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Is home still a haven?

Jenny Winfield
Jenny Winfield explores how our understanding of home has been shaped by the invasion of portable devices

Homes are almost universally recognised as spaces of immense importance. ‘Home’ is a place to belong; a ‘household’ denotes a sense of unity. Building a home makes a family out of a mere group of people and is an inscrutable embodiment of their relationships.

There have been some quite dramatic shifts in the way people’s homes are designed, organised and lived in; namely, that architects, designers and homeowners are increasingly exploring the idea of flexible domestic spaces. Because people now live longer than ever, we should all be preparing for the reality of bigger households. Trends consultancy LSN Global has identified a group of what it terms ‘Boomerang Boomers’: parents returning to live under the same roof as their children and grandchildren, creating 1950s-style multi-generational families.

These are referred to as ‘Beanpole’ families, with smaller numbers per generation but a broader span of ages being accommodated in one space. The lifestyle implications are interesting – on the one hand, free and accessible childcare enables parents to work longer hours, but it also means they have the pressure of caring for both children and their own parents under one roof. These new living spaces must therefore meet the needs of all family members, not only practically – such as wider hallways for wheelchairs – but psychologically, too, with enough spaces for privacy, quiet and relaxing on one’s own.

We’re also witnessing a massive growth in urbanisation, particularly in the BRIC economies. According to the United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO), in 1950, 70% of the world’s population lived rurally; by 2050 this ratio will have flipped, with 70% of us living in cities. This means that living in smaller spaces is becoming a reality for families rather than singletons, and the demand for flexible spaces and design solutions that can perform many tasks (for example, transform from an adult living space to a play area, or even a bedroom, on a daily basis) will be a key driver of innovation.

A long way from ‘home’

New homes are now being conceived and designed with multiple functions in mind: walls that can be hidden or reconfigured to create totally new spaces, or which turn from opaque to transparent to reveal natural light sources. The challenge will be to make these affordable and practical for the masses. Students from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design have been working on homes with rooms that fold up when not in use and roofs that change shape to take advantage of sunlight.

This multi-use ethos isn’t confined to the fabric of a property either. Modular furniture – hugely popular in the 1960s and now making a technologically advanced comeback – allows for practical add-ons and makes clever use of dead space within ceilings and floors. Matroshka Furniture (which takes its name from the famous Russian stacking dolls) is a system that saves space while making that space work harder. One 161 sq ft (15 sq m) unit reconfigures to provide a desk, a lounge, a dining area, seating for 12, a bed and ample storage.

It’s appealing to think of home as a dynamic space that evolves over time to suit the changing needs of families. However, from a broader perspective, this evolution is also changing the definition and meaning of ‘home’ and breaking down longstanding assumptions about domestic life.

There’s something about this move away from clearly delineated household space that should be easy to accept, but many of us resist these new definitions. Anthropologists have a theory which might help us to understand this hesitation. They describe the essence of home in terms of the different boundaries it contains: between inside and outside, public and private, you (either singly or collectively) and ‘other’.

Having a sense of ‘us and them’ is important to families. It helps to physically distinguish the unit from the outside world and builds a sense of cohesion away from ‘others’. Renowned Anthropologist Mary Douglas explicitly referred to the importance of exerting control over time and space in the home to create a framework of expected and desired behaviours. This is most evident within house shares, where friends can struggle to control how spaces are used and time is framed, leading to feelings of being unsettled and unhappy. On the flip side, households comprised of friends that tend to work well are those where family values are closely replicated: eating meals together, bonding in communal spaces and working to the same time patterns.

This togetherness is often called ‘ontological security’ and is about developing a set of values around the way you want to live in partnership with those close to you. The home is the natural environment for the creation of these bonds; whether we are conscious of it or not, it is both physically and psychologically ‘away’ from others.

Or it was, anyway. The massive influx of technological devices (particularly portable devices) into our homes is dramatically challenging our domestic boundaries. Living spaces, for example, were once clearly defined in terms of the activities they hosted and therefore belonged to certain family members more than others – the kitchen for family congregation, the shed as a ‘man’s’ space. We now live in environments that are more democratic and open for any family member to use how and when they want to. This is partly due to contemporary social and cultural values translating into family members taking part in the same activities, but it also has a lot to do with technology. Thanks to its portable nature, technology is influencing the way individual spaces within the home are zoned and used, making them far more flexible.

When bulky computers used to be ‘stationed’ and telephones screwed to the wall (who else remembers seeing how far the cord would stretch for private teenage whispers?) we didn’t have much choice but to use tech in specific ways, at specific times and in specific rooms. Now that we can carry our devices anywhere and use them for a multitude of purposes, we are seeing living spaces and behaviours transformed in tandem.

