Expanding the Idea of Home


When we imagine someone having a home of their own what do we generally see? A single family house, a condo, an apartment? Generally, I think, regardless of the structure of the building, we tend to imagine a certain autonomy to home. We picture a person or couple or nuclear family living in a self contained environment. There is a distinct separation between that which is home and that which is not. The line of public and private is drawn starkly at the door.

We also imagine a level of stability in a home, a distinct and immobile location. Home is a specific place to which one returns, a place that exists as a monument to the individual who owns it. Home holds our stuff and only our stuff. It is distinctly the domain of the individual.

Home has also become something beyond shelter in terms of use. It is an entertainment center, a hotel for guests, a restaurant, a theatre, a game hall and so on. Home has absorbed segments of public life, swelling and solidifying. Even work has slipped into the homes so that many of us imagine an office as a vital part of any house. And yet, it is exclusive, exclusionary, fiercely insular.

Of course, there are other understandings of homes and some are even rather prevalent, but they remain on the fringes of our conceptualization of home. Communal living is marginalized by it’s “hippy” past and cult associations, but there are successful co-housing models that incorporate the ideas communes have championed. Multi-generational family homes exist throughout the country but we seem to have the concept that someone in that situation is living in someone else’s home rather than sharing one (He lives with his parents. They live with their kids). Assisted living allows many people to have a semblance of home rather than a hospital and yet these places are still an institution rather than a home in many ways.

I am wondering if we need to work to redefine home for a variety of reasons. In my mind these include:

A more mobile lifestyle – Mobility might need ideas of home that are more temporal. Homes that pop up in various cities for limited amounts of time. Transportable homes attached to something other than a physical structure.

Economic hardship – Shared housing and multi-generational homes can provide more support and a safety net in volatile economic conditions. Traditional home-ownership has shown some of it’s dangerous weaknesses over the past few years. Perhaps another idea of home could provide a better solution than the 30 year mortgaged, single family, American dream.

An aging population – Our concept of home needs to adjust to better serve those who have greater need for physical and medical support. The huge population of aging individuals is going to demand something better as they move beyond the confines of our limited definition of home. Regardless of the fact that they contain the word in their title, most Old Folks Homes aren’t really “homes” as we tend to imagine them.

Environmental concern – Smaller homes are greener homes. We may need to think of a type of home that loses some of the weight its gained. That returns some of the functionality to the public realm. We may need the idea of the “city as your living room” to spread beyond the city.

And this is just brushing the surface. Over the next few weeks I intend to talk about different types of homes and how they might find a foothold in our current social environment. I would love to hear about other reasons our idea of home might be due for a significant change. What other types of living deserve the status of home? How can we introduce other types of home? What are the challenges in adopting some of the different ideas for home? I have thoughts on all this, but I would like to start by hearing from you.

Let’s start the conversation in the comments.



  1. First Nic, I have to say what a terrific post and a great subject to open up.

    I think you are right on in that the economy has exposed the fragility of our preconceptions of home, although I would have to counter that its likely that much of it could have been avoided if there had been a stricter adherence to a 30yr mortgage. Clearly this would have put many people who are now in foreclosure in homes that they could have afforded long term, if they were lucky enough to stay employed. Not to detract from your point, but esoteric lending was more the culprit there and the 30yr fixed the relatively responsible choice.

    I’m also interested in the idea of co-housing and I think a younger generation of aspiring homeowners may see this as a more appealing than our senior baby-boomers despite the hippy connotations. I see it as an old idea, namely the family house/compound/palazzo – it goes by many names. The idea of generations of family living, marrying, raising children, growing old, under a common roof, at times a very large roof. This is something that has been undermined by our shift away from remaining in the region where you grew up, and rapid relocation for career and business. Families don’t stay together anymore, never mind under the same roof. Its hard to condemn our mobility as it has great benefits elsewhere, but clearly the family has suffered and the whole propensity to be forced to learn to live together has all but evaporated, replaced with 1+ acre lots where you don’t have to speak to your neighbor. Those people for whom the ideal setting is one where the depth of your side yard obviates your responsibility to be neighborly will be pretty hard pressed to even jokingly consider living down the hall from their parents or siblings.

    Yet I can image such a wonderful new, yet old paradigm for this homestead of extended family. Imagine even if you consolidated a family of two siblings, one with three married children, say the other with two. Say we can consolidate 7 mcmansion sized suburban homes into an urban block compound in the city of Philadelphia. Like a classic italian palazzo, suddenly you have tremendous amount of space, yet much less space per family – in effect the small house you advocate. We now have the semi private – semi public realm that is largely missing. It can provide community and privacy, security, and even urban parking, urban green space, – answers to many of the other urban conditions identified as “problems” by suburbanites. Imagine it as a hybrid apartment building of sorts, with common facilities a small home would not offer. Private apartments within a family palace – pardon me the indulgence of using the translation of the italian palazzo.

    Unfortunately I don’t think Co-Housing can fill those shoes. Even if you are lucky enough to have the convergence of good management and agreeable co-housers, these are not family. They will not care for you when you are ill, and as you age. They will not watch your children out of love while you go to work. In the end its simply an alternate form of ownership, where as family can’t so simply be dissolved.

