As the events of the pandemic began to unfold last spring, the discussion among my fellow CRAN members was that, despite the human and economic tragedies surrounding us, residential architects were seeing a surge in business. While seemingly counterintuitive in a field typically first hit by economic downturns, the reasons why this is happening have grown clear over the past months. Now the new center of our quarantined lives, our homes have become the focus of our efforts to cope with this extraordinary situation. As a result, we are asking them to serve as both comforting refuge and functioning work zones.
WFH, the popular shorthand for Work From Home, is bandied about as if it were a new concept. Much has been written to suggest WFH is a sudden paradigm shift brought about by the pandemic changing the home forever, but this is just a short-range view. Historically, for wealthy and poor alike, the home was where the business of life was centered. Large estates, town homes, and farms were filled not only with family but also workers of all trades, busy in the daily operation of the entity. WFH was a given, and it’s a relatively recent development that houses have shed some of their occupational traits. If anything, we are rediscovering the home’s traditional role as the center of our work, social, and recreational lives.
In its previous incarnation, the house relied upon flexibility of room use and clear division between spaces to allow public and private functions to continue simultaneously under one roof. Despite the seeming rigidity of four walls, separate rooms—chambers, halls, parlors, and the like—demonstrated remarkable functional flexibility. They were equally capable of hosting a small gathering, serving as an office, providing a place to sleep, bathe, dine, and use a chamber pot. Spatial division (walls and doors) was the key to the success of the working home.
With technological advances—toilets, ranges, and so forth—rooms were redefined by function: dining room, living room, bedroom, or bathroom. Technology allowed the work of day-to-day living to become easier, reducing the need for household servants. Finally, the growth of the suburb further eroded the modern home’s relationship with its working past. Work now occurred in the city; the house, physically removed from the work center, became solely a place of retreat.
Today, we as architects, freed from the former working requirements placed on the home, have concerned ourselves less with individual rooms than with removing the last barriers between functional spaces to create a continuity of flow between them—the open plan. This concept, over a century old now, continues to enrich our homes with exciting, engaging spaces. But it does so at the cost of privacy and, ironically, flexibility.
While we may have designed an office into the home, few of us planned to accommodate multiple offices under one roof. The dining room can serve adequately as a second office for a while, but a door sure would be nice. Rather than a paradigm shift, the home has instead returned to its original role. And, as architects, we are now tasked with the reintroduction of work into the home.