By Terry Phelan and Kira Connery, Living Shelter Design
I had a roommate in college who would spend days at the library studying for finals. She would stop home briefly to shower and change as needed, but for the larger part of a week would dwell elsewhere. Once all of her finals were complete, she would return home in full force, immersing herself in the space she had forsaken for the demands of school. She would thoroughly clean our apartment with celebratory relief, cook piles of food to share with friends, and generally reconnect with her home.
When the stresses and challenges that are an undeniable part of daily life pull our physical and mental energies in one direction (or many, simultaneously), we often experience a counterbalancing urge to return to our “home base.” There are innate connections between humans and home. While home can take many forms depending on location, available resources, and cultural traditions, all homes serve a few universal purposes.
The most basic function of a home is to provide us with shelter. Animals and insects large and small construct shelter as well, but human homes are unique not only in their variety of appearance, but in their ability to reflect layers of personal and cultural meaning. In his book A Prehistory of Home, anthropologist Jerry Moore offers an expansive look at human homes, from ancient settlements to contemporary suburbs. Moore points out that home has always been a human “project” – our homes reflect many decisions and choices about our constraints, values, and identity, and they change as we change over time.
We craft our homes as we craft ourselves. Some approaches to this craft are based in long-standing cultural practices: The Eastern traditions of Feng Shui and mandalas are used to connect spatial order at various scales with a greater cosmological order. More of-the-moment approaches are catalogued in countless do-it-yourself magazines, each proclaiming to be the missing link in our search for a well-ordered home. Marie Kondo’s book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has sold more than six million copies and has been published in more than forty languages. The desire to improve the spaces around us is a deeply rooted and powerful instinct.
The relationship between home and self –between our surroundings and our psyche –is one of exchange and interconnection. The way we feel influences how we interact with our homes. Our homes in turn shape how we feel and how we see ourselves. We start and end each day at home, and it is within our abilities to create homes that bridge the gap between what we need from the world and what we get. A home like this does not wall out the world and separate us from each other. It mends the parts of the soul that need the most care so we can continue to find our place in the world.
The qualities and features required to create a restorative home depend on the needs of the inhabitants. In his book A Home for the Soul, architect Anthony Lawlor describes that there is often “a gap between who we are and where we live.” We may need a home that provides peace and quiet, but where we live may seem to be more of a source of disagreement and disorder. Rather than ascribing to a rigid system or approach, Lawlor suggests that anyone can evaluate their home with a spatial mindfulness that focuses on accommodating and celebrating meaningful daily activities. What are the rituals of your daily life? What do you find comforting and enjoyable? How can you make space for these activities and honor them? Lawlor urges that “each room in your home can care for a different aspect of your soul and all rooms together can renew and enliven wholeness within you.”
The Danish tradition of hygge incorporates a similar mindfulness, bringing simple but meaningful intentions to everyday spaces and interactions. Hygge is challenging to define in English, roughly translating as “cozy-ness,” while its root word in Norwegian means “well-being.” Writer Louisa Thomsen Brits, who is half Danish and half English, captures the variety of setting and ritual embodied in the word, describing hygge as:
“…the art of building sanctuary and community, of inviting closeness and paying attention to what makes us feel open hearted and alive…. In our overstretched, complex, modern lives, hygge is a resourceful, tangible way to find deeper connection to our families, our communities, our children, our homes and our earth.”
Hygge is not just about the home, it is also about the people and experiences that enrich homes and communities. It is important to note that the origins of the word “home” don’t all focus on a single, private dwelling either. Within various languages and periods in history “home” has been used to describe a collection of dwellings, a small village, or a community. Depending on how far we are from it, we use the term home to refer to our broader geographic background as well. Home does not stop at the walls of our house, or even at the fence surrounding our yard. The private dwelling can only do so much to repair the soul. As social beings, we thrive on a network of connections to other people and places.
Architect Christopher Day writes that if we aim to design places that heal and restore, they must be “accessible for all, not just for globetrotters and meditators but especially for those who lack the outer or inner means.” Mindfully tending to our own needs necessarily encompasses being aware of shared communal needs as well. The serious challenges of housing affordability and homelessness cannot be addressed one single-family dwelling at a time. Our communities need spaces that provide refuge for the most vulnerable members. We need spaces to gather and learn from one another; that allow us to publicly voice support and dissent; celebrate and mourn; and recharge and reconnect with each other and the natural world.
Home is more than just shelter. It reflects our choices, values, and daily rituals, but is also part of a dialogue with us that can change with our needs. Our homes and selves are intertwined, and neither is perfect. Perfect is fragile, stressful, and untenable. Homes and communities that foster resilience are works in progress, as are we.
An Exercise in Spatial Mindfulness
Here are a few questions to encourage your exploration of home and how you can create restorative spaces:
Restful What type of space do you need to relax in? Should it be quiet, or is there a particular sound you find relaxing? What colors, textures, views, and smells help you feel relaxed? Do you currently have a space like this? A relaxing space might be a whole room or just a quiet corner.
Social What sort of social interaction do you enjoy at home? Perhaps you love to entertain, and need a dedicated gathering space for many friends. Or maybe you prefer smaller interactions with family and limited guests. How can you accommodate the social activities that are meaningful to you?
Natural What aspects of the natural world do you enjoy? Can you introduce your favorite type of plant, material, animal, or color into your space? Even without a garden or yard, there are ways to bring elements of nature into your home and engage all of your senses.
Creative/Spiritual What activities, hobbies, or practices do you find fulfilling? Do these activities have a dedicated space or presence in your home? Do you have any rituals or traditions surrounding these activities? Some examples may include cooking, crafting, gardening, reading or writing, playing an instrument, or a more formal religious or spiritual practice.
Terry Phalen and Kira Connery are with Living Shelter Design, and architectural firm specializing in healthy, delightful, and energy efficient homes and small community projects.