Design, Simplicity, Small Housing

Life at Home in the 21st Century

“No archaeologist will fail to recognize the striking material signature of AD 2001-2005 America a thousand years from now.” – final sentence of the book

Last week I wrote about the perfect house, in the sense of what a home would look like as a space for everything we need to live comfortably and nothing more. The idea came from a book called Life at Home in the 21st Century, where researchers at UCLA closely followed 32 Los Angeles middle-class families in their homes for several weeks, documenting their activities, possessions, and time spent in areas of the house in over 20,000 photos and 1,500 hours of video.

The footage contains in-the-moment, real life snapshots in these houses, showing homework and bills scattered on the kitchen table, and busy bathrooms during hectic morning routines.

The overall goal is to answer the questions: ‘what do we use our homes for?’ ‘how do families spend their time and money?’ and ‘how has consumerism and technology impacted how we live?’Most of the houses were designed 40 to 70 years ago, when architects did not design for the lifestyles of contemporary households. Here’s a summary of the study’s breakdown of each area of the house, which really helps identify which rooms are useful and which should be scrapped.

The Kitchen:

“The kitchen is often a nexus for a range of family activities.” The fridge has lists, schedules and reminders. Typically more than one clock is in the kitchen, and kids do their homework at the kitchen table, despite the dining room table usually being much bigger. The “perfect” house needs to account for the kitchen as the central hub of family gathering, planning, and events, and not just simply food preparation. In the study, it was shown to be the most intensely used room in the house for most of the families.

An interesting correlation they found: the more items you have on your fridge seemed to be a reliable indicator of tolerance for stuff in the house, i.e. a more cluttered fridge means likely a more cluttered house.

The Bathroom:

The bathroom can be a bottleneck, as houses were not designed for the hectic, busy mornings of modern households. Bathrooms today when remodeled are made to be larger and more accommodating, or more bathrooms are added. That being said however, the bathroom bottleneck actually plays a pivotal role in allowing parents to teach their children about waiting for others, hygiene, and be respectful of others needs. This opportunity to instill these values might be lost with modern houses featuring 2+ bathrooms.

Outdoor Space and Leisure:

The middle classes’ leisure time is diminishing and despite acquiring hot tubs, pools, swing sets, trampolines and so on, little time is spent at all outside the home. Leisure at home is primarily indoors.

Home office:

Having a home office for parents that have office jobs is seemingly redundant, stress inducing and a constant reminder of workplace commitments.

Master Suites:

Ironically, master suites that are renovated by parents include large walk-in closet and bathroom additions, but these suites turn out to be some of the least-used space in the home during waking hours. In addition, only 60% of remodeling costs are recouped when selling the house, compared to kitchen remodels that gain back 90% of the costs.

However, as these suites are considered a ‘sanctuary’ for busy parents and therefore kept relatively clean compared to the rest of the house, they act as a psychological significance for busy parents.

Kids Bedrooms:

Two-thirds of the family’s use of space on weekdays in concentrated in two rooms: the kitchen and the family room. Considering each child typically has his or her own room to play in, they are used only 18% of the waking hours at home.

Home electronics:

Home electronics both isolate and unite family members in work and play.
The TV shapes the way we design and build our houses. Commonly furniture is organized to focus towards the television rather than promote face to face conversation. “The TV may as well be a hearth, which until quite recently in human history exerted the most influence on the spacial distribution of social interactions and activities inside the home.”
Electronics represent an unprecedented amount of waste. “Between 2006 and 2009, U.S. landfills received 1.2 billion consumer electronic devices at an average disposal rate of 293 million units per year.”

The Garage:

Cars have been banished from 75% of garages to make way for bins, boxes, old furniture and forgotten household goods. Researcher estimates predict that up to 90% of square footage of garages in the U.S. are used for storage rather than cars.

General Stuff and storage:

  • U.S. households spend tens of thousands of dollars each year on new stuff for their house.
  • The US has 3.1% of the world’s children but buy 40% of the world’s toys.
  • 1 in 11 US households have offsite storage, representing 1.875 billion square feet!

Interior Possessions:

Houses in the American middle class often have substantially more material possessions that other societies. The display of possessions in the home allows the homeowners to personalize and express who they are to visitors. The car enthusiast has several pictures of old Porsche, the language teacher has French styled furniture and a painting of the Eiffel Tower at the front entrance and the athletic child proudly organizes soccer trophies on the shelf in their room.

It’s a canvas that the American uses to solidify and display their identity, religious views and uniqueness to the world. Interestingly in contrast, the exterior of the house conveys very little about the family identity and personality.

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