Cultural Quandaries: Home Design

Cultural Quandaries: Home Design September 11, 2014

This is a bit of a continuation of Mars, Terraforming & Earth Design for Climate Change (read link for hot and dry climate designs). In this article we will discuss home design in a little more depth – specifically layout and uses.

The average “western” house size in 2013 is 2,662 sq. ft. That is 1000 sq. ft more than the home size generation X grew up in (those born in the early 1960s to the early 1980s). While at the same time the number of household members had dropped. People are having smaller families and are rarely living in generational homes. Gram & Gramps tend to live on their own or in an old age home.

average_house_sizeSome recent trends suggest that people are responding to this reality, with the added push from the economic recession, by purchasing smaller homes and deciding to live a little more communally with roommates or the grandparents. But for the most part, most people are still living in or striving for the “McMansions”.

Aside from taking up more space – especially when it comes to developments pushing into wilderness areas that destroy habitat (the leading cause for species decline), and more resources needed to make them, bigger homes come with bigger mortgages for little return. All that space has been found not only to be mostly unused, but the little use it does have tends to be for storage.  Meaning that we accumulate more stuff that ends up not even being used just to fill up space that is otherwise unused.

Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs put together a study, “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors” where, as the title suggests, they tracked 32 families  as they went about their lives in the home to see how people actually live nowadays. The image below is the result of monitoring one family’s location in their home, taking location every 10 minutes, during prime time activity in the home – weekday afternoons and evenings. And this is the result:

Image Credit: J. Arnold

What this shows is that there are large portions of the home that are barely even used – if at all. Revealing how we really don’t need all that extra space.

Big homes also take a lot of energy to function, from space heating/cooling, to lighting, and electronic appliances/gadgets. Costing us and our environment a whole lot more than what its worth.

Just by looking at the impacts of current living it should be simple to see some basic ways to improve our living standards. The primary thing being that we don’t need the big homes that are common today and we would save time, resources, money, and our environment just by downsizing.

The following biggest change that can be made is lowering our energy demands and increasing energy efficiency. This doesn’t mean lowering our standard of living, on the contrary, we would be increasing our quality of life.  Financially it is a big saver directly, and it also means that we would require less infrastructure for baseline use – which means less taxes needed to maintain it.

The simplest way to decrease our demands is to make simple lifestyle changes. Such as not leaving lights on in unused spaces, having the heating turned off or really low in unused rooms or when you are gone – having the heat lower and wearing warmer clothes instead of keeping it t-shirt weather all the time, and reducing water use. All of these examples have energy efficient devices that can help you use less – LED lights, low flow water fixtures, and programmable thermostats.

But there is a better way to go about all this that bypasses energy dependent add-on devices, and having to make a conscious decision.



Ditch The Closets, Cupboards, & Dressers

Modern home designs are obsessed with hiding what we own – there are so many closets, most kitchen renovations are to put in really expensive and ultimately unnecessary cupboards, and dressers (along with closets) hog a lot of space in the bedroom when there is no need for it.

For the kitchen the whole space can be open storage – no cupboards, closets, minimal drawers – if any. This maximizes use of space, makes it easier to find what you are looking for, and makes it easier/forces you to deal with unused items = less stuff cluttering your home.

All those dishes could just as well be downsized to what you actually use on a regular basis. And instead of putting them in cupboards, have them stored in a rack above the sinks – saving you an extra step in the dish chore.

Our food storage system is also quite an unnecessary space and energy guzzler (The Fridge & Freezer) when we could simply better design the kitchen and pantry to be passively designed to more efficiently store our food (Cool Cupboards, Dry Cool Closets etc.). Most of our food doesn’t even need to be stored in a cold environment.

Save Food From The Fridge exhibit by Jihyun Ryou
Save Food From The Fridge exhibit by Jihyun Ryou

All this harkening back to older home designs when you needed to be pragmatic and electricity wasn’t an option. These designs are also ideal to consider for power outages during severe weather events.

Just by removing closets, cupboards and dressers in house designs a home can be downsized quite a bit.

Open Up & Combine Social Space

Have an open concept for kitchen and living/rec/dining/family room, becoming “the social room”, being situated on the equatorial side of the building (on south side of building if in northern hemisphere). This provides ample light and passive heating for the entirety of the day – greatly diminishing the need for electric lighting. To prevent over heating in the summer months, design the over hang to be long enough to shade when the hemisphere you are on is oriented toward the sun in that time of year.

d9ceb1c1acd68067fec52d5d6a3f0966The private rooms (bedrooms, wet and earth closet) would fall to the polar end of the building where the least amount of activity would happen which lessens the amount of heating and lighting needed in the home. The passive lighting for these polar rooms can be light tubes or small windows high on the wall. Strategically place windows to promote cross-ventilation when open for passive cooling.

