Rooms are disappearing; we now call it space

When you see throngs of people herding themselves like cattle through an artificially lit maze of home renovation stands on a Sunday, you realise there must be more to the lure of a home show than choosing taps or a builder for the living room extension. There is. Sally Webster discovers why. 

They probably wouldn’t believe it if you told them, but the 48,000 visitors at the Auckland Home Show this year – 5% more than last year – shuffled past the wares of over 500 exhibitors because all these offerings represent extensions of themselves.

As U.S environmental psychologist Susan Clayton said in a popular ‘The Atlantic’ article recently: ‘for many people, their home is part of their self-definition.’

Robert Gifford, professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, goes a little further, stating in an issue of Residential Environmental Psychology that ‘home’ is in fact a set of psychological meanings.

U.S architect Sam Jacob wrote in a 2013 article on ‘Understanding the Psychology of Your Home’ that homes ‘house’ a lot of issues that resonate with us deeply and symbolically. The architect is apparently there to attempt to ‘materialise these things into the very fabric of their surroundings.’ Clients take it seriously: late one Sunday evening he was called by a client who had been looking at a tap catalogue and the choice had sent them into a tail spin of introspection. ‘Sam! What kind of tap am I?!’ they pleaded.

These are just a few options in a plethora of studies on anything from how garden paths control behaviour to the height of a ceiling coercing you into entering or exiting a room.

Bill McKay, renowned New Zealand architectural author and Senior Lecturer at the School of Architecture and Planning, University of Auckland, confirms it. There is far more to homes and features than what would have met the dazed eyes of home show visitors two weeks hence; psychological and sociological thinking underpins our homes.

He even says fresh architect graduates have to spend three years with a senior architect, accompanying them to people’s homes to learn about behaviour.

“I just watched a film about an architect with a scene where clients came to his office to see a fly-through of the home he proposed for them. It’s just not like that. The architect visits the client and watches behaviour, body language, notices if the client is messy or not. For instance, the trend of minimalist houses is all very well but if the clients are collectors and like a lot of nick-nacks around them this is not going to work.”

One of the first stands in the main hall was that of Sonya Cotter, an interior and spatial designer, labelled The Innovative Space.

The Space had no dividing walls, only pillars and shallow low-lit outer wall recesses. A stiff plastic mesh curtain hung between the kitchen and living areas like a hide and seek screen. The kitchen was defined by a tasteful island. Leaning on the massive drawer filled unit, its benchtop a smooth blend of the bark of a tree and the swirl of marble that visitors kept silently running their palms over, Cotter explained the trend.

“Rooms are disappearing, space has to be multifunctional. Instead of ‘room’ we now use ‘space’ and ‘living’ or ‘entertaining’ areas.”

While Cotter certainly works at the fashionable end of space, McKay says this particular trend is not a passing fancy, it is a return to something we had for centuries and it is about people connecting.

“In terms of the open plan trend, the whole history of the old villas was that the kitchen was the heart of the house and everyone lived round the kitchen table. That’s where people congregated together – they would spend the whole evening in one space. State houses did away with that when they said, no, the kitchen is a workplace and the rest of the family aren’t allowed in there. Since the 70’s it has all been about getting the kitchen back as the heart of the house.”

Rammed earth building company, Terra Firma, had a stand in one of the maze-style halls. Director and Designer Paul Geraets said, “the home show was packed….I’ve never seen a Sunday like it” as crowds continued to file past only 2 hours from closing.

He’s certainly aware of the trend of open spaces but says there is definitely still a place for ‘the room’, if for no other reason than maintaining an affordable heating bill. Proudly utilitarian, he gives prospective clients some practical homework.

“I ask them to think about how many rooms they think they need and what for. Then I ask them to think about what is the minimum size they need for each room.” This question is often met with a blank stare; architects and designers traditionally ask you to increase your expectations rather than decrease them.

Geraets then asks people to make a list with needs on one side and wants on the other. On reflection, a large number of needs are revealed as wants and once paired back, often produce a home that can be built under budget. It’s about then that he quips, “Ok great…so we can put the lap pool in the bathroom after all!”

