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Lauren F. Winner

Getting Comfortable

Houses the offer "prospect and refuge."

Sometimes, you walk into a building and you just feel at home. Maybe a family from church has invited you to a dinner party—you don't know the hosts very well, and you've never been to their house before. But you feel right at home, right away. There's something comfortable, relaxing, and inviting about their space.

Winifred Gallagher's smashing new book, House Thinking, helps explain why some spaces feel inherently homey to us. Certain spaces make us feel at ease, and others do not. "Unfortunately, most of our information about the home comes from profit-driven experts, media, and merchants, who insist that how our houses and apartments look is more important than the less commercial but more crucial issue of how they make us feel." Approaching our houses from the vantage of evolutionary psychology, she argues, can help us make better decisions about simple things like arranging our furniture—and those decisions can go a long way toward making us more comfortable, more at home.

Her book walks readers through a house, room by room. I found that Gallagher named many of my inchoate desires, things I intuitively wanted from my house, but didn't know how to articulate.

You might have felt at home as soon as you entered those aforementioned acquaintances' house, for example, because of their entryway. Many houses and apartments try to save space by doing away with an entryway. Gallagher argues that these poorly planned entries, which "dump you right into the living area," leave people feeling awkward or uncomfortable, while houses with a defined vestibule or entry hallway help people transition from the chaos of the street to the more interior space of the home. "A good entry tells you that you've left the mad world behind for the private haven, and invites the expectation of pleasure to come."

Gallagher is, in some ways, riffing on the insights of Christopher Alexander (to whom, it seems to me, Sarah Susanka also owes her greatest debt). In his controversial classic A Pattern Language, published in 1977, Alexander develops an aesthetic vocabulary that helps us describe what is beautiful and life-giving. His detailed patterns for building houses and communities express what we want in our houses and suggest how we might get there. Alexander shares Gallagher's beliefs about entryways: "houses with a graceful transition between the street and the inside are more tranquil than those which open directly off the street. The experience of entering a building influences the way you feel inside the building. If the transition is too abrupt there is no feeling of arrival, and the inside of the building fails to be an inner sanctum."

I chewed on that for a while, and it made good sense. Our good friends, whom I'll call the Xs, live in a cute arts-and-crafts bungalow—with no entryway. I always have felt a little ill at ease knocking on their front door and simply barging into their den, even though the Xs themselves are incredibly hospitable and welcoming. I dislike the sense of intruding upon the Xs' lives simply by opening the front door. I feel better, more at ease, when I visit friends with an entryway.

Gallagher also suggests that we also gravitate toward spaces that offer "prospect and refuge"—that is, we like "a big, bright space that has a broad interesting view," but we also like refuges, "snug protected haven[s]." Ideally, homes incorporate both. When Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house for Edward Cheney, Wright lowered the ceiling area around the hearth, ensuring a "cozy, cavelike refuge from which to survey the living area's loftier, brighter, open prospect." Spaces that offer this choice—spaces in which we can curl up securely at the hearth, or sojourn into the broad openness of vista and view—make us feel at home, which is why many people like houses with varied ceiling heights. (Again, Alexander makes the same point, a tad more bluntly: "A building in which the ceiling heights are all the same is virtually incapable of making people comfortable.") Unfortunately, most houses built today have ceilings of constant heights, because they're cheaper to build.

Though eschewing an absurd environmental determinism, Gallagher's bottom line is this: Our surroundings call forth certain behavior. We tend to act like students when we step in a classroom, and we tend to act like shoppers at the mall. This is, says Gallagher, the logic of "ecological psychology": I am not a wholly separate entity from my surroundings, but rather, my study and I "form an interdependent behavior setting." Bearing that in mind, Gallagher suggests an experiment. Walk through your house and ask yourself "Does this room or closet or patio help me to be the right self at the right time?"