The home is optimal all on one level because it is more weather resilient and it allows the elderly, people in wheelchairs or people who are experiencing temporary injury etc. to be mobile in their home or be able to host guests with these limitations more easily. This also helps when living out the entirety of your life, or generationally, in your home.

The seating of the social room can double as storage for children’s toys, board games, etc. and/or guest murphy beds.

The Sofa Bed (Dile)
The Sofa Bed (Dile)

The social room table could be adjustable – depending on activity (coffee table, study table, craft table, dinning table etc.), and/or be storage for the TV screen. Otherwise an unused wall would suffice – If done this way a photo/painting can cover it when not in use. Storing the TV out of sight like this is useful in preventing temptation to always watch TV and thus encourage more activity among household members, which is the purpose of the social room. This room would primarily be used for reading, play for all ages and simple crafts i.e. knitting/crocheting/naalbinding, painting, drawing, sewing, embroidering, spinning, weaving etc. All of which harkens back to older social habits before electronic entertainment.

Newer Ways of Heating The Old Way

The Rocket Stove is an up and coming heating system that is used for cooking and as a mass heater. What makes this special is that it runs on small bits of wood, and through air currents in the system produces a double burn so the end of the pipe only produces vapor and C02 – a clean burn.

Image Credit: Nicodemus
Image Credit: Nicodemus

As a mass heater you can have it in the center of the home radiating heat outwards. An hour long burn can leave the cob, brick, or stone mass around it radiate heat for over 24hrs and with adequate insulation in your exterior walls, keep your home warm well beyond that. As far as wood burning goes you cannot top this efficiency and it drastically reduces amount of fuel needed for a year.

Redesign The ‘Washroom’

All water related devices are best located in one section of the home, reducing the amount of plumbing and increasing efficiency.

Rainwater catchment can be utilized to augment or replace municipal or well water (this could be gravity fed from 2nd story down to main floor water zone, or be stored in basement tanks and wind/solar pumped into a water tower that gravity feeds into home)

The number of household sinks can be reduced to 1 double sink or maybe 3 sinks (a basin sink and 2 shallow sinks) that are open to the kitchen where its not only used for kitchen purposes but for conventional washroom/bathroom uses i.e. brushing teeth, washing hands after using toilet etc.

The shower/bath would be in a ‘wet closet’ adjacent to the sinks.

The washing machine and dish washer would be located over/under the sinks or connected to the shower – by combining appliances you reduce amount of space used and increase the efficiency that much more.

‘Washit’ Washes Clothes With Recycled Shower Water, While You Shower
‘Washit’ Washes Clothes With Recycled Shower Water, While You Shower

All wastewater can be directed to a rain garden. A rain garden being a pit placed where water would drain into it (i.e. Downspout, ditch drain, or off of any compact/impermeable surface such as parking lots) that is filled with highly permeable debris and is planted with water loving plants. This helps ground water levels and prevents drought or flood conditions on your property.

Have a composting toilet(s) (no more wasting water resources and bypasses the need for sewage treatment facilities). Locate them outside the “water zone” and in “earth closet(s)” nearby the sinks. One toilet each in their own closet – working like public washrooms and solving the problem of someone using the shower while another needs the toilet. With more than one earth closet, the problem of waiting for the toilet to be available diminishes (especially useful in a home with a large family or frequent hosting).

Rethink The Bedroom & Office

Make the bedroom as small as can functionally be with only enough room to sleep, dress, and store clothes – the clothes being hung flush against the wall (wall baskets for unhangable garments) avoiding a space hogging dresser. Or you could use murphy beds in a way that the space around it can be easily closed off for privacy.

The office can be combined with the bedroom. Both are spaces meant for quiet and being undisturbed.  The room can be the same size of the original bedroom by having transforming furniture – the office desk under the murphy bed. That way when it is time to sleep the distracting screen is put away, and when you are working the same space is used when it normally would be vacant – removing any need for an extra private room.


Keep Wiring & Plumbing Accessible

When remodeling a home, maintaining or upgrading the plumbing/wiring, access becomes a very expensive and involved process when it need not be. Instead you can have all your wiring and plumbing accessible, while still kept out of sight and harms way. The plumbing could alternatively be left aesthetically exposed as well. To accomplish this stealthy wiring and plumbing all you need is special trimming.


So overall my design encouragement is to go toward open storage to minimize unnecessary, unused stuff, while maximizing efficiency, multifunction, utility, durability, repairability and aesthetics of what fewer items you use on a regular basis; Redesign rooms to be multipurpose to maximize use around their root purpose (i.e. socializing, quite privacy); And make it passive, and if not able to make it passive, make it low energy. Homes shouldn’t become unusable, or unsafe, if energy is cutoff – such homes are failures in their purpose. In other words, energy should be considered a luxury instead of an necessity in our homes.


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