The Meanings of Home

Exploring the relationships between design, identity and the house

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At no time in history has the awareness of home been more important than during the pandemic that has confined us to it. When the borders between countries, and even cities, started closing, many people felt the need to return home. What kind of experience does our home provide that makes it so essential in situations of insecurity and fear? Have the physical environments many of us have turned to for shelter provided the well-being we were seeking in them? 

The millions of people who lose their homes every year due to natural disasters find it increasingly difficult. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), two thirds of those displaced every year are uprooted by climate or other natural causes, rather than by military conflicts17.8 million in 2019. We cannot know what the growth factor of that figure will be, as the effects of climate change are unpredictable, but disasters are undoubtedly intensifying. In 2020 California exceeded its record of annual hectares destroyed by fire in its entire history; however, in 2018 it experienced the most destructive fire to date, which devastated 14,000 homes in the town of Paradise in one single day.  

home destroyed by fire in Paradise, CA
Deserted site, Paradise, CA. Photo © Marta Delgado

As a result of my research project focused on the meaning of home for survivors of natural disasters, I have been able to interview some of the witnesses of that terrible incident. These people who lost their homes had places to seek refugerented spaces, motor homes, shelters, homes of friends and family membersbut these did not always satisfy them. They were nostalgic for a deeper connection with their living environment.   

 It is enlightening to hear them say that after all, material possessions are not more important than life. Yet these people who volunteered to speak about their experiences told me that feeling at home does improve their lives, and that they were therefore willing to rebuild their homes, even if it took years to do so. 

The home as a way of belonging 

Between the 1970s and 90s academic research defined the main features of the universal idea of the home through interviews with hundreds of people. Home was identified with belonging to a certain place and with the feeling of safety and refuge from the outside world. Physical structures and design can offer us private, safe spaces that adapt to our needs, located in places we have chosen. 

Terrace without house. Rebuild home project. Paradise, CA
Terrace without house. Paradise, CA. Image © Marta Delgado

Moreover, the home is the physical environment where we shape our identity. It is an environment that educates and reflects us, helping us to define ourselves. It seems that the places where we grow up leave an impression about who we are and what place we occupy in the world. The educational relationship with our environments is not one-directional. As pointed out by Clare Cooper-Marcus in her book The House as a Mirror of Self, as we grow up we start revealing parts of ourselves or themes we seek to explore. When our environments reflect potential parts of ourselves, it is then that we feel we belong.  

In my research I relate one aspect of the experience of belonging to a place with well-being, which is the ability to relax neuro-physiologically. You might recognize the feeling of entering your home and feeling a burden lighten on your shoulders. That would be the activation of the restauration mode by your nervous system. Our body keeps alive by alternating periods of concentration and response to external demands with periods of regeneration and attention to internal demands. Both are essential for survival; however, one of them operates by default and the other does not.   

The consequences of loss 

People who lose their homes in a natural disaster or other types of emergencies find it more difficult to relax and physically regenerate, as evidenced by the high rates of depression and stress that prevail among survivors even months after the disaster.  

Lost home, Paradise, California
Lost home, Paradise, CA. Photo © Marta Delgado

It turns out that, in order to relax, digest, sleep well, regenerate our immune system and renovate all our mental faculties we need to perceive external and internal safetyalso called ontological safetyor the certainty of knowing what defines you. Our home provides both when its atmosphere manages to reflect us.  

Designing for belonging implies knowing oneself, or sometimes a client, or sometimes a group of homeless people. For designers, knowing means approaching projects with curiosity and with questions. In my research I explored what made people happy, what mattered to them and what were the best memories at home. For some of them it was to cook for their family. For others it was to take care of plants and watch them grow, or a sport remembered through collectibles, or a moment of solitude at dawn when they heard the world rise. When we have definite answers we can create specific atmospheres that show and amplify the personality of their inhabitants. Our mind, body and health greatly benefit from all this each time the pleasant feeling that accompanies our refuge welcomes us home.  

Main image: Reconstruction projectParadise, CA. Photo © Marta Delgado 


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