I tried this experiment at home, and made some satisfying discoveries. Inter alia, I figured out why I liked our stairwell. The stairwell—which is a typical specimen from an early 20th-century home, with steps a little wider than you're likely to find on staircases built today—is the main feature you see in the entry hall as you walk in the front door. It marches up two-thirds of its height and arrives at a landing, where it changes direction and continues upstairs. Having read House Thinking, I saw that I appreciate that landing because it provides a real transition from upstairs to downstairs. It gives me a place to pause as I am coming downstairs; on the landing, the private, introverted upstairs me can take a deep breath and become the downstairs, public extroverted me. 

If your ceilings are of uniform height or your house doesn't boast a cool stairwell-with-landing, don't despair. You don't have to hire an architect and redesign your whole house to feel more at home, says Gallagher. In each chapter, she reflects on the very simple modifications she made in her own house, a late 19th-century row house filled with five kids, two cats, and a motley collection of furniture that Gallagher and her husband had picked up over a lifetime. To "ensure that our rooms cue the kinds of thoughts and feelings that help us to be happy and productive," she rearranged her living room furniture so that her family would spend more, and more comfortable, time there, rather than "saving" the room for formal occasions. Her kitchen felt too crowded, but, instead of enlarging the work space, which would have cost a bundle, Gallagher installed some second-hand cabinets—which, in turn, allowed her to put away bowls and pots that had been cluttering their countertops. Realizing that her bedroom felt more like an overstuffed closet than a "tranquil refuge," she purged her closets and drawers and took a carload to Goodwill. Now that the bedroom was more private and relaxing, more likely to foster both sleep and sex, Gallagher made one more minor change: she
put a lock on the door. "A dollar's worth of hardware … ensures priceless privacy in a busy home."

A bumper crop of recent memoirs about houses—yes, memoirs about houses—comes at the same task of architectural meaning-making from a different vantage. British novelist Julie Myerson got interested in the history of her house when, "one dark, aimless Boxing Day," she and her husband began scraping the walls of the hallway, determined to repaint or repaper. They were, Myerson writes, "stripping [the house] down to her most private, underneath self." In the early afternoon dark of midwinter, they saw layer after layer of previous inhabitants' decor: the faux-wood grain of the 1960s, the brown zigzags of the 1950s, cobalt and scarlet deco designs, Morris-style ferns and flowers in deep chocolate brown, on and on it went. Someone had chosen these wallpapers, and Myerson wanted to know who. And so began a great detective search, which Myerson chronicles in her magical book Home: she determined to track down everyone who had ever lived in her house. Wrapped up in this one narrow, mid-Victorian building was the history of race and class in Britain, the history of gentrification, of neighbors and neighborhoods, of family celebration and family strife. Myerson uncovered, and laid to rest, ghosts. She found that, with a little hard work in historical archives, and the willingness to ring up total strangers and ask if their great-aunt had ever lived at 34 Lillieshall Road, she really could make the walls talk.

Kate Whouley's Cottage for Sale, Must Be Moved tells another house tale. Whouley lived in a tiny, three-room cottage in New England. She dearly loved her home, but it was just too tiny. When she noticed a series of vacation cottages up for sale, $3,000 a pop, she scraped together funds, purchased one of the cottages, and then moved it 20 miles to her property, where she adjoined it to her house. Cottage for Sale is a fascinating account of making two houses into one home.

Making a house a home—and almost wrecking one's marriage in the process—is also the theme of Michael Ruhlman's House: A Memoir. Ruhlman chronicles his family's move into a fixer-upper in Cleveland Heights. Fixer-upper, actually, is something of an understatement. Plumbing, electric, bathrooms, kitchen: all had to be redone. But, says Ruhlman, our daily, domestic surroundings are worth the effort, if anything is. For our homes tell us something about ourselves.

Even daydreaming about a move can be illuminating. Before buying the behemoth fixer-upper, Ruhlman and his wife looked at houses casually for a while, as something of a pastime. "One of the main pleasures of looking at these houses … is that you imagine yourself living there." Different houses help us envision different selves. My husband and I engage in this same imagining on our occasional Saturday trips into the North Carolina countryside. When we ooh and ah over run-down farmhouses, we're picturing different lives for ourselves—lives in which we are more connected to nature and less harried, more likely to garden and less likely to rush.

