XXIX.3 May - June 2022
Page: 16
Digital Citation

Designing the unfinished: A home is not a house

Daria Loi

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Question your tea spoons [1].

As a trained architect, understanding how to envision a new structure and how to make it real from a materials and construction science perspective was part of my learning experience. Learning how to take into account specific contextual realities and boundaries (spatial, geological, environmental, legal) and how to coordinate execution across competencies were also part of the package.

The act of designing a new building—a house for instance—requires numerous competencies. To simplify, they can be grouped into three categories:

  • Creative abilities (e.g., artistic skills and design abilities)
  • Hard competencies (e.g., mathematics, engineering, spatial understanding, construction methods, visualization and sketching, building codes and standards, computer literacy, commercial awareness, materials knowledge)
  • Soft skills (e.g., communication, problem-solving, detail orientation, teamwork, leadership, customer orientation).

Depending on the project brief, an architect may envision and work to execute a house for a specific household or an imagined one. This is where things start getting interesting, because who will inhabit that house may (and likely will) greatly determine what type of house should be envisioned in the first place.

A house is defined by a number of characteristics that, interestingly, intermingle to ultimately define its baseline nature: structural, spatial, material, aesthetic, environmental, and ergonomic characteristics, to name a few. When these characteristics are applied to a specific household, the expected nature of each (and their sum) will likely shift, requiring adjustment and personalization. Therefore, to satisfy the client, the architect will engage in an iterative dialogue with members of the household. When, however, the same characteristics are applied to one or multiple generic households, a different approach is required. Typically, the approach includes leveraging aggregate data (sociocultural and historical, for example) and a number of abstractions and generalizations that will help envision and make decisions that should appeal to the broader, diverse audience that is projected to inhabit those spaces. Needless to say, the entire endeavor is tricky and riddled with complexities and unknowns. Parallels with any product development process are obvious and, if we extend the process to urban planning and design, the endeavor's trickiness and riddles multiply quickly.

For the purpose of this discussion, I will continue using the term house, yet the reader should be aware that I am using the term not only in a factual way but also metaphorically. In that sense, house can represent any inhabited environment, be it physical, digital, or virtual.

Who we are, where we have been, and what is meaningful to us are imprinted onto the fabric of the spaces we inhabit.

But I digress, so let's get back to the riddles and the trickiness. Regardless of what choices are made when a house is envisioned and built, it will eventually be inhabited and finally become part of the everyday lives of real humans. The house is no longer a house—the house becomes a home. Your, my, their home.

House and home. Two terms frequently used interchangeably, yet two terms that do not feel the same. A house (space) and a home (place) are indeed internalized and experienced rather differently—and the literature agrees (e.g., [2,3,4]).

Simplistically, we could say that a house is a space one buys (or rents) and a home is the place that one lives in. As such, a home is a much more complex artifact to design, as it is not only about surfaces, materials, colors, and volumes. A home has a multisensorial nature and cannot be distinguished from one's everydayness and memories; it is defined by intangible trajectories, overlapping flows, invisible routines accumulated over time, and a rather complex web of interstitial spaces.

Gaston Bachelard [3] puts it beautifully when he states:

We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images. Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.

There are subtle (or simply intangible) yet key differences between a house and a home, and clearly such differences apply to any built environment—from my son's tree house to urban-scale planning or digital environments. Once this house-and-home framework is applied to an environment, a reflection on the role of those who envision (architects, designers, planners, developers, etc.) and those who inhabit what is envisioned (humans, households, citizens) brings to the forefront two important questions:

  • How does one design a home?
  • How can a home be designed so that it can welcome and be inhabited by diverse households?

While reflecting on these questions, I sat in my home library and, within minutes, Ed van Hinte's Eternally Yours [5] somewhat jumped into my hands. This small yet delightful book explores how to increase a product's durability as an environmental design strategy, providing a wonderful glimpse of what it means to imbue a sense of home in the environments that we create, be they products, services, or systems. In discussing the notion of psychological life span—"the time products are able to be perceived and used as worthy objects"—the Eternally Yours team talks about products capable of aging "in a dignified way" as they establish an experiential relationship with their owners that makes them cherished, eventually creating a nostalgic value that makes them long lasting, if not immortal, in the eyes of their owners [5] (think childhood teddy bears).

To transform a house into one's home, the material qualities of the structure will contribute to the final outcome yet not suffice. I propose that this is because the special ingredient to enable that transformation is not completely in the designer's hands (as it demands the owner's participation), cannot be completely designed (as it needs to be built over time, in a very social constructivist fashion), and is not completely tangible (as it must take into account and enable memories and nostalgic value). Let's unpack these three special characteristics.

