I stayed in. We talked and the idea clicked among us. The bidet is actually a low oval-shaped basin attached to the floor in the bathroom and its soul use is to wash one’s genital and anal area. Worse, it occupies as much space as the WC unit does. After the initial teething troubles in importing and installing such units in both toilets, we began to take some pride in this novelty. However, when the novelty was worn of, we began to feel the pain of maintenance. We realized how valuable space in our bathrooms was lost for a unit that symbolized more of vanity and less of function. When we look at our old apartment today, we realise that this was just one of the cute yet expensive stupidities that we went through together while designing the flat. When the flat was new, both of us were equally enthusiastic about the little novelties. When we suffered, we were frustrated as a couple. As we look back at our younger days, as we laugh at our naivety and the silliness, the bidets in our bathrooms become (literally) concrete symbols that are very much a part of our lives. It symbolizes our shared journey as a couple from naivety to wisdom, from gullibility to maturity, and from credulity to prudence.

I have no doubt that professional home design is crucial. It can make our lives more fruitful and can improve our living experience much more communicative. I have therefore no agenda to denigrate the significance of the science of design. Yet, I am far more convinced that the process of designing is more crucial than the product. During this process, make sure to do some hand-holding with your partner and your folks. Use the process as an opportunity to smile and laugh together. Make that trip to the furniture shop a family outing. Take each other’s advice on everything you build and buy. At times, this process will be traumatic. At times, you will find that your discussions are moving in circles leading nowhere. At other times, you will find getting hold of the wrong end of the stick. Worse, you may end up buying ‘wrong’ things and making silly mistakes in design. Believe me, those inaccuracies and those perfections will be more meaningful and more livable. When your family as a unit is attached to your home design, all of you are likely to feel elated and elevated as a family unit. On the other hand, if we are merely after a design that is technically perfect and are likely to alienate our own family members in the process, a new house may be designed, but a relationship may develop some scars. Designing for pride and vanity is therefore fundamentally different from designing for happiness and contentment.

This is what John Ruskin probably meant when he said in ‘The Stones of Venice’: “To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.” The goal of any human exercise, including home design, still remains to be perfection. Yet, we may not lose sight of another higher goal. That is, tolerance for imperfection.


Anil Pathak is the Dean at the Centre for Communication, Teaching and Learning at University Technology Brunei.

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