    Of course I am ignoring a whole world of family nightmares for the sake of imagining the intriguing architectural solution of a family palazzo for the 21st century. But you invited me to. So there you go.

  2. Todd Oskin says:

    I think co-housing can definitely work, depending on how you set it up and with whom you set it up.

    It reminds me hostel type arrangements, where people have their own room (or shared room) and a big kitchen/living/social gathering place.

    You say that co-housers are not family, and while this may be true… I think that I have a better relationship with some of my friends than with my family…. and I think this is not uncommon at all.
    I think friends, or co-housers, can and do care about each other … it depends on the friends and/or co-housers…

    For co-housing to work you need to have the ‘right’ co-housers… people/friends that can and do care about each other…

    I’ve witnessed a friend of mine taking care of his elderly neighbor in south philly… and I doubt he is the only person in Philly who cares about his neighbors/friends.

    I have other friends who take care of their neighbors/friends dogs….. and dogs are basically kids…

    Heck, I live with my brother and a friend… so we are basically running a form of co-housing.. and it is working out fine so far…. (we shall see how it works when 2 more friends move in over the next few months).

    This co-housing also makes me think about onion flat’s rag flats… I wonder how well those are working out.. they seemed like they worked out pretty well from my single experience there….

  3. Todd, I think you are right in that people will often have much more positive relationships with friends than their families. I want to believe! I want the urban co-shared palazzo!

  4. honeybee33 says:

    As aging boomers who work in the nonprofit sector, my husband and I are bumping up against a very tight household budget coupled with an encroaching need to care for both our aging, single-or-soon-to-be mothers. We find ourselves motivated in our next housing decision by three of your four reasons listed above! We’d like to move back closer to an urban setting (less social isolation, closer to neighborhood services, less time spent commuting), but there is sooo little affordable housing available that’s flexible enough to meet our “odd little family” needs.

    RE: Communal or co-housing … Greg, I agree with Todd – I know plenty of young adults who are embracing co-housing situations, either formally or informally. “Alternative” cultures, like LGBT folks, have operated this way (creating mutually nurturing bonds with friends that “stand in” for absent family) for decades. Currently, my husband and I frequently look after the modest needs of the elders and disabled in our mixed-income apartment complex. While it’s not readily embraced by the “suburban nuclear family” mainstream, it’s a surprisingly familiar pattern for those outside of it.

  5. Stevenla says:

    A house is what most people build, buy or rent.
    A home is where the heart is.

    Different things work for different people at different times of their life.

    If you want to get above the painfully immature gringocenric monologue you need to get a passport and live in houses/homes in a few other parts of the less self obsessive world.

    If you can’t travel at least read and learn a bit of history. People all over the world have been doing everything from their home since cave dwelling.

    “Home has also become something beyond shelter in terms of use. It is an entertainment center, a hotel for guests, a restaurant, a theatre, a game hall and so on. Home has absorbed segments of public life, swelling and solidifying. Even work has slipped into the homes so that many of us imagine an office as a vital part of any house. And yet, it is exclusive, exclusionary, fiercely insular ,,,,”
    Uuuuuughh painful to read ……. trite shallow I’m sure you can do better than this — this is a problem with blogs — no reflective thought or editing.

  6. Yet another study that tries to identify what we want in home:
    “The survey reveals that most Americans would like to live in walkable communities where shops, restaurants, and local business are within an easy walk from their homes, as long as those communities can provide detached single-family homes.”


    Or, “I want to be close to everything, but I just don’t want any neighbors”. Sounds about right.

  7. Kallie says:

    I work in a homesharing program, under the guidance of the co-presidents of the National Shared Housing Resource Center. Essentially, I’m a roommate matchmaker. There are several of these types of programs across the world, yet for how logical homesharing is (extra help w/ mortgage payments, companionship for elderly, lower rents, a safer alterative to Craigslist), it’s a concept that is not catching on in America.

    The idea of the American dream is indeed a hard one to shake. I appreciate you starting this dialogue; I agree that we need to rethink how we house ourselves. As families are spreading further apart, I still believe that people crave a sense of community. This is one of the reasons I am deeply interested in cohousing: having lived in intentional community myself, I have found that the support I get from non-family members rivals the small-town community support I had growing up. Cohousing offers a viable alternative to the traditional, intergenerational family structure that many of us had growing up, but which is quickly disappearing with our ever-increasing mobility.

    However, there is a lot of room for growth in the co-housing realm to figure out how to make this option more affordable and less time-intensive upfront. Right now, the process involves a group forming, finding a site, building, etc., and often takes several years. For many people, this is a big deterrent, even though the process does create a strong community foundation. Do you think if investors built these communities, there would be enough demand to fill the units?

    Some of my favorite co-housing projects have evolved from adaptive reuse projects (i.e., Eastern Village CoHo, Swan’s Market CoHo). These are great because they are using the embodied energy of structures already in place and can bring a new energy into an area.

    If anyone is interested, the National Cohousing Conference 2011 is being held in DC this June.

  8. […] have talked recently about challenging the traditional concept of home, something we at Postgreen Homes haven’t yet tackled in the real world. While I think its […]

Leave a Comment