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Home in Times of Crisis and After

Home in Times of Crisis and After

By Negin Moayer, Registered Architect, CWA Vice President

The impacts of the built environment on the surrounding natural habitat have been the topic of conversation much more recently. Many regions in the world are dealing with natural disasters, from fires in Australia to hurricanes in the Caribbean. And now our world is dealing with a completely different phenomenon; an invisible creature; a virus.
Historically, tribes, communities and civilizations have moved across lands to flee a detrimental natural or socio-economic situation or seek better opportunities for life. Either way, they have found ways to adapt to it. The built environment is what came next, when communities large and small re-established their new ways of life and built their surroundings to accommodate it.

It is not hard to imagine displacements of large populations throughout the world due to climatic crisis, much similar to the recent displacement of the refugees of the civil wars in the Middle East, or violence in South Americas. What is observed from these displacements and refugee crises is that the refugees long to get back home or to re-create the home in their new settings. They are quick in getting back to their rituals; sharing the culture that they brought with their new communities once they feel welcomed. That is when food carts, small authentic cafes, street music and dances can be heard and seen in neighborhoods that accept the refugees with open arms.

Sooner or later many communities- including Chicago the city where I live – will find it inevitable to host the new immigrating groups and help them integrate properly and efficiently for better future collaboration and coexistence, therefore betterment of the society as a whole.

On the other hand, in the case of the pandemic due to Covid-19, it is the opposite. There is no place to go, but homes to shelter in. If we anticipated having to deal with a large number of climate refugees, who would be in search of a safe haven and be able to call it “home”, now we need to debate the idea of “home” even more carefully as “home” is a place where people can be trapped for a long time due to a pandemic. The question is whether our built environment standards are sufficient to respond to the physical and mental health needs of its inhabitants effectively. The new lifestyle that comes after the peak of the pandemic asks for more new ways of adaptation, which the built environment will have to follow and adjust to.

As we all know by now, there is a long way to discovering the cure and vaccination for Covid-19. The pandemic – like many other historic world changing events – creates a new lifestyle afterwards. With the current shelter-at-home directive that may very well continue for months and happen frequently in the next few years, a new type of population is emerging, looking for ways to adapt and adjust; corporate employees.

The industrialized world has created the office job as a new category of work. When trade and finance took a more important role in managing production, services and markets, the need for places to bring all the growing number of staff employed to collaborate and do such jobs under one roof came in to play. This was because the co-working technology could only accommodate short distance communications, involving pen and paper and going as far as telephones and telegraphs for longer distance conversations. Consequently, the modern world’s built environment is designed around the working population, largely office employees, to facilitate their commute from homes to work-places where they spent most of their day times, five days a week, hence transportation arteries and vehicles. With the mobility of technology in the past decade, remote working has become a lot more possible. It is mainly used by certain groups of employees in the corporate world such as new parents – if not only mothers – or individuals who have commitments regarding care for family members, and this one is still very rare. This has given new options to this certain population of caregivers – notably women – who historically would leave workplaces to care for their young families. They can now still contribute to their families and society’s economy. However, this is still far from the inclusiveness in an office environment. Visibility at a desk is still important as an established culture. There is still a significant percentage of this said group that does not achieve the same for the same work as their other coworkers who are physically present in the office. They don’t find their employment, fulfilling even financially and leave the workforce to spend time on something more valuable: family. At a time that being present at the office is still the social norm, it is unprecedented that a whole company is contemplating working remotely, and the need to accommodate it has never existed before.

We often talk about work and life balance. Perhaps the imbalance that we feel comes from the speed that we are required to act, perform, make decisions and oftentimes feel unprepared and blindfolded to do so. With modern life, we have lost touch with our inner deliberateness. As humans and not machines, the current speed of life has adversely affected the joy that would otherwise come from our patient interactions and communications. In between our feelings, decisions and actions we naturally need a good amount of self-reflectance and contemplation. With the new lifestyle after a pandemic that offers slowness, we can discover ways to create the pauses that help us find balance in our lives.

As we are experiencing the urgency of remote working, it seems appropriate, now, to rethink the commute – to – work vs. the work – from – home model. If the current circumstances and the possibilities of technology have led us to the latter, the question is whether our built environment, mainly our homes as our local work – places, are equipped well to accommodate that. How can work merge into home life seamlessly and form a peaceful coexistence rather than a disruption? As the definition of work has evolved throughout history – from the hunter-gatherers to the settlers and then the industrialized world following, so has the definition of home been following suit very closely, so it is safe to say that adjustments are inevitable. What we need to do is to approach them proactively.

Technology is mobile and it is good that it facilitates the flexibility of work schedules, but it is not all that is needed. There is still the emotional void that has been created in the natural way of life since the industrialization of the world. Industries are created to respond to human needs, but does the human race have to consume every bit of its existence, its physical and mental resources to keep the wheels of the industrialized world rolling? Is there any better way to balance human existence with the economics of life in a way that they both thrive? One could argue this applies to all the natural resources.

Human beings are social; they use the entertaining aspects of their social lives to cope with the burdens of work culture and requirements. But what if entertainment and social interactions are defined differently, delve deeper into human relationships. A benefit of work that is performed locally, within or in proximity to homes is more time in hand and the activities that can fill it up more leisurely. Everything is slower and there is more time available for social interactions. Entertainment can include more of these instead of only spectatorship of a select group. Slowness prompts people to find meaning in their linear path of life and make it rich because it triggers the sense of monotony and boredom and the urge to make it joyful. We need spaces within our homes designed to accommodate the joy.

It is a good time now to evaluate our current homes, do they perform as a natural environment for us humans, as a second skin that contains all of our physical activities and emotions, in addition to providing shelter from the elements? We can hope that what we do to make a living and what we do to live, overlap into one single experience. Oftentimes though, this may not feel to be the case. That is when our built environment can step in to offer meaningful events and experiences that help bridge the gap between the two.

Those of us who are architects, developers, building systems engineers, manufacturers and code officials will need to think about including designated spaces – however small- for individual contemplation and self-reflectance. Nature has to be strongly introduced into homes, and opportunities for the residents to connect with it; plant something, watch it grow and own it. People need to be able to have ample lines of sight into the horizon. It is difficult in dense urban areas but we need to think creatively to make it possible. Natural ventilation and fresh air are essential; they also help bring down the mechanical heating and cooling costs for the buildings when automation tools and user instructions are implemented properly. Wood is nature, and the new trend of using cross laminated timber – CLT – structure is a wonderful start to using it more effectively in new mid to high-rise buildings. We should work on making the use of it more affordable and possible in all regions so it becomes mainstream and replaces concrete and steel, which are major contributors to global CO2 emission. Glass is good and provides much daylight and delight, however un-abandoned and un-thoughtful use of it impedes the mental sense of shelter and privacy that is expected from a home, let alone the burden it puts on building energy use if the right glass technology is not applied. When it comes to inclusion of the new immigrants in the housing communities, we need to think about strategies to design homes that are adaptable to their cultures, rituals and varying functioning needs. Those strategies include flexibility in the arrangement of spaces, indoor and outdoor relationships, light, kitchen arrangements, even building systems.

If “home” provides and maintains mental and physical comfort for its residents, it will feel like a natural habitat. After all, can making some adjustments to the meaning of home and the way we build them lead to a way of life that brings us all together as one global community who values human characteristics and relationships over possessed material? We can imagine people of all spectrums of work: urban modern corporate employees to farmers and manufacturers, medical and education specialists to shop owners and transit workers, all consider “home” the place that offers deliberate reflection and connection back to our deep selves and our natural environment.

Photo by Raymond Zhu on Unsplash