The sofa used to be for relaxing. Now it’s for learning, working, playing, reading, watching TV. This flexibility allows more freedom within the household but it can also be a source of worry. Parents used to consider their daughters’ bedrooms as places of safe ‘containment’ in the domestic sphere, away from all of the dangers of the outside world; it’s now realistic to consider those assumptions shattered.

Letting the outside in

Home used to be the ‘first space’, with work the second and public spaces the third. Today, more people work from home, and home is becoming more like a public space as we (and family members) constantly invite in social networks. Notions of localised behaviours are converging. Webcams are windows into our private worlds, and could be seen to threaten the cohesion that once came from family living space. Now, we have to actively construct time away from technology in order to relate to our own relations.

Anthropologist Heather Horst undertook a study of families living in Silicon Valley over two years. She found that “in contrast to the industrial workplace wherein the factory gate established a clear boundary between work and domestic life, workers in the ‘knowledge economy’ maintain more fluid boundaries between home and work”. In family homes where the parents work in the fast-paced, businessminded technology industry, Horst says the kids “assimilate a mentality of innovation, hard work and self-regulation”.

Technology is not only a tool, however. The importance placed on it by members of the household can also change the ideology around the technology – as an enabler or an enemy that can permeate the safe boundaries embodied in our understanding of home.

The idea that all things – however inert – have, through their design, purpose use, the ability to affect the way we behave, means that they have their own agency. All objects have existing identities that can either work with us or against us in our pursuit of what we think is the right way to live. We go through a series of ownership rituals when we buy a product, in a bid to turn it from meaningless commodity into something profoundly personal. We do this by positioning it purposefully in the house, cleaning it, or adapting it to suit our needs. We personalise it with our information. Gadgets lend themselves particularly well to these rituals of personalisation. The more we put in, the better the experience we get out. And the degree to which gadgets ask us to ‘own them’ is intense – far more so than with other objects in the home. Additionally, we anthropomorphise them, projecting human characteristics onto their steely surfaces – and we ‘opt in’ to letting them interrupt us.

Objects are central to social relations (we can trace this back to the origins of gift giving). Their capacity to threaten existing social order is as potent as their potential to deliver positive change. Architects use the fact that buildings and spaces – as well as objects – engender certain behaviours and feelings. We can feel intimidated by, welcomed into or ‘at home’ in a space. Anthropologist Daniel Miller reports feeling out-smarted by his own home – with the money to buy an aesthetically beautiful house but (by his own admission) not the taste to feel totally comfortable in or deserving of it. He describes living there as a process of relationship building with the space itself, a gradual project of ownership.

Opening the door to smarter living

Alladi Ventakesh, Professor of Marketing from the University of California, has spent more than 15 years studying the consumer response to the evolving concept of ‘smart homes’. He says that people’s feelings range from attracted to repulsed by the idea of living in one.

Those who express negative responses feel that the infrastructure supersedes the caregiver’s role in the household. Women in particular have struggled with adopting technology to make their lives appear easier, for fear that it would undermine their perceived domestic role as ‘work’, and hence lessen their value within the family unit and that of wider society. Rather than simply ‘lightening the load for Mum’, many early advertisements for kitchen appliances attempted to displace time to other, more needy areas of domestic life, such as spending time with children. It’s never been about putting your feet up.

A truly smart home could be just what elderly people need; with its capacity to provide surveillance and alert family members, it can alleviate worry and even danger. All of these outcomes imply that technology is capable of acting in a way that threatens the status quo. Is that such a bad thing?

The pros and cons of allowing technology into the house have been of intense interest to sociologists, geographers, designers and families alike, because if our idea of home changes, then so will culture more broadly. If technology brings home, work and culture into one borderless space, then there’s a chance that the widely accepted notions of first, second and third places are becoming irrelevant.

By bringing technology into the home we are not only breaking down the barriers between inside/outside and public/private, we’re also challenging the boundary between us as humans and technology as ‘other’. Consumption of media in the home can effectively challenge the tight and fragile weave of variables that makes it distinctly ours, and we should recognise that new technologies in the home space are more than faddish objects. They are artefacts with great potential to change the way we live.

Jenny Winfield is a Design Researcher who studied Social and Cultural Anthropology and now works at IDEO London. She specialises in understanding the effects of media and consumption on the home environment.

Having a sense of ‘us and them’ is important to families. It helps to physically distinguish the unit from the outside world and builds a sense of cohesion away from ‘others’

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