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Perspective / section from my diploma projects’ communal housing complex. Design and illustration by Athanasia Margariti and me.

A Home is not Made with Walls and Beams

Thoughts on the role and qualities of home.

As an architect, I have developed a particular interest in the design of homes, with both my diploma design project and my thesis concerning community housing. Clarifying the role of the home in a person’s life and the characteristics it ideally has is a prerequisite to any design attempt. In the following text I shall present in a brief manner some thoughts and findings that my exploration of these concepts has resulted in.

A House is not a Home

The home is the center around which the daily life of people of most cultures’ revolves. When we talk about homes, we usually refer to buildings used to shelter people. Indeed, this condition is enough for a building to be called a home. However, looking at all the ways the word home is used in everyday language (for example, “home is where the heart is”, “a man’s home is his castle”), one swiftly realizes that providing shelter is only one of the needs a home responds to — and in reality, it is the minimum requirement.

Humans create homes in order to shelter themselves from weather conditions and other threats in their environment from the moment they developed the ability to. There is no typology of home that can respond to the needs of every person and culture. This is why the shape of homes changes through the ages, in reaction to both new technologies as well as the cultural context in which they are produced. Any home that aims to fulfill needs beyond those required for survival, provides an answer to the question of “how should man live?”. It is the ideal way of living according to each society that actually gives shape to houses. Naturally, in the design process factors such as the local climate and available materials and techniques are also taken into account, but they are judged as secondary.

Peter King in his book Private Dwelling delineates the qualities he deems necessary to distinguish a home from plain shelter. The home needs to constitute the center of the inhabitants’ actions and provide them with a sense of control of their environment (centrality). It needs to be stable and non-temporary (continuity). Privacy is also important, as control of one’s environment also includes control over the social interactions that take place there. The home is undeniably a social space. It is not only used socially but in its very design social roles and order manifest. This means that it represents specific social values, which ideally would not simply reflect ones of the past. Home needs to allow for the expression and development of the inhabitants’ identity, as it is a space closely connected to it. This extends to ideally include the ability to personalize and modify the space itself. Further, a home is the background to a great number of social interactions, which should be facilitated by its design. The space should have a warm and inviting atmosphere, which can sometimes be achieved through the mere act of a home being used. Last but not least, the physical space itself is, of course, of great importance. Interconnected with some of the aforementioned, the spatial qualities of a house (including lighting and heating) are particularly noticeable when absent.

A Home for Flourishing

Amos Rapoport in House Form and Culture separated most of contemporary urban housing into two categories:

  • Expensive luxury houses, potentially with special care in their design, attractive to developers due to substantial profits. Substantial profits, however, also mean great losses in case of failure, so experimentation and design risks are not encouraged.
  • The larger category of houses with no care in their design, architecturally dull, indifferent to the quality of life they provide and to the needs of the middle class, aiming to simply satisfy the most basic needs, those related to survival, to protection from existential threats.

But which are precisely those needs a home should aspire to satisfy?

If we adapt Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory to the issue of housing, the basic human needs a house would aim to fulfill, in order of priority, would be:

  1. Physiological needs: food, water, warmth, rest
  2. Safety
  3. Relationships, friendships, community
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The pyramid that visually represents Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs. credit

These needs correspond to the three first levels of the pyramid of needs and are those that can be directly addressed by the built environment and, therefore, the house. The other two levels, which concern esteem needs and last but not least a person’s self-actualization are not as directly connected to the built environment, but through successfully responding to the more basic needs and providing an environment that allows for evolution, it can provide a solid framework for their being satisfied.

With the time the average contemporary human spends in their home being more than at any other point in the past, attempting to facilitate daily living through design is more important than ever. Factors that affect quality of life in a home concern the availability of space, levels of noise as well as the feeling of safety which depends both by its spatial context and its own material composition.

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Satisfaction with life is correlated with satisfaction with living accommodation. Source: Chris Randall Office for National Statistics. (2012). Measuring National Well-being, Where we Live, 2012.

It is well-documented, if not apparent, that satisfying living conditions are fundamental to well-being. In their absence, the space of the house can function as a cause of mental disorders (most often depression or anxiety) or as an environmental factor exacerbating preexisting mental issues. Matters relating to the material condition and affordability of the house were found to be the most important, in that regard. This situation is a vicious circle, with mentally unhealthy individuals, due to belonging more often to the lower economic classes, ending up in progressively worse homes. It is important, then, to be mindful of the ways the built environment affects the people that inhabit it, and to use this knowledge to design spaces with care for their health, well-being and interpersonal relationships.

This text is a part of my thesis, remixed, adapted and built-upon. For some more of my thoughts on housing and design, check out my post “Emerging Modes of Life”.

I recommend both books mentioned in this post, Amos Rapoport’s House Form and Culture (1969) and Peter King’s Private dwelling: Contemplating the Use of Housing (2004), to anyone that takes more than a passing interest in matters relating to housing, home, and their design.

Written by

Introspective architect, freelance photographer, secular humanist, consumer of media. Find me on IG: @fisigma

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