Come to your senses: quality vs quantity

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Buildings have a crucial impact on the physical, mental and economic well-being of the individuals and communities that they house. Australian and international research has documented the connection between community participation and mental health and well-being. Being more connected and involved with others can improve self-esteem, increase a sense of belonging and protect against depression and anxiety.

Being born in the mid 80’s plants me aptly in the box of the ‘want-everything-yesterday’ Generation Y, and it seems lately, at every social gathering, there’s another friend indulging in the ‘Australian dream’ of purchasing their own home. This commonly equates to their building a new developer-designed, ‘project home’ on the outer urban fringes of the city. I am always intrigued to hear the reasoning behind such an act of financial commitment although it commonly goes something along the lines of “value for money, newness and the luxury of space”. Who can blame them? We are constantly bombarded with radio, television and newspaper ads telling us that indeed the dream is within reach, that we can have it all now – everything we want in a house and land package, all for a seemingly low price.

Another observation highlights, with the odd exception, that in our country we appear to be besotted with the idea of excessive amounts of space in a home. For a long time, the home has been regarded as a social indicator of success. The conviction behind the reasoning appears to be the bigger, the better, ie, the more financially prosperous and therefore the more successful. Developers and councils also play an undeniable part in dictating the constraints and affordability of housing. With the inception of the mass production of industrialisation and the clean minimalist lines of modernity, is it any wonder that the production of housing is now an industry not unlike motor vehicle manufacturing?

Today the elements of good design such as adaptability, individuality and integration with surrounding environments are rarely recognised. We appear quite happy in our insular boxes forming little to no connection with the natural environment, provided we have two storeys (or at the very least a cinema room), stone bench-tops and air-conditioning. It must be understood that good design is far more meaningful and elaborate than ‘curb appeal’ and it is also subjective. I don’t wish to get bogged down in writing about the process of design, but rather why design is important in the home.

The definition for home can also be subjective and is constantly evolving. In his book ‘The Most Beautiful House in the World’, 1989, Witold Rybczynski explores the notions of home and inhabiting a house. For him, inhabiting does not “…only mean living within. It means occupying – infusing a particular site with our presence, and not only our activities and physical possessions but also with our aspirations and dreams…” By inhabiting the house, we make it alive.

Any discussion involving the meaning of home should perhaps consider the thinking of Martin Heidegger. In 1954, the German philosopher published a famous essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ within which he concludes a building should not only fulfil our basic needs for shelter but more importantly be empathetic to our physical, psychological, cultural and economic health. Individuality, as Heidegger would argue, is the essential first step in the creation of ‘home’. To him, a home is an ephemeral space that grows and evolves simultaneously with its inhabitants. This is particularly relevant to us as statistics are now showing us that the nuclear family is no longer the ‘norm’ and we are living in much larger spaces with fewer family members.

Buildings have a crucial impact on the physical, mental and economic well-being of the individuals and communities that they house. Australian and international research has documented the connection between community participation and mental health and well-being. Being more connected and involved with others can improve self-esteem, increase a sense of belonging and protect against depression and anxiety. Research has also demonstrated that contact with nature, especially vegetation, has measurable restorative effects for human health. One only has to drive through the neat neighbourhoods filled to the brim with generic housing to see that minimal social interaction happens, seemingly so quiet and uninhabited. Spaces incorporated into these homes such as cinemas and games rooms mean that the occupants rarely need to leave the safety of the house in order to be entertained. Developers have cleared and levelled vast areas of bush lands, leaving perfectly flat blocks of land for the new homes to impose themselves on. Councils and planning officers then impose strict regulations on aesthetics and design, making it impossible for purchasers to think outside of the box. In these ‘cookie-cutter’ suburbs, the connection between inside and outside has been described as under-designed and under-proportioned in relation to the often excessive building footprint.

Good, sustainable design requires more care and forethought, more focus on the genuine needs of spatial configuration for users and more attention to the environmental impact of material and energy supplies. The repercussions on the physical environment as a result of these urban growths is becoming evident, but what of the impacts on our psyche and social tendencies? A home’s ability to interact with the outside world is important to achieving a comfortable, liveable balance. Instead of locking ourselves away in air-conditioned boxes, with no physical experience of our environment, we need to negotiate a happy medium between feeling secure and environmental interaction. A great deal of Australians live in homes that work against the climate, rather than with it. These homes are too cold or too hot, use more water and energy than necessary and are made of materials that compromise the environment and our health, and are comparatively expensive to run.

In many homes there tends to be more of an emphasis on what you put into the space than to the space itself. The personalisation of a home is typically the occupant’s possessions: furniture, televisions, art and interior decorations – and these are cosmetic, lending their selections to the latest styles and technologies. A well designed home goes beyond providing the basic requirements by engaging us at a personal and human level which in turn encourages enjoyment of a more healthy and sustainable way of living. Permitting natural light, warmth, cooling breezes and integration with flora, as well as reduced running costs, reduced energy and water consumption and biodiversity conservation, are elements that everybody can benefit from.

From the above observations, three important aspects of the contemporary home come to the forefront: loss of individuality, loss of connection to surrounding environments and loss of spatial quality. Material possessions replace client-specific spatial needs in representations of individual taste. Air-conditioning, artificial lighting, false landscapes, television and the internet replace fresh air, natural light, indigenous vegetation and real people. The quantitative has become more important than the qualitative.

So the question remains, ‘Why is it that good, architecturally designed homes are not available or affordable to most people and that in order to live the ‘Australian dream’ they must settle for thoughtlessly and inappropriately designed houses?’

These houses may offer convenience, affordability, excessive space and security, but do they offer sustainable places to dwell? Is it because we place more value on the amount of things we have rather than the importance and quality of them? Perhaps. Surely moving people now and in the future towards an awareness of what should be valued in home design is the first step. These are things that, once heard, are realised as instinctual to our human nature and inhabiting intuitions.

A home is a space intended not only to admire and represent; it is a space also to be inhabited. Designing space has social considerations and, although homes are individual entities, they are always part of the larger context; the landscape, other buildings and our everyday lives.

‘We shape our buildings and afterwards, our buildings shape us.’ Winston Churchill, 1943


Jade Menzies is an architect working for Paradigm Architects based in Perth, who specialise in environmentally sustainable design in urban and regional areas of Western Australia.


Sources cited in this article:

Rybczynski, Witold. The Most Beautiful House in the World, New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Penguin Books, 1990

Meljac, Eric Paul. “The Poetics of Dwelling: A Consideration of Heidegger, Kafka, and Michael K”, Journal of Modern Literature Volume 32, Number 1

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