At times, even Ruhlman wondered why he was going to such trouble and expense. Did it really matter where the washer and dryer lived? Well, yes:

We wanted more, obviously, than to do laundry on the same floor where we put on and took off that laundry, but not much more. We intended a series of small changes just like that. All great accomplishments are composed entirely of interlocking details. A second-floor laundry room was a good example of the kind of detail we wanted to provide throughout the house. We hoped to stop leaving homes, and in order to do this, we needed a home we couldn't leave.

This house renovation, in other words, was also a renovation of the self. It was about becoming another sort of person, a person who stayed put.

After much sturm and drang, and many tens of thousands of dollars, the Ruhlman family finally arrived there; as the memoir concludes, they are throwing a blow-out Christmas party for their new neighbors. "We were right now in the center of the best moment of the year in the best possible place," Ruhlman intones, "a perfect house."

Reading all these wonderful house memoirs is a touch pornographic. I love my house, but it seems downright shabby compared to Ruhlman's grand, century-old house with the mahogany pocket doors and the heavy leaded windows. There's nothing to make you feel dissatisfied with your own digs like driving through, or reading about, a finer neighborhood.

And there is also something decidedly bourgeois about sitting on my lovely screen-porch, contemplating my stairwell, and reading these books—books that marry the prerogatives of home-ownership (though Gallagher's insights are certainly applicable to rentals) with the luxury of self-expression and self-fulfillment. After all, the same week that I'm reading House Thinking for the second time, I see that Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies has recently reported that even though the housing boom is slowing, affordable housing is harder than ever to find: "The paradox of today's housing market is that while more people are building home equity than ever before, slow growth in wages for households in the bottom three-quarters of the income distribution is not keeping pace with escalating housing costs. Amidst a housing boom, it is now impossible to build housing at prices anywhere near what low-income households can afford without subsidies." When I fantasize about The Perfect House—I have to admit that I even keep a file o' fantasies, replete with notes like "do not look at any houses that don't have a distinct entryway"—am I indulging in something sinfully luxurious?

Gallagher's book weds aesthetic observation to honest social critique. She tartly notes, for example, that even as Americans cook less and less, we spend more and more money redoing our kitchens. Interest in things domestic is nothing new—Americans, writes Gallagher, "have always been very interested in their homes"—but we are now more consumeristic in our domesticity. You don't need to read up on evolutionary psychology to recognize that the pressure to have the latest in kitchen countertops—is it granite or slate these days?—produces stress and debt, not comfort.

Indeed, there's no obvious correlation between expense and comfort. We can hemorrhage money on our homes, says Gallagher, but if we are blindly following fashion rather than asking what makes us feel good, our homes won't feel livable. And Gallagher shows that many of the architectural features most of us like can be had "without undue effort or cost." A group of architecture students she profiles were tasked with redesigning the generic, 950-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment found in every American town. Without spending much, the students redesigned the "soulless" box of an apartment by adding surfaces to the existing walls and ceilings, reorganizing the kitchen to make it more efficient, and transforming the now excess kitchen space into a new entry that "fostered feelings of refuge and anticipation for the prospect about to unfold." We can build even low-income housing, in other words, that is more deeply pleasing.

And we can make sure to use our own deeply pleasing homes well. I was, at first, discomforted by Ruhlman's declaration, in the middle of his Christmas party, that he now occupied the perfect house. It seemed a little smug. But then I realized that his perfect home had welcomed fifty neighbors and their kids for eggnog and Christmas cookies. Ruhlman, in other words, knew what his house was for: not just for himself, but for hospitality. We have beautiful, comfortable homes so that we might welcome guests, not so that we can bask in our show of prestige.

Lauren F. Winner is the author most recently of Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Brazos).

Books mentioned in this essay:

  1. Winifred Gallagher, House Thinking: A Room-by- Room Look at How We Live (HarperCollins, 2006).
  2. Julie Myerson, Home: The Story of Everyone Who Lived in Our House (HarperPerennial, 2005).
  3. Michael Ruhlman, House: A Memoir (Viking, 2005).
  4. Kate Whouley, Cottage for Sale, Must Be Moved: A Woman Moves a House to Make a Home (Ballantine, 2005).
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