I’ve always been interested in the relationships we have with our homes. From the local community to the street outside our front doors, from our gardens to our rooms and the products we fill them with, I’m fascinated by the way we interact with the environment that surrounds us.
The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of home is perhaps the comfort of a sofa, or of a warm, welcoming bed. But the word ‘home’ has different meanings, depending on the perspective of those who use it.
‘Home’ can be the blue and green sphere we call earth when viewed through the window of a spacecraft. A distant coastline can be ‘home’ when considered by a weary fisherman on the deck of a lonely trawler. A cluster of orange lights set in an otherwise featureless black vista is home to the late night driver.
Home can be photos of loved ones perched on the computer monitor of a bored office worker, or in the wallet of a soldier stationed in a foreign land. Home is comfort. Ease. It’s off duty. It’s letting the guard down. Home refers to the familiar, the surroundings to which we return when at rest. Home is community. Safety. Comfort.
There is so much more to home than the house in which we live. In our bid to satisfy our misled yet insatiable appetite for the perfect house, we seem to have forgotten all about what makes the perfect home.
Being a Sheffielder I’m most familiar with terraced housing. The homes of most of my friends and family are situated in long terraces of two-up, two-down properties built to house those who provided the labour that drove the industry this city was once famous for.
Typically they have a lounge to the front and a dining room at the rear sandwiching a narrow, steep central staircase. At the rear, poking out into the garden, you’ll usually find a small off-shot kitchen. Upstairs are two bedrooms, a bathroom, and sat above the lot in the pitch of the roof is an attic room.
Such houses will typically have two chimney stacks running the height of the building – one for the front and one for the rear, built to allow for open fires to provide heat to each room before gas central heating was the norm. In the bedrooms of two terraced houses I’ve previously called home, we’ve removed plasterboard to uncover ornate if modestly sized cast iron fireplaces.
The proliferation of long disused and mostly ramshackle outhouses in the gardens highlight the fact that the bathrooms inside such properties are often a later addition, the result of a partition wall slicing the rear bedroom in half to accommodate the modern sanitary facilities we now take for granted.
Such relics highlight how much life has changed since these homes were built. Technology has changed, lifestyles have changed, expectations have changed, the family unit has changed. Our attitudes, our tastes, our working lives, the entire thing we call society has changed. But we still live in the same houses.
As such, they’re filled with compromise. Tiny kitchens struggle to accommodate modern fridge freezers while microwaves battle for position with toasters and kettles and coffee machines. Sink basins overhang bathtubs, doors bang onto bedside tables and TVs are angled so as to be the focus of rooms originally built around the fireplace.
When they were first built, our terraced homes were designed around the technology and needs of the people of the time. Today the brief has changed but we’re still using the same solution. We’ve adapted it the best we can, but much like fitting ABS, dual zone climate control and headrest mounted DVD players to a Model T Ford, we can’t hide the fact that we’re using the wrong tool for the job.
Of course our homes aren’t viewed as disposable in the way our cars are. They’re too permanent to be flattened every few years and replaced inline with every changing social trend, so we’re forced to accept that compromises must be made, both in the way we arrange our homes and the way we live our lives.
It seems to be the latter where people struggle. We’ll happily carry our evening meal from the kitchen at the back of the house through to the living room at the front, skirting round the dining table we completely ignore despite dedicating an entire room to it, failing to notice how we shimmy through the kissing gate formed by a door’s proximity with an oversized sofa. We’ll happily consider our front doors little more than an emergency exit or an ornate if drafty letterbox surround and instead gain access to our homes from the rear by learning the knack required to open the two badly constructed, flimsy gates separating the unloved, overgrown, postage stamp sized gardens of our neighbours.
We put up with all those daily annoyances and slightly absurd compromises until we stop noticing them. Where we fail to be so accommodating is in our lifestyles.
We love our cars. Despite the average terraced facade being about as wide as a car is long, our streets are expected to accommodate not just one car per home, but one car per person. So our roads are tight, our pavements narrow and the view from our windows cramped, crowded, unsightly and inhuman.
We like our huge television sets despite viewing distances being so short as to make them unnecessary. We like powerful surround sound systems despite sharing walls with our neighbours. We like our consumer goods despite not having room for them. We like our privacy, despite living mere feet and inches away from those around us.
In the end, we love, expect and mistakenly believe we require a kind of luxury that our homes were never designed to accommodate.
And for that perceived luxury we deem common sense a worthwhile sacrifice.
How much room is lost in the name of maintaining boundaries? How much land is taken up with fences and walls, and the borders that flank them? By dividing our land, how much of it do we lose? And at what cost does it come?
If we all saw the land behind our houses as one large communal space we all own, rather than a patchwork of segments we each own, our tiny individual lots could be combined, opened into a shared park that our houses backed right onto.
Surrounded on all sides by houses, these little semi-private suburban parks could become areas for neighbours to circulate and interact with each other in a way our tiny little cells don’t currently allow. We’d get to know the names of the people with which we share our environment. We’d learn the respect we need to live together. It wouldn’t be ‘me’. It’d be ‘us’.
We can erect the largest fences but our neighbours still exist. If we take them down perhaps we might get to know and understand those neighbours better. Understanding is the path to tolerance, and tolerance is something we must strive towards if our numbers continue to grow and our resources continue to dwindle.
Communities can only work when people trust each other, when we understand that everybody is in the same boat. When we know each other well enough to realise we’re all humans sharing our environment, and that our personal needs are no more or less important than those of anybody else.
When we put up fences, we hide behind them. Hide behind them for long enough and we start to fear what’s on the other side. When we finally summon the courage to take them down we might realise there’s nothing to be scared of.