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What makes a good home

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Good homes need to be mostly ordinary, but not only so, says Crispin Kelly

In his book Home: A Short History of an Idea, Witold Rybczynski suggested privacy, domesticity and cosiness were key to a good new home. First came privacy and a sense of the individual and intimate; then leisure and ease; the 19th century brought light, heat and ventilation and the 20th century finished with efficiency. The democratisation of comfort has made the good home available to all.

We face new worries about building the smallest new homes in Europe, and the most expensive

Since Rybczynski wrote in 1986, sustainability has been added to the mix. We face new worries about building the smallest new homes in Europe, and the most expensive. But new home buyers are getting on in houses which, in the context of the past 400 years, offer generous servings of privacy, domesticity and cosiness. Buyers ignore the scorn their ‘Noddy boxes’ receive by most architects.

Homes are made good by the people in them, not architects; bohemians flourish in stable yards. Although nests continue to be made, and rooms arranged for the rituals of eating and socialising, two shadows loom over this portrait of the home which is good, or good enough.

We are increasingly living in smaller households, and increasingly alone. New homes may be less about family and hearth, more about solitude. Neighbours are ignored. This emptiness is filled with things and anti-depressants rather than people.

Mobiles and computers increasingly allow us to communicate without propinquity. This increases the threat to our good home as a social place. Reality is often virtual. At the same time, the tradition of making home into a refuge from work is changing.

I believe good design has a role to play in addressing these conditions. Intellectual capital, invested in shaping volume, light and materials, can offer us more than comfort in a good home.

There is a seriousness and moral urgency about dwelling which architects intuitively understand (even if Heidegger is too difficult). A grammar of architectural possibilities needs to be spoken about again: opportunities for accentuating human experience which can help a home be a place to dwell in well.

Space and light need to vary, sometimes contract, sometimes expand. An alcove. A cathedral volume. Not the deadening assembly of the volume housebuilder, each ceiling the same height, each room the same meanness, each window the pragmatic catalogue choice.

Some moments in the home need to be celebrated, marked by material or decoration. There has to be intent; a creative will for moments of delight. Finger thicknesses in the porch fluting. This is different from the volume housebuilders’ use of wink-points, like knapped flint panels or Juliet balconies. Good homes need to be mostly ordinary, but not only so.

This is not about the home as a building, but rather the house as a unit assembled together with others. Contemporary neighbourhoods, with their homogeneity and emphasis on privacy, snuff out the need for us to experience difference as something affirming. Although many estate-dwellers might not see themselves, in Richard Sennett’s words, in ‘voluntary servitude to unruffled ease’, they are keen to park the car right by the front door, and haven’t bought the house to make friends with the neighbours.

Eric Lyons and Span showed an alternative. Some things are shared. What is shared needs to be managed by those who share them. The resolution of discord becomes everyday. Garden sheds can be workshops.

I am experimenting with this old grammar of experiences, building four houses designed by Peter Salter in London. Sales values allow a generous budget, and the Walmer Road houses show difference and hierarchy. Because the structural concrete is often also the interior finish, the shock and delight of rooms and routes is already evident: a poem in the power of the home’s architectural vocabulary.

Six houses in Pewsey, designed by Tony Fretton Architects, are a different matter and are being built for a quarter of the price. Here experiences are provoked by spatial sequences: a low hall, a double-height sitting room open to the eaves, tight stairs to a bedroom with a big balcony. Here, where land is cheap, there are gardens to be cultivated, connecting to the long views of the Downs and their sheep.

In both schemes, roads and yards will stay unadopted, and managed by the residents. To paraphrase Florian Beigel, we can supply the rug, but the picnic will be eaten by others.

  • Crispin Kelly is the chief executive of developer Baylight
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