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HOMEFAIL: Bad Ideas Built Where We Live

February 8, 2015

bad grading equals ski lift (2)

Because our homes are central to survival, humans never stop trying to make them “better”. Most of the time this works out pretty well: we have windows, central heating and inside places to poop.

But like everything else humans do, good intentions get mixed up in the messianic or the megalomaniacal: we try too hard to be the heroic savior of not only where we live but of how all homes transform culture closer to perfection.

When 2 Income American Families in the 1980’s found June Cleaver MIA, homes responded by making a new place for families to gather: the kitchen. This new domestic center point ended the temporary segregation of cooