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My Home? The idea of home in a post-pandemic world

Government lock-down regulations are beginning to relax in many countries around the world. As society begins to take slow, bold steps into a world many of us have lost trust in, we ask ourselves some creeping questions: What will life be like now? What is our new normal? Should we just slowly usher ourselves back into the life we had before? What changes have been made and should we keep them?  How do we adjust to change? There are no easy answers to these questions. The one word that sums up 2020 so far is, CHANGE.  Change fundamentally in our most importance space: Our Home .This forced flexibility of space has opened up the possibilities for diverse activities to take place within the home space.

What does home look like in the “new normal”?

Home as a space of health and well-being

A crucial linkage that has emerged throughout the current pandemic, is the close relationship between health and well-being and the spaces we inhabit. The measures of confinement have led us to question how we manage the home space in ways that support family life and enhance and maintain mental and physical health.  Over the past few months since the pandemic began, we have been ‘hacking’ our homes to find solutions that work for us. Although, while people’s ingenuity in the face of adversity has been astounding, these ‘hacks’ are often at the expense of health and well-being. Our current challenges demand that we have a radical rethink in the way we design and build our homes.

This is particularly relevant for vulnerable groups of our population. The lives of older people have been highlighted in the effects of the pandemic. Whilst it’s not inevitable, the likelihood is that most of us will become less physically able and mobile as we grow older. Poorly designed homes present daily challenges that impacts on every aspect of life, from the ability to simply get up and dressed, to maintaining social networks and gaining a sense of peace and rest. Designing with older people in mind is not only beneficial for this heterogeneous group but also to families with small children, disabled people, people with mobility and temporary challenges and the wider population. What is known as age-friendly design is design that benefits everyone.

The diversity in experiences of the home poses a challenge for how to re-create the home space in a way that is adaptable. Recent conversations with two pregnant women highlighted the different perspectives of what home means to them during the pandemic. For Mrs S, a parent to a toddler and an NHS key worker living in the city of Bournemouth, home has been a pursuit for balance and a sense of equilibrium. She has been working throughout the pandemic and for her the concept of home shifted as she worked longer hours and struggled to manage parenthood in confinement. Maintaining her own mental health, protecting herself at work in the midst of change and finding the right sort of balance in her home space has been a challenge.

She comments.

…my main challenge has been that balance between work and personal sanity especially having to work during to the pandemic. I am also 22 weeks pregnant and I have worked throughout the whole pandemic as I work in the NHS. We were asked to work 12-hour shifts from 8am to 8pm. It is a really long shift and it has been hard especially around distancing. I have an expectation because others will give the distance but it doesn’t happen. You feel you are coming across as paranoid…By the time I get home, I am exhausted and I still have to be a parent and a wife.

Mrs L’s experience, (also pregnant and parent to a toddler) during the pandemic contrasts that of Mrs S in some ways. Having the opportunity to work from home during her pregnancy allowed her home to become a retreat in an environment of change.

While lockdown is hard, it has also given me the opportunity to spend quality time with my firstborn before the new arrival is here. I would never have had the chance to do that and it has been a wonderful blessing in all of this.  Our pace of life has slowed as we aren’t rushing to get to childcare then home then get dinner on and a quick bath and bed. We feel more relaxed as the arrival becomes more imminent and we’re choosing to see the positives in a trying time.

These conversations draw attention to the differences in experiences within certain vulnerable groups. So, how do we re-think the concept of home whilst taking into account the diverse ways people use and understand the home. Good design can be achieved only if the environment created meets as many people’s needs as possible. If anything, the effects of the pandemic lead us to ask if we are living in homes that meet our needs and our health…and how is this impacting our mental health and well-being?

Home as a hybrid space? (temporary/permanent)

This pandemic has also provoked questions of ownership of home and where to shelter in place. Everyone, no matter their age, background or ability needs a good home that keeps us safe and healthy. This is not the reality for millions of people who are living in poorly designed homes, slums and informal settlements. The pandemic has become a magnifying glass for people living in inadequate housing for fear of these spaces becoming hot-spots for the virus.

