Lockdowns have challenged how we think and feel about our homes. At the heart of many conversations about the future is the issue of increased home working. How can design adapt to changing needs and behaviours? What will we gain and what will we leave behind?
How can we move beyond the home/work binary when our historic built environment reinforces the difference between public office space and private domestic experience, and how desirable is the constant digital accessibility of work?
Working from home is not a recent phenomenon. Throughout history, both paid and unpaid work has been carried out in the home – skilled crafts, food production, childcare, home-schooling, taking in sewing or ironing.
Working from home is not a recent phenomenon
Increasingly, these crucial transactions became unaccounted for in our understanding of what work means in all its gender division – suits and briefcases, buses and trains. However, offices and commuting are a recent invention. They are a product of the nineteenth century: the growth of the suburbs, the rise of white-collar work and the striving for greater administrative efficiencies.
Whole cities have grown up to support this norm and home life has become defined in contrast to our other lives. Now digital platforms are again blurring the boundaries and fuelling the home-based economy. When we think about home/work solutions we still think about office-based activity transported to the home, but what about a home designed for, say, an Etsy trader, with kitchen tables that become workbenches?
At the Museum of the Home, these are some of the issues we're revealing and rethinking. We are exploring everyday experiences of lockdown with our Stay Home collecting project, and looking at the history of the UK home with fresh eyes that examine the socio-economic changes that have shifted the ways we live.
Home/Work: A New Future, is also the challenge posed by the inaugural Davidson Prize, for which I have the pleasure of being part of the selection panel. It seeks "thought-provoking ideas that help inform debate about working from home".
What is striking is that many of the emerging themes are not new problems, but those that we have been grappling with for centuries: social networks and connectivity; modular, agile and flexible solutions to multi-use spaces; biophilia and reconnecting with the outside world; making the most of underused space in our cities.
I've seen enough of the history of the home not to be sentimental
In this respect, the home of the future is looking a lot like the past. We've been here before, but how can we overthrow ingrained historical ways of living to embrace something very different and do we even want to? Will we even have a choice?
I've seen enough of the history of the home not to be sentimental. Physically demanding and reliant on many socio-economic practices that we find abhorrent today, the historic UK home is an uncomfortable place to dwell. Within living memory were mind-blowing levels of daily grind just to keep and maintain a functioning space.
We're also now assessing the impact of Covid from increasingly unstable ground. The things we thought we knew about the history of the home – largely underpinned by a triumphant and linear Industrial Revolution narrative – are under scrutiny.
Many of the domestic game-changers that "liberated" the western home, such as clean running water and electricity, are now being weighed against their wider environmental impact and the recognition that not everyone has benefited equally from the supposed march of progress. Just looking at the UK, social injustice still underpins domestic life, with a growing gap between rich and poor, sub-standard housing practices and homes that struggle to support an ageing population.
The history of socially networked living living is an intriguing feature of both past and new spaces
But the past is also a story of human resilience in the face of seismic change, and of communities finding innovative solutions to problems. Many of these have been tried and tested – sometimes centuries ago.
Some of these ideas could be revisited, with new materials and fresh perspectives, to take the things that worked and turn them into something future-proof.
The Museum of the Home explores the history of the urban home from the 1600s to the present day and beyond. It's a lot of ground to cover, something which allows us to dip in and out of history, mining for inspiration and making connections, rather than attempting to provide an encyclopaedic account of what is often both an individual and a collective experience. The history of socially networked living is an intriguing feature of both past and new spaces, such as the House for Artists model, and some of the Davidson Prize entries that search for the answer in communal and shared spaces inside and outside the home.
The good and the bad news is that these are not new problems
The anxiety-inducing reality of many of our homes is that they are often cramped and inefficient spaces that seem wholly unsuited to a changing world, especially one in which the direction of travel seems uncertain.
The good and the bad news is that these are not new problems, and the solutions may not need to be completely original. The history of the home offers glimmers of ideas that might, just might, offer future solutions – rethought, reformed and regenerated for future living.
So, where might we find past inspiration?
The hybrid hall
Entering the home of a London merchant in the 1630s, the space known as "the hall" was a flexible and agile site of intergenerational, hybrid activity. The term was used to describe the main living space, where members of the family and household spent much of their time.
Inventories from the time show items of flexible furniture in a semi-public space, where business meetings took place, children were home-schooled, servants may have slept and parties would have happened. The hall needed to adapt quickly from bedroom to family hub and from day to evening.
The co-working coffee house
The urban coffee houses that grew in numbers from the early 1700s supported a working life that was not yet concentrated in offices. These spaces were designed for business, with many associated with particular trades.
Some of them had an entrance fee, mirroring the modern co-working model. The future home will rely on changes in the wider city – spaces that provide opportunities for work as well as leisure.
The growth of charitable housing from the 1700s offers some interesting solutions to the networked living question. Our museum's almshouses would have housed up to 50 pensioners at one time in accommodation similar to the modern bedsit: space for sleeping, eating and limited cooking, with communal spaces for washing, laundry, gardening and recreation.
These weren't work/home environments, as the inhabitants were predominantly retired, but the model for living was based on a wider economy that supported more pared-down design and provision. Communal bakehouses allowed you to either bake your own or pay a small fee to the baker, and a lively street trade with itinerant food sellers meant the pensioners did not need to go far to find a meal.
With opportunities for everyday interaction at risk from remote working, the Victorian bay window is also worth another look. Some of the Davidson Prize submissions explore the area that extends out from the building as space that is underused and easily segregated to create either privacy or connectivity, depending on need.
Bays were the perfect location for the nineteenth-century houseplant mania and terrarium-based biophilia. The Victorians knew the calming effects of birdsong in their urban homes – elaborate bird cages were often proudly mounted in the window. Bays brought the outside in but also projected domestic identity from the inside out.
Contrasting and complementing the opening-up afforded by the bay window, the cosy corner was another fascinating Victorian craze – foretelling some modern-day rooms-within-rooms solutions.
Cosy corners were usually semi-permanent, built, padded and draped spaces designed to create privacy in shared homes. They typically were used for activities like reading or quiet conversation. The corners could be purchased pre-fabricated from catalogues, and are such an intriguing trend in the history of the home that we've recreated one in our new galleries.
All of this is not even to touch on the recurring retro-futurism of the pod: the perennial, modernist, modular solution to our home/work crisis. From 1960s bubble domes to the multitude of uses found for shipping containers, the pod promises us stripped-back flexibility, but, aside from the garden shed and the caravan, they always remained out of reach as a mainstream domestic option and almost more important as an idea than a reality.
A re-examination of the potential of pod living or working is surely due serious consideration, as an urban evolution towards something more mobile and miniaturised, aided by digital smart technologies and a cloud-based existence.
Photo is from the Museum of the Home's Stay Home collecting project.