Architectural plans for houses tend to be labeled with a formal word, residence. For example, plans for our house were titled the “Martin Residence”. And the real estate industry typically calls houses “residential real estate.” Often, multi-family “residences” are called “units” or “apartments”. When someone says I live in “Unit 4c” it sounds so sterile, doesn’t it? (No offense to anyone living in Unit 4c.) And most often we call a house, a “house.”
But when we occupy a residence, unit, apartment or house, it becomes our home. So what is a home to us?
One of my joys in building a custom house is shepherding a family through the process of turning ideas into plans, plans into a house, and a house into their home. I get a very special window into their lives, observing and helping them define the word home. Inherently, they must trust me, and must be vulnerable enough to allow me to see how they live their private lives. And it is a wonderful moment, when the project is complete, and I can hand the keys to them and say, “Welcome home!”
So today I am writing out of my observations and experiences, to simply ruminate on the question: “What is a home?”
A domain. I have a circle of friends that use the word domain to talk about a physical and even spiritual space within which we can exercise some degree of authority. Our home is the core of our domains. It is the place where we and our spouses, children, extended families and households live. It’s that place where we “do life” together and enjoy the community of those close relationships. It’s a sacred space where we can intentionally set the tone. I think we all hope that our homes are healthy domains for our families and friends.
Families. Speaking of families, isn’t family life at the center of our vision of a home? Of course some of us live alone or have lived alone for a time in our lives, so there are many exceptions. But most homes have as a central theme: family. Visit someone’s house or apartment and observe – usually you will find pictures of parents, children, spouses, favorite grandparents, etc. Maybe you’ll see some craftwork with family names, family crests, or family “sayings”. And beyond symbols, in many houses you’ll observe family life. For example, a table for common meals, school books and a backpack spread around a desk, dad and son on the couch watching a football game on TV, husband and wife cooking a meal together, even a car in the garage adorned with bumper stickers for the dance team and soccer club. Life circumstances impact how, but there is evidence of family found in most homes.
A fortress. Many of the earliest examples of homes were, in fact, fortresses of some sort. I think of my Scottish ancestors building thick walled castles to protect themselves, families and clansmen from attacks. Well maybe my ancestors were living in sod huts outside the castle – not sure, but you get the idea. While it is of course subtler, there remains a fortress aspect to our homes today. We design or organize our homes as places where we can withdraw from the grind of the outside world, rest and recuperate from our work, and where we hope we can feel some degree of safety. In a very basic sense our homes provide for us shelter from the elements – the literal and figurative storms.
An oasis. To turn around the fortress image, contrasting with the aspect of withdrawal, a home can also be an oasis that draws others in. We can experience our homes as an oasis for ourselves. But I’m speaking here of a place where others are drawn in. Our homes can be inviting. They can be places where friends, acquaintances and even strangers can feel welcome. From our homes, we can offer hospitality. Even in fortress times, homeowners often had creeds of welcoming others, even potential enemies, in from the outside world to provide food and shelter. In any case, whether this happens deliberately or spontaneously, the oasis factor can enrich our homes.
Memories. Inevitably, homes are connected with memories. I’ve already spoken of how homes include families, and of course many of our memories of homes are linked with memories of family life. And there are often other memories of home. Many of us have childhood memories of some special place in our homes – or our relative’s or friend’s homes, that we liked. Maybe a sunny corner where we could read or play a game, a window from upstairs where you could see a park or meadow, a place to hide from siblings, a tree swing in the backyard… Memories are important because our life stories are important, and to keep those stories alive we must remember. Homes, and our memories of homes, can be guideposts to those stories.
Perhaps we can take all of this too far when we begin to overvalue one particular home. So it is important to say that any house can become a beautiful home by virtue of how we live in it. But as a builder of custom homes, I appreciate the opportunity that comes with the gift of being able to dream, envision and construct a new house that is uniquely yours. The same could be said for a major remodeling project. If you are fortunate to have that opportunity, I encourage you to take your time during the dreaming and envisioning process. We tend to want to “build it”, so we tend to rush through the dreaming and envisioning. But if you can slow yourself down, you will benefit from considering how the design will foster the aspects of “home” that are most meaningful to you. You have an opportunity to create a tapestry of domain, family, fortress and oasis (and more) and begin the process of creating a place for memories.
And in that case, it is my hope that one of your memories will be of receiving the keys to your new house and the words “Welcome home.”