Finding Home

A look at roots and possibilities for habitat

One of the articles in Sustainable Habitat (IC#14)
Originally published in Autumn 1986 on page 5
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

HABITAT IS A BROAD CONCEPT. In biology, it refers to all aspects of the natural environment in which some plant or animal lives. Applied to our species, it expands to include what architects like to call the "built environment," that is, not only buildings but also the "infrastructure" of roads, railroads, utilities, parks, etc. Yet while all these are important, the heart of "habitat" is the image of "home."

For most people, certainly in North America, the ideal of "home" connotes a place of safety where we are shielded from weather and intruders and able to find recuperation and nurture. It seems like a wonderful image, yet it has built into it the assumption that "not-home," i.e. the outside world, is a place of danger, a place where we are strangers. This way of looking at the world (which is part of the 6000-year-old Age of Empire) is, in turn, at the root of some of our biggest problems: environmental destruction, nuclear weapons, and international economic exploitation. If we are to get past these problems, which we surely must do if we are to have a sustainable habitat, we can expect that we will need to reassess our image of home.


We can begin this reassessment of "home" by looking at three major approaches to housing that have been around for thousands of years:

  • The isolated single family dwelling, whose archetypal roots are in the independent farmstead that functioned as a largely self- contained social and practical world.
  • The institutional, multi-household dwelling, which assumes dependence on shared facilities beyond the personal quarters. This has its roots in barracks, monasteries, some of the apartment complexes of ancient cities, and even the pueblos of the American Southwest.
  • The village/neighborhood, which combines distinct households with strong social and practical relations between neighbors and is the most common pre-industrial mode of dwelling.

Housing around the world still falls generally into these three broad categories, but each of them has been deeply affected by the coming of industrialization. One of the biggest changes has been the separation between income-producing work and home. Another has been increased mobility, from the daily use of motorized transport to more frequent changes of residence.

Industrialization’s impact on the isolated single-family dwelling, starting after the Civil War in the U.S., was to change it from a place of family cooperation and mutual support to a place of refuge for husbands and children (who come home to it from work and school), and to the center of life for wives. Dolores Hayden, in Redesigning The American Dream (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984) describes this as the "home-as-haven" strategy. This shift was an outgrowth from the gender-based division of labor that existed in farmsteads, but it served to heighten the separation of "spheres of life" between the genders. Its mythos drew on a sentimentalized image of "landed gentry" life, and in the face of the new economic dependence outside the household, it attempted to compensate by an exaggerated emphasis on emotional self-sufficiency. The ideal building for this strategy was the domesticated farmhouse – a suburban cottage with a lawn and garden around it.

In almost complete opposition to this, the "industrial" strategy for housing, the heir of the institutional tradition, sought to move most traditional housework into the factory in the interests of efficiency. "Home" could then be reduced to kitchenless apartments in massive apartment buildings that also contained large mess halls and child-care centers. Both women and men would then be "liberated" to work in industry. Not surprisingly, this strategy was given its classic expression by a German Marxist, August Bebel, in Women Under Socialism (1883).

Between these two, the "neighborhood" strategy sought to update the mutual supportiveness that can exist in small communities with the help of labor-saving technologies and new forms of social organization. Some proposals in the 1870s envisioned kitchenless homes on a city block with a community kitchen/workshop. Women were still expected to be primarily involved in domestic work, but they would do it together, earning wages for their cooking and sewing. These 19th- century visions of the "modern home" all got modified in practice – in particular, people have proven reluctant to adopt totally kitchenless living – but the home-as- haven strategy is clearly apparent in North American suburban sprawls and the industrial strategy is equally apparent in the massive apartment complexes of the USSR. No industrialized country has adopted the neighborhood strategy as its dominant approach, but it has had a strong influence on European Garden Cities and New Towns.


Present North American ideas about "home" are relatively recent. For more than 200 years, from the earliest colonists to before the Civil War, Americans drew their habitat visions from the village/neighborhood tradition as they sought to create the ideal community, city, or commonwealth. The story behind how this older dream came to be replaced by the isolated single- family home as "The American Dream" is full of insights into the multiple factors that shape our approach to habitat. Let’s look first at the role of the business community.

In the late 19th century, as the home-as-haven strategy was first being popularized, suburban living was largely the privilege of the wealthy. Most urban middle- and working-class families lived in city apartments, frequently in crowded, miserable conditions. At first, industrialists saw this as simply the natural working of the "survival of the fittest," but labor and political unrest beginning in the 1880s gradually convinced business leaders to look for new ways of dealing with the working population. Between the 1890s and the 1920s, groups like the National Civic Federation provided a forum where business and labor leaders formulated a new policy based on higher wages and home ownership. Business liked this for a number of reasons:

  • Manufacturers needed new markets and began to recognize that workers could be good consumers as well. But to do this they needed higher incomes and dwellings large enough to house new purchases of furniture, appliances, etc.
  • Longterm mortgages, which the workers would need in order to buy these homes, would tie workers down, make them less likely to leave or strike, and generally make them more conservative.

By the end of World War I, this new policy had the general support of the business community, and the groundwork for its implementation began to be laid. Herbert Hoover, first as Secretary of Commerce and president of Better Homes in America, and later as President, made single-family home ownership a cornerstone of his economic program, first for prosperity and then for recovery from the Depression. Advertisers, as their contribution, generally used the suburban home as the setting for most consumer purchases, from cars to appliances. Since the 1920s, various institutions (Congress, the banking industry, etc.) have added their support to this policy, now over 60 years old.

