Homes Actually Need to Be Practical Now

One of the ironies of social distancing is that it can put privacy in short supply.

Home now contains, for many, an entire day’s worth of desires and demands. (John G. Zimmerman / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Uncharted,” a series about the world we’re leaving behind, and the one being remade by the pandemic.

This week, a new version of an old joke made the rounds: the meme of Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man, modified for a time of quarantine. @zahraloum’s update of the classic image featured, this time around, not two Spider-Men but seven—arranged in a circle, all of them pointing at one another. Each had a label: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. The image, shared with a brief commentary—“how everyday feels”—struck a chord. On Twitter, since it was posted on Tuesday, the tweet has been shared more than 350,000 times, and liked more than 1 million.

I liked it too. The tweet’s three terse words captured something about the way time works in a moment that, for many, has brought panic and pain and loneliness and fear and frustration—but also, sometimes, basic, blunt-force boredom. Days flatten into one another, Sunday and Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, their divisions dissolving, their hours—unstructured by commutes or classes or social gatherings—liquid.

But the problem of time is also a problem of space. Homes, too, in this moment, are taking on a new kind of indeterminacy: They are now serving not only as shelter and refuge, but also as workplace and school and gym and theater and restaurant and bar and laundry and town square. They now contain, for many, an entire day’s worth of demands. But whether a house or a compact apartment, those dwellings were never meant to be as profoundly multifunctional as a shelter-in-place scenario requires them to be. American homes, Don Norman, the founding chair of the cognitive-science department at the University of California at San Diego and an advocate of user-centered design, told me, are simply not meant to be lived in 24/7.

At a time when many people aren’t able to do their work from home, and when many others do not have the luxury of home at all, a home of any kind is a blessing. But quarantine also means that small elements of home design can have significant consequences. The experience of shelter-in-place will be greatly shaped by the type of place one has to shelter in. How much room you have, how many rooms you have, whether you have a dishwasher or a washing machine or internet, whether you have an area in which to exercise or be alone or be together or cook or get fresh air—those factors will now take on even more weight. When home is everything all at once, escape and confinement at the same time, its utility becomes more acute. And so do its shortcomings.

“It’s like we just got moved to a different planet,” Sarah Susanka, an architect and the author of the Not So Big House series, told me this week. “But it looks the same.”

Susanka’s area of expertise is the intersection of architecture and psychology: the ways people convert the buildings they live in—structures of wood and metal and stone—into homes. She has advocated, in particular, for homes that resist the bland assumption that bigger is better, treating function, instead, as a core value. Many homes have not embraced that approach; that becomes especially evident in quarantine.

Homes, whatever their size or their layout, are constructed to be part of an ecosystem. They make assumptions about the way their eventual residents will interact with the affordances, and the economies, of the outside world. They assume, generally speaking, that people will commute to work (hence, in suburbs and rural areas, the abundance of driveways and garages). They assume that people will live much of their life outside the home. And they assume that the home’s residents will, as a consequence, have access to goods produced elsewhere: groceries, games, cleaning supplies. (American refrigerators are the size they are because their designers made informed bets about how often their owners would visit a grocery store.)

Apartments in cities make similar assumptions, but in reverse: They assume that the city itself is a meaningful extension of whatever square footage a dwelling might offer. They treat the home as what it often will be, for the resident: one place among many in the rhythms of a day.

Neither scenario accounts for what many Americans are experiencing right now: home as the only place. Home as the everything. The confinement can pose, for some, a direct danger. Jacoba Urist, writing about the “tiny apartment” trend in 2013, noted that large amounts of time spent in enclosed spaces, particularly if those spaces have several occupants, can be a source of stress—especially for kids. A child-protective-services worker recently sent ProPublica a list of worries she has about the people in her care: “that my families will literally run out of food, formula, diapers. That some of them may die for lack of treatment. That some children may be injured or harmed through inadequate supervision as their desperate parents try to work. That stress may lead to more child abuse.” Gwyn Kaitis, the policy coordinator for the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, noted in the same piece that “violence increases when you have circumstances such as unemployment and isolation.”

Confinement can heighten existing tensions and threats. It can also create new ones. When NASA thinks about long-term space missions, whether it’s a months-long sojourn on the International Space Station or, eventually, a years-long venture to Mars, the agency pays a great deal of attention to the psychological effects of social isolation: Even people who are handpicked for their temperamental ability to handle stress can find their mental health affected by periods of unceasing togetherness. (In the 1970s, when the notion of the space station was new, some Skylab missions were terminated early because of squabbles among crew members.) An experiment run from 2010 to 2011, attempting to test the relationship between confinement and mental health, placed six crew members in a simulated spacecraft—775 square feet, or about the size of a small one-bedroom apartment—for 520 days. Some of the crew members moved less, physically, as the experiment went on. Most experienced interrupted sleep. Others experienced symptoms of depression.