McKay advises that we need to be careful however on the assignment of rooms because people do not necessarily know their own behaviour as well as they think they do.

“Back in the 1970’s everyone wanted a rumpus room: the house on top then all the kids toys and leisure stuff downstairs…it never happened. The parents had decided they wanted to be on their own in the living room but the kids kept wanting to come back upstairs and be part of the family space. So it’s not just the parents giving the brief. Architects need to notice what the kids are doing, how they interact with people in the home – even whether they come up to the table to see what you’re doing.”

These observations are all very well. But how do we know what is going on inside someone’s head when they look at a set of ‘space-not-room’ plans, images or a fly-through?

Perhaps one of the most comprehensive measures on brain activity when presented with images of space was published by the Journal of Environmental psychology in November 2014. ‘Architectural design and the brain: Effects of ceiling height and perceived enclosure on beauty judgments and approach-avoidance decisions’ was authored by 9 researchers across six global institutes.

Vartanian et al. looked at the effects of ceiling height and perceived enclosure, measuring participant response using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This method of imaging shows blood flow to the brain so researchers were able to see which parts were most active as participants viewed different residential images. They concluded that in rooms with high ceilings, areas that ‘support visuo- spatial exploration and attention’ were activated more and hence, the brain showed a preference for more open space.

In contrast, enclosed spaces triggered activity in areas involved in making avoidance decisions, or more specifically, areas like the Amygdala which is involved in fear processing. In short, the visual concept of lots of space encouraged exploration; enclosed spaces such as low ceilings, encouraged feelings of wanting to leave.

These are not new ideas though. British geographer Jay Appleton put forward habitat and prospect-refuge theories in 1975. The former suggests that we interpret an aesthetically pleasing space as favourable to survival. The latter, as described in the study by Vartanian et al., defines prospect as ‘unimpeded opportunity to see’ and refuge as ‘an opportunity to hide’. They are important in our aesthetic appreciation of environments because they affect our perceptions of survival.

There is little doubt then that pleasing openness in a living environment does require some form of private annexation – what we traditionally call ‘rooms.’

For anyone who prefers cosy spaces and old-fashioned ceiling heights, the conclusion made in the study says that ‘the neural basis for judging a given space as beautiful might not necessarily correspond with the neural basis for a decision to approach it…and could even manifest itself in a person opting not to enter a beautiful wide open room.’

As an avid watcher of space however, Cotter describes another level to this aspect of design. She says homes are creating neighbourhoods and communities for us within the home. A lot more attention has been paid to interaction between residents recently- often on a multi-generational level.

“We have to all move through that space, which has now become very multifunctional. It is connected in a new way.”

In a 2012 paper presented at National Conference on Cognitive Research on Human Perception of Built Environment for Health and Wellbeing in Vishakhapatnam, India, author Jatish Bag from the Dignity College of Architecture in Anjora said his intention was to ‘create a link between human spatial cognition research and architectural design’ and drew on the wisdom of one architecture’s most famous names.

‘More  than  40  years  ago  Le  Corbusier emphasised the idea of movement as a central theme in the theory of architectural design… a  built  environment  must  be  described  as  a dynamic process of movement caused by the fact that we do not experience the spatial layout of a  building  as  a  static  structure.  We discover architectural shapes and  layouts  literally  step-by-step.’

McKay concludes by saying that the whole concept of the home being self-defining – whether structurally or decoratively – is an ideal that isn’t always that easy to get at because people get sidetracked from themselves by the latest look. Geraets agrees, saying trends can “actually distract us from forming a culture. We must have a cultural basis to work from so we are not constantly changing things”.

But McKay says it happens all too easily: “I ran an interior design programme for a couple of years and there are two kinds of designers – the ones who actually are interior designers and have a qualification, and the ones who wake up one morning and decide they are an interior designer. The latter used to be called interior decorators and they do not think spatially.

“A classic example of what tends to happen is that clients will show us a load of clippings from magazines that they think they want. But what an architect or designer actually has to do is try to find out what [is right] for the client and discourage people from dressing their home in inappropriate ways because of fashion… I’m not anti-fashion but it gets in the way of what really suits people.”

Image with thanks to via Google Images