But in spite of all this support, it took a while for the Dream to become a reality for large numbers of Americans. The Depression brought home-building to a crawl, and it was not until after World War II that home ownership could really take off. But before looking at the post-war period, we need to shift perspective.

The choice of single family home ownership as the American Dream was not due solely to manipulation by commercial interests. Even before industrialization became such a dominant social force, westward expansion, social mobility and quick wealth had weakened community ties and emphasized individualism. Then during the second half of the 19th century, when immigrants flooded into American cities, "community" and "apartment living" came to be firmly associated with poverty, while "suburban living" was what the wealthy did. Thus the American Dream had fertile, easy soil to grow in.

This was especially true for the generation that eventually made the Dream a widespread reality: the World War II generation. (Almost three-quarters of the housing in the U.S. was built after 1940, and almost two-thirds of all housing units are detached single family homes.) For many in this generation, life had been a story of regimentation and crowded social contact, first in school and at home during the Depression, and then in the military and the war industries. By the time the war ended, this generation could have said with a single voice, "Give me my own space!"

When World War II did end, it brought together all the factors needed for a huge boom in single family housing: significant accumulated savings, pent-up desire for private space, a new sense of mobility and rootlessness that allowed people to move into new communities, vigorous industries looking for domestic markets, a shattered world economy that provided little competition to American demands on world resources, plus all the institutional groundwork laid since the 1920s.

Notice that in all this, the question of what is good habitat design doesn’t enter in, for housing is treated as a means to other ends. It is a market to businesses, who want households to be as consumptive (i.e. inefficient) as possible. It is an arena of investment for bankers and realtors, who get more profits out of more costly housing. It is a solution to a short-term psychological need for returning veterans who are rebounding from the enforced "community" of military life. It is a fulfillment of fantasies for a generation raised on the advertising images of the ’30s and ’40s. It is a way to move women out of the work force for government officials anxious to find jobs for returning veterans.

The Dream is thus not based in a sustainable reality, and during the last few decades it has begun to look like a nightmare. Urban and suburban sprawls are grossly wasteful of land, transportation, energy, and time, factors we can no longer afford to ignore. They foster alienation and social break- down, helping the U.S. to be one of the world’s most violent societies. One of the more pathetic mismatches between the Dream and today’s reality comes out of changes in demographics and lifestyles. The home-as-haven house is designed for a young family with a work-away husband, a homemaker wife, and two or more children at home. Today, only 7% of all households fit that description, so our Dream housing has to treat 93% of the market as "exceptions"!


Clearly, we need a change of direction. We need to design housing as good habitat, not as a tail on someone else’s dog. We need housing that encourages efficient use of resources both in the buildings themselves and in the way they are arranged as part of the larger community. We need housing that encourages social health. We need housing that serves the needs of many different types of households. And above all, we need housing that encourages us to be at peace with the world around us.

Given the lessons of the past, we should hardly expect to get this by an exclusive emphasis on any one approach. Rather, what we need is a full spectrum of housing options that recognizes that all three traditions – single-family, multi-household, and village – have useful roles to play in a diverse society. All three need creative redesign that will enable them to meet the challenges of sustainability.

This process has already begun through such things as the creation of energy-efficient homes (single-family tradition), experimental cities like Arcosanti (multi-household tradition], and successful intentional communities (village tradition). As the articles that follow illustrate, there are now enough successes among these experiments to make it clear that we have the know-how to support a new dream, a dream that says, "Good housing, good community, and good environment – all are part of a good home." As we realize this new dream, we will no longer need to think of our dwelling as a refuge from a hostile world, but rather as one center in a concentric expanse of friendly territory: from the neighborhood, to the planet, to the universe. Then, we will indeed have found home.


All the articles that follow, of course, and:

Redesigning The American Dream, The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life, by Dolores Hayden (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1984, $6.95). This is an insightful history of American housing patterns, especially their social and gender implications. It is weakest in addressing the future, doing little more than saying we should correct the problems of the past without really analyzing how. So ignore the title and enjoy it as an excellent critique.

Sustainable Communities, A New Design Synthesis for Cities, Suburbs, and Towns, by Sim Van der Ryn and Peter Calthorpe (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1986, $25). [Reviewed by Bruce Coldham.] Most discussions of sustainability have either been at the national and global levels in terms of resource policy, or at the homestead, "eco-house" scale in terms of appropriate technology. This book addresses American cities and their suburbs. The authors present a collection of visions illustrated by case studies of four existing community settings across the country, plus a proposal for the redevelopment of a disused Air Force base. The second half of the book contains commentaries by Paul Hawken, Clare Cooper-Marcus, David Morris, John Todd, David Katz, and Fred Reid on the cultural context that western urban industrial society now faces. A valuable discussion of what could be done in the near-term, but perhaps overly cautious in avoiding the implications for lifestyles and major institutions.

Builders Of The Dawn, Community Lifestyles in a Changing World, by Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson (1985, Stillpoint Publishing, PO Box 640, Walpole, NH 03608, $12.95). This is the best book I’ve seen on successful intentional communities and what makes them work. The range of communities is broad, and the experience-based lessons they have to offer can be applied to less well defined communities, such as neighborhoods. Essential reading for anyone interested in advancing the village tradition.

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