Homes may be the most powerful projection of architectural value. Because shelter is essential for all of us, the home is architecture’s universal function. We’re all experts on what our own home must be, to us.
But architects often have a different view of a home. Twenty years ago — during the recession before the last recession— I remember hearing an architect declare that he could earn a living designing house until “real work came along.” Another architectural meme is the classic first job - designing a house for your parents.
But the universal reality of a home, the one place that everyone needs and knows, offers up value for architects, and it has nothing to do with style. There are extreme variations found in how prefabricated homes are presented, from the most cynical pandering of homebuilder marketing, to the lazy thoughtless style-branding by realtors, to the dismissive prejudice of most academic or “serious” architects who discount “vernacular” (i.e. not modernist) homes.
Homes offer lessons to designers because they’re at once infinitely personal and culturally pervasive. They can be as simple as a glass of water, or as complex as an eight-course meal.
I thought it might be valuable to lay out the slippery realities that I have discovered designing, building, writing, and talking about homes for the last 40 years:
None of these observations deal with sites, or neighborhoods, or cultures, because all buildings must deal with larger contexts. The domestic flavor has a huge bandwidth: homes can be “machines for living” or “home sweet home,” but the character of where we live is always revelatory and personal (otherwise, it’s just a bed, any place).
Maybe it’s all in the name: perhaps “house” is a place to live, but a “home” is a fusion of place, family, and the people who use it. The vast majority of people simply buy or rent them and decorate; perhaps 2% use designers to create a fused, evolved, and thought-out reality. You’re free to interpret this as “reality.”
Our homes are our most expensive objects, no matter how big or small. They can be used to make money by simple appreciation, or they can wreck net worths, as millions discovered in the last decade.
Architects can dive into the values and perceptions of the homeowners they design for, or they can design for themselves. It’s much harder to listen than speak, especially for those who live to design.
Here’s the final paradox: Creating a home is the most personal act that architects can be part of. But the challenge is that despite our training and skill we’re not the experts. Those who live in what we design know more than us about the manifestation of their hopes and dreams. We just have to listen well enough to lead.
Duo Dickinson has been an architect for more than 30 years. The author of eight books, he is the architecture critic for the New Haven Register, writes on design and culture for the Hartford Courant, and is on the faculty at the Building Beauty Program at Sant'Anna Institute in Sorrento, Italy.