The Importance of Quirks in Home Design

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Unique quirks in home design create a frame of reference for future memories of their occupants, says CAN director Mat Barnes, one of RIBAJ 2021’s rising stars

My most vivid memories are framed by architectural oddities. The uneven risers on my parents’ staircase that made it even harder to sneak in after a few drinks in the park; the not-quite-round window I studied in detail during the obligatory Sunday phone calls with my nan; and the intensely patterned brown wallpaper in the hallway that was the backdrop for every hello and goodbye until I was 17.

These quirks or memory frames fall into two categories: first, imperfections in the construction process, such as the uneven staircase and the not-quite-round window; and second, the purposely designed ornament; like the Laura Ashley wallpaper or the round window stained glass.

These imperfections and ornamental features are viewed positively in the real estate agent’s sales model; so-called character – “this house is full of charm!” – and they often elevate the value. They are like built-in oddities, unique pieces that increase the occupants’ sense of place and often merge with their sense of identity.

These architectural oddities began their slow decline as the model book ornament of early 20th century housing became unfavorable. It was deemed unnecessarily costly, coupled with the increasingly heavy regulatory framework and quality control of housing delivery, which ironed out construction imperfections. As these unique signifiers declined, the level of mass consumption increased, replacing the identity offered by people’s homes with the things they hoard, display and wear.

Today’s mass housing is designed to appeal to the greatest number of potential buyers and to give planners the fewest possible objections. The result is the worst of compromises: exteriors whose only difference is the color or the binder of the brick, and interiors so bland that they fade from memory once you leave.

This doesn’t just happen in collective housing. Affluent private residential clients employ “tasteful” architects to design their homes according to their market-driven vision. Instead of an emulsion, the “beigeness” here is achieved in lightly stained hardwoods or handmade Danish bricks created by an artisan.

In both cases, the identity and feelings of the occupant are defined by this additional layer of identity consumption, applied on top of the architecture, whether it is a collection of family photographs or more abstract expressions of identity such as ornaments of works of art. Although these objects and furniture are not considered part of the architecture, they are what make these identical dwellings unique, defining what makes your home your home. This echoes the march towards homogeneity in the mass production of consumer electronics. Consumers are forced to wrap their identical smartphones in a colorful shell that makes them “theirs”.

The architecture, however, is not mass-produced at iPhone scale. Architecture must be bespoke in almost all cases due to the physical constraints and human complexities of each site. An architectural project presents so much more opportunity than simply meeting the functional needs of its occupants, it presents a chance to serve as a framework for their memories formed there. It presents an opportunity to increase feelings of ownership and home without having to rely on an extra layer of objects to fulfill this need.

Islington Square Housing, Manchester by FAT, 2006. The expressive elevation of the street ensures that no two facades are identical. Credit: Len Grant

I always think back to an anecdote of Sean Griffiths talking about the Islington Square housing project of his former firm FAT in Manchester. The practice was tasked with replacing a nondescript dilapidated 1960s terrace with new housing for the same residents. Before designing anything, they visited residents in their existing homes and marveled at the internal changes some had made to their ornamental, blemish-free homes, from a half-timbered fireplace to a fully functional bar with disco ball.

Instead of restricting this customization, FAT wanted to allow this type of ownership in its new home, so it designed an ornate and expressive front elevation with a developer-rendered box in the rear, with the aim of making it a blank canvas for tenant edits. rage.

But what really happened was that the tenants made very few changes to their new homes. I’d say it was because the expressive elevation from the street provided all the uniqueness and identity they needed so they didn’t feel like they had to customize their homes any further. The facade was designed so that no two houses would have the same facade – an exaggerated version of when everyone on a street painted their front door a different color. It was a project where the opportunity offered by an architectural project was realized within the framework of its regulatory and financial constraints while offering this feeling of belonging.

North Street Housing, Barking, by Peter Barber Architects, 2020. Simple changes to the shape and type of windows add richness to the architecture, increasing its uniqueness.
North Street Housing, Barking, by Peter Barber Architects, 2020. Simple changes to the shape and type of windows add richness to the architecture, increasing its uniqueness. Credit: Morley von Sternberg

A more recent example of such architecture seizing opportunity is the highly regarded work of Peter Barber Architects, who manage to provide exemplary and unique housing for the financially constrained social housing sector. A wealth is given to mostly affordable housing that is absent in many mass housing today.

Mountain View Interior, Sydenham, by CAN, 2020. Each architectural element is amplified to be a potential setting for future memories and increase a sense of place.
Mountain View Interior, Sydenham, by CAN, 2020. Each architectural element is amplified to be a potential setting for future memories and increase a sense of place. Credit: Jim Stephenson

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