What is the problem with our housing?
Modern housing is in a crisis and it’s obvious. Supply and demand, wealth and income inequality, the working homeless — these things show us there is a deep fault line in our modern housing system. But what is the problem behind it? We know the symptoms of a sick housing system, but what is the actual illness? Like a doctor, we must look at the symptoms to find the cause, and we need to understand the body to understand the symptoms. In other words, we need to define what a house is and what it does in order to find what is wrong with modern housing.
Originally, a house was a cave that our ancestors sheltered in to keep warm and out of the rain. As human civilisation grew, so too did our houses. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that culture informs architecture. Nations, religious groups, and local communities have different ways of building, designing, and living in their homes. Some cultural groups, termed nomadic, even reject what we would think of as a typical, fixed location abode for one that can move with the livestock or the game or their whims. All of these groups use houses for different reasons, and so value different aspects of housing, with many of these values descending from the things that make their culture unique.
So what are modern, western culture values in housing? We can see some of what it values by looking at what people call the “best” houses. A few things immediately stand out: the size of a home is one of the biggest attractors to a modern western home, and there often seems to be no limit to the best size for a home. Mansions with the number of rooms approaching triple figures are upheld as fantastic houses, even though many of these rooms aren’t even used the majority of the time. This tells us that it isn’t the number of rooms, or the size of a house even, but the status and the wealth needed to have a house that large.
In a similar way, we can look at the opposite: tiny houses. These designs have few rooms utilising a minimum amount of space. Yet, these homes are praised by architects and homeowners alike, reinforcing the idea that the number of rooms and the size is not the only thing people value directly in a house. However, people usually like at least one bedroom per person, or a shared bedroom for a couple, implying that people value having a space that is their own.
Different people also value different rooms in the house. For example, a car enthusiast might want a large garage and workshop filled with cars and tools, while someone who loves food might want a fully stocked kitchen and a large pantry. These different values differ among individuals as well as between cultures, but they all tend to be important when people are looking for a new home.
It may be tempting to label our newfound love for homes that have our interests in mind as a product of modern materialism, but this isn’t really true. Houses and palaces hundreds of years old have had libraries for the homeowners’ books, and people have always wanted room for their tools and for the things they use for leisure (a home-brewing setup for example).
We can also look at the other end of the spectrum to understand what people want at the minimum from a house, by looking at the houses people don’t idealize (frequently inhabited by people at the bottom of society, the poor). Houses that look bad on the outside, that are falling apart and have leaks and draughts, and those that are too small are all seen as undesirable to most people, but for the poor, there is no alternative. It is easy to see what people value in a house in this sense: they want the house to work correctly so it isn’t falling apart, they want its appearance to be up to a reasonable standard to uphold its status value, and they want space of their own inside which is not found in a smaller home. All of these values reinforce what we have learned from the opposite end of the housing spectrum.
We do have cases that defy what we might expect, and can often suggest a hierarchy of values. Tiny houses are great examples of this. On the surface they appear too small for most people (most tiny house won’t exceed 50m², whereas the average house size in New Zealand is 149m²), however, many people are flocking to tiny houses. This suggests people can value efficiency of the use of space over the raw size of the house, backing up our theory of a hierarchy of values.
All of these changes in what we value in a house suggest that we no longer see a house like the caveman saw a cave — as a way to shelter and stay warm. For better or for worse, houses have become an integral part of our lives, a place for recreation, a status symbol, and a major investment in someone’s life.
All of the things we value in a house come from our culture and ourselves, but our houses can affect us as well. A cold, damp house is unpleasant to live in and can cause physical and mental health problems from prolonged exposure. Homes with little to no natural light can be bad to live in for too long, as Vitamin D from the sun has been linked to positive effects in disease prevention and mental health. The Chinese have the concept of Feng Shui, where ornaments and plants, orientations of furniture and doors, and even the house itself can affect a person’s life.
Looking at what we have found, it is a natural next step to say that the problem of housing is houses not fitting people’s values, or that someone’s purpose for a house might not match what the house can do. How do we remedy this? I believe that we have seen the answer before.
Tiny houses were a trend that ran counter to what we might think that people needed a minimum amount of space and rooms to be happy with their home. Instead, tiny homes focused on efficient use of the space they had, and people were willing to sacrifice a part of this value of space and room numbers in order save money and efficiently use the space they had. This efficient use of space is a direct result of the design of the house, and an intelligent one at that. If we can apply this ethos of efficient design to satisfy the other things people value in a home, then we are a step closer to solving our housing problem.
The way the market is going (and some might say we’re there now), many people won’t be able to buy a home, let alone one that can satisfy all their values. The tiny house design ethos of efficient, and therefore cost effective use of materials and space can help with this. Building homes for cheaper and having more houses in the same amount of land should lower the price of houses in a rational market enough that more quality homes are available to more people. However, the problem is that existing houses cost a lot to buy, knock down, and replace with tiny houses, and in fact, many of the houses being built are not built with efficiency of space or materials in mind. If we can build and sell more houses that use space and materials efficiently and build more efficient houses on unused land, then we can shift the housing market in a positive direction.
What solution do we have then? We need to build a house that is efficient in both cost and space, and has enough room to satisfy what a modern person wants in a home, such as space for recreation and leisure. Surely if such a house existed it would be used by now right?
(Well, not exactly.)
The design I’m referring to is the Geodesic Dome. They’re light, strong, efficient with space and heating, and satisfying many of the conditions we require for a successful modern house. So why don’t we see them everywhere? The shape is an obvious one, which I’ll discuss later, but one reason is that while many were built in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the ones built were not very well-constructed. They leaked profusely, required construction materials manufactured in shapes that were often not available off the shelf, and had moisture and sound insulation problems on the inside of the dome.
However, despite all the negatives with the houses, the things that people had predicted that made them great had come true. They were easy to construct, with teams of four or five people constructing the frame in a few days. The design (if constructed properly) was energy efficient, with many people reporting vastly reduced heating bills. The strength of the design made them very resistant against extreme weather and natural disasters.
Like any new technology, people tended to remember the failures rather than the successes of something that promised so much, and domes slipped in popularity. But with new technologies in sealing, acoustics, and manufacturing, this is the perfect time for the design to have a comeback.
One thing that has endured in the dislike for domes is the actual shape of them — next to conventional rectangular, right-angled houses, they look weird. I’ll be honest, when I first saw a geodesic dome house, I didn’t ever think I’d want to live in one. After a bit of exposure to them, the shape grew on me, such as the Judge Residence in the Hollywood Hills (which was unfortunately demolished).
I actually grew to love the design. The more I thought about it though, was that in this day and age with the direction of the housing market and the way climate change will affect our lives, if I can choose a home that’s cheap and affordable, and has environmental benefits, why should I discount it simply because it’s not a design that I’m used to?
Writing something off simply because we’re not used to it is a narrow way of looking at the world, and an option that we increasingly don’t have the luxury of taking. Like with what values we prioritise in our lives when choosing a house, we need to realise that some priorities shouldn’t be as strict as others.
The design of geodesic domes may not for everyone, this much is clear. If people can learn to look past the appearance and see the strengths of the design then they can find a home that can satisfy anyone’s desire for a functional home. If we all built and lived in cheap, functional homes then our housing problem disappears and we are left with better housing for all.