The first statement suggests that a home exists in relation to its owner and that its owner is transformed as the relationship evolves. It also suggests that for a home to exist, participation is key.

The second statement proposes that while a house can be finished, a home continuously evolves and is socially constructed. It is fundamentally never "completed" and that is what makes it unique, cherished, your own.

The third statement is more multifaceted, as I believe that memories and nostalgic value can be seen as by-products of eight intangible aspects.

Flow. This first aspect refers to our daily movements and trajectories in space. If we were to draw them on a house plan, we would see invisible threads that represent entwined yet distinct everyday lives and patterns, each contributing to our understanding of what home means.


Multisensoriality. We experience space, objects, and activities through multiple channels and, concurrently, space, objects, and activities are made with components that activate those channels. The smell of cooking on a Friday evening, the velvety fabric on your armchair while you sit in it reading a book, the sound of laughter from another room, light reflecting on surrounding materials, colors, and textures—our sense of home is deepened through the multidimensional nature of the space around us.

Personal curation. We shape and customize our surroundings as extensions of ourselves, and we do it on a daily basis—who we are, where we have been, and what is meaningful to us are imprinted onto the fabric of the spaces we inhabit. These curatorial activities shape our home, which shapes us in return.

Integrity. When we curate our space, we construct a vibe that our home will project onto others. While hard to describe, this vibe has its integrity. It can be perceived and experienced—it is palpable, recognizable.

Routines. Occasional, temporary, or persistent activities, frequently attached to our flows, construct our sense of home. Our routines shape our space, yet that same space affects our routines. While this dance occurs, a house becomes our home.

Pauses. A home not only offers the opportunity to create routines or establish flows but also provides the opportunity to feel safe and the space to appreciate silence and reflectiveness. In a home, we can choose when to engage, what engagement means, when to pause, and when to feel cocooned, protected.

Community. Fellow travelers and coinhabitants are crucial in creating memories and nostalgic value. A house without a community to share and co-construct it with rarely becomes a home.

Time. With time, everything and everyone evolves, changes, grows. Time helps us create a unique patina on our home, a patina that displays our home's integrity, routines, curation. We grow, change, and evolve with, through, and because of the spaces we inhabit—and they do too.

What happens when we design a something—be it a product, an urban space, or a digital artifact—as a home, instead of a house?

First, we humbly accept that the material qualities of that something will contribute to the final outcome, yet will not suffice. This alone can be a rather destabilizing task for a traditionally trained architect—and, arguably, for anyone dedicated to envisioning a something to be used, experienced, or inhabited by fellow humans.

Second, we embrace participatory practice; we add a chair to the design table and include those who will ultimately evolve our designs through their everyday practices. This, too, requires humility. It also requires us to add a chair created through pluriversal design practice [6].

Third, we make space in our processes for what is not tangible. This means that we adjust our design processes so we can incorporate into our creations the flow, multisensoriality, personal curation, integrity, routines, pauses, community, and time needed to inhabit them.

Fourth, we design the unfinished. That is, we create products, services, systems, and spaces that respect, adapt to, grow with, and welcome their ever-changing and richly diverse inhabitants. Products, services, systems, and spaces designed with a scaffold mentality, which is a mentality that leaves space for designed artifacts to evolve, shift, and grow—mirroring the diverse ways in which their users and inhabitants will interpret and inhabit them.

On their own terms, at their own pace, in their own hands.

Rilke wrote, "These trees are magnificent, but even more magnificent is the sublime and moving space between them, as though with their growth it too increased" [3].

back to top  References

1. Perec, G. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. Penguin Books, London, 1997.

2. Tuan, Y. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Edward Arnold Publishers, London, 1977.

3. Bachelard, G. The Poetics of Space. Beacon Press, Boston, 1958.

4. Steele, F. The Sense of Place. CBI Publishing, Boston, 1981.

5. van Hinte, E. Eternally Yours: Visions on Product Endurance. 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 1997.

6. Escobar, A. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Duke Univ. Press, Durham, 2017.

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Daria Loi combines design strategy with experience research and innovation to enrich people's life and humanize technology. She is vice president of customer experience at Fishtail, serves on the board of directors for Democracy Lab, is conjoint professor at Newcastle University Australia, is on the Executive Council for the CETI Institute, and cochairs the Participatory Design Advisory Board. [email protected]

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