The home, for those who are lucky, will be a very mild example of that intense form of isolation. But quarantine can exert its tensions nonetheless—even in paradoxical form. The popular open layout, for example, eschews walls and other spatial divisions in favor of openness, airiness, “flow.” (“Look how everything flows!” Brian Patrick Flynn, the designer of HGTV’s Dream Home 2020, says in a promotional video.) On the plus side, an open floor plan allows for constant togetherness. On the minus side … an open floor plan allows for constant togetherness. The style meant to reject domestic confinement can end up replicating some of the very flaws it was meant to mitigate, precisely in its eagerness to sacrifice privacy for openness.

“In general, it’s wonderful,” Susanka said of the open-concept approach to living spaces. “But when it’s done to an extreme, it makes it very difficult to live in the house, because your noise, whatever you’re doing, goes everywhere.” When the home involves kids, that borderlessness becomes even more acute. A child might need to be entertained or fed while her mom is on a conference call. An older sibling might be playing video games or watching a movie while her dad is trying to cook dinner. Another sibling might need a retreat from his co-quarantiners, and have no place to go. In an open space, one person’s activity becomes every person’s activity. Alone together, all the time: For many, that is the current state of things. The “See Also” section of Wikipedia’s “open plan” article cites only one related page: “panopticon.”

That collision, in some sense, was intentional. One of the first manifestations of the open layout, my colleague Ian Bogost wrote in 2018, came from Frank Lloyd Wright—an outgrowth of the architect’s broader conviction that the buildings that housed people could also be engines of social progress. In 1901, in the February issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, Wright published his plans for a home “in a prairie town”—a layout that emulated the rolling expanse of its intended locale by emphasizing the interior possibilities of continuous spaces.

Open layouts were less formal than dedicated dining rooms and drawing rooms; they celebrated not only the idea of household togetherness, but also, Wright and his many acolytes assumed, something democratic and quintessentially American. The layouts also, however, merged spaces of labor with those of leisure—fusing, most obviously, the kitchen, that consummate place of domestic work, with family rooms and other areas optimized for relaxation. As Bogost noted, one result of that merger was that the person most traditionally associated with culinary labor in the American middle-class household of the 20th century—the housewife—ended up doing double duty: watching the kids while also cooking dinner; doing the dishes while also trying to catch the tail end of a TV show. The second shift, essentially, in architectural form.

Constant togetherness can be a great thing, right up until it isn’t. American culture tends to treat the home as the ultimate manifestation of aspirational struggle: a reward, or a birthright. It is a dream whose realization, for many, is cruelly out of reach. But the dream keeps on selling itself, in American entertainment and in American design. Last year, to mark the 25th anniversary of the launch of HGTV, the journalist and design critic Ronda Kaysen gave an interview to NPR. As she talked with the host Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the impact HGTV has had on American home design, Kaysen mentioned one of the design elements most readily associated with the network: the open-concept living space. “I spoke with HGTV executives,” Kaysen said. “And the reason that they are so big on open concept is because it gets the male viewers. Like, guys like to watch sledgehammers and, like, taking out walls.”

“Wait a second,” Garcia-Navarro replied. “Are you telling me that the open-plan concept, which we are all prisoner to, is because dudes like to watch HGTV and sledgehammers?”

Yes, was the answer. “Dudes will only watch HGTV if there’s sledgehammers,” Kaysen said. That assumption makes it way into the architecture. Openness remains the trend. Maybe that will change; maybe these weeks—or months—of sequestration will alter what people want in (and from) their home. In the meantime, Susanka proposed a nonarchitectural solution to problems of home design: communicate. If you live with others and find yourself needing space of your own, she said, tell them that. Create small signals, legible to every member of the household, for “I’m on a call” or “I just need a minute to myself.” If a bedroom is doubling as an office, create the ritual, at the start of the workday, of shutting the door—a sign both to the worker and to everyone else that the bedroom is now a workspace. Use creative hacks. Create nooks. Have household meetings. Talk about what you need from your home, and from one another. Remember that different people have different ways of coping with fear, with threat, with isolation. Know that what many are experiencing right now is grief: for deaths, for smaller losses, for imagined futures that will not come to pass. Try to give people space—even, and especially, when the space itself is in short supply.