A further complexity is added to the concept of home with over 70 million refugees worldwide and a large majority living in refugee camps and dubious urban environments. It was World refugee day on the 20th of June and it was only on the 17th of December 2019 that the first ever Global Refugee forum took place, a few weeks before the Director-General declared a public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of the coronavirus on the 30th of January.

The provision of refugee camps as a temporary “home” is the most immediate physical response to the refugee crisis. However, they have become more than a simple temporary solution, with refugees spending significantly longer than they should. For many, the home space has been transformed and appropriated into a place in which traditions and values can exist through social practices. It is within this hybrid space, between temporariness and permanence that refugees are navigating the home space during a pandemic. How do they gain a sense of safety and protection without a sense of belonging and attachment? Current ongoing research into the design/re-design of the shelters in the Al Za’atari camp in Jordan (one of the biggest refugee camps in the world) explores this concept.

An image of a hand-made dolls house contribution made for the Giant dolls house project.

The Giant Dolls’ house project alludes to these questions of “home-making/dwelling” of refugees during the pandemic by increasing the awareness of the importance of a home through an international collaborative arts project. It engages local communities and raises awareness for homelessness and refugees. In the virtual Giant Dolls’ House project, people all over the world are asked to creatively share their experience of stay­ing in one space because of self-isolation and social distancing.

Home as a digital cultural space

It has been imperative to digitally transform our homes in one way or another to maintain some form of normalcy and operate effectively. The pandemic has fast tracked the digital revolution and there has been some incredible progress made in areas such as digital working infrastructure, remote learning and tele-medicine. Education and healthcare systems all over the world have been pushed to expand and innovate.

One particular transformation enabled by technology has seen our homes re-created into spaces of art and culture, connecting closely with objects and places we so often see through panes of glass or not at all. Throughout this pandemic over 80% of museums in Europe have designed virtual spaces to share and create collectively through digital engagement and digital cultural heritage. These digital experiences provide unique access and inclusivity for people who would ordinarily be unable to visit due to diverse factors such as location, money and disability. Therefore, a different type of cultural learning is taking place in our homes enabled by technology.

The use of advanced technologies such as 3D and virtual reality (VR) is bringing unprecedented opportunities for the digital cultural space.Projects such as, BIM India Heritage and IT Herit Jordan aim to create awareness and knowledge of local heritage in cities in India and Jordan by using digital technology such as laser scanning and photogrammetry. These tools will create digital images of heritage that can be accessed by the public from home. The challenges of the pandemic have confirmed that this approach is even more relevant and can enable a unique learning experience in the homes of multitudes and a more democratic online access to cultural heritage.

Designing the ideal home post-pandemic

So, how do we design a home that recognises and embraces these diverse shifts and perspectives in a post-pandemic world? A home that enhances our health and well-being, a home that is adequate, permanent and facilitates a sense of ownership, belonging and culture. The UK Government attempts to provide a solution through the “Home of 2030 Design Competition”. The competition seeks to develop a home that does everything: solves multiple issues, caters to a variety of ages, is adaptable and changes use and need over lifetime, applies technology to deliver net zero emissions, promotes better health and wellbeing and is scalable and cost-effective! Watch this space. Although this may sound like very ambitious blue-sky rhetoric, in fact applying the principles of inclusive design can make this a reality.

An inclusive environment does not attempt to meet every need. By considering people’s diversity, however, it can break down barriers and exclusion and will often achieve superior solutions that benefit everyone. Places need to be designed so that they can adapt to changing uses and demands. According to the Design Council, if we use the principles of inclusive design to design our homes, we should end up with homes that are:

  • Inclusive: so everyone can use them safely, easily and with dignity.
  • Responsive: taking account of what people say they need and want.
  • Flexible: so different people can use them in different ways.
  • Accommodating: for all people, regardless of their age, gender, mobility, ethnicity or circumstances.
  • Realistic: offering more than one solution to help balance everyone’s needs and recognising that one solution may not work for all.

I would go further to say that the design of the home and the surrounding environment must recognise structural and systemic injustices and inequalities. It is no longer enough to design the ideal home, when there are large communities that can never access or enjoy those homes.

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