Are we making our homes sick?
“… the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home.” ― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1958)
Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher whose work bridged poetry and philosophy of science, wrote extensively about the meaning of home in his seminal text The Poetics of Space. Although multidimensional in nature, The Poetics of Space is fundamentally a reflection on the experiences that houses create; a reflection that considers the relationship between built form and the architecture of the imagination. Despite being written during the 1950s – a period of post-war optimism about a bright new future – Bachelard’s ideas remain just as important today as we see with greater clarity the extent of human impacts on our global environment.
In part, the houses of the future envisaged in the 1950s have become the childhood homes for many in western societies today and were indeed better built, lighter and larger than those that had gone before. Advances in material technologies, improvements in energy and water provision and increasing regulation of construction have all contributed to the physical manifestation of the 1950s dream home, but at what cost?
Household consumption of water, energy and food in Europe has increased dramatically since the 1950s and the environmental impacts of this growing consumption are felt far beyond our homes as global resources are extracted, transported and consumed around the world. We purchase greater numbers of electronic devices than ever before and replace these more often, and while our homes are more energy-efficient, they are larger and house fewer people who expect warmer temperatures in every room of the house. Washing machines have been joined by dish-washers, power showers and jet cleaners to comprise a suite of everyday household appliances that are hugely consumptive of water. Indeed, the increased consumption of resources in our homes has been so dramatic that some commentators are prophesising a ‘perfect storm’ of global conflicts driven by increasing demand for water, energy and food by 2030. In making our dreams of an ideal future house real have we instead made our homes sick?
As we enter the epoch of the Anthropocene, it is time to reconnect with the metaphorical childhood home of which Bachelard speaks. This means creating homes that provide comfort, security, and stability in ways that are less consumptive of natural resources and more productive of sustainable lived environments. As le Corbusier – a pioneer of modern architecture – once said “[t]he home should be the treasure chest of living”.
Seeking future-fit homes in this way does not mean that prospective housing will become homogenised. Indeed, reconnecting homes with local environments is likely to mean more diversity rather than less as weather, topography and the relative scarcity or abundance of certain materials begins to play a greater role in shaping the way we live. We need only look at the range of homes emerging in the tiny house movement, constructed in part due to the “sickness” of contemporary living, to get a sense of the rich tapestry of design that such a reconfiguration of desires might create. What both the tiny house movement and many other sustainable household initiatives have in common is their reconsideration, very much in line with Bachelard’s treatise, of what it means to live well in our homes. All seek lifestyles which are prosperous in ways which transcend the treadmill of acquiring more and more stuff. While evidence increasingly suggests that beyond a certain point having more material goods, products, and even resources themselves, does not to lead to proportional increases in feelings of well-being, changing the way we live will require more than sensitivity to emotions. The complexity of modern living means we are often locked-in to unsustainable practices in our homes. From the physical constraints of waste-water disposal systems to the rigidity of heating options, it can be costly to extricate oneself from the legacies of past decisions. Beyond these concrete infrastructures of consumption, transformative change in the way we dwell in our homes will require new supports, new systems of education and new measures of success and fulfilment against which to benchmark the health of our homes.
In essence, we face an urgent task of transforming our visions of dream houses into a physical reality of more sustainable homes of the future. Such a task will require fundamental reconsideration of what a good life entails and that is a debate in which everyone must have a voice.
Anna R. Davies
This essay appears in the HOME\SICK Exhibition Catalogue, which Anna curated along with Anne Enright (Booker Prize winning author), Ali Grehan City (Chief Architect for Dublin City Council), Alexandra Deschamps Sonsino (interaction designer, product designer and entrepreneur) and Lynn Scarff (Acting Director of the Science Gallery). HOME\SICK runs from 01/05/15 until 19/07/15 in the Science Gallery, Dublin 2. Details available from: https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/homesick CONSENSUS has an exhibit – WASHLab – in the exhibition: https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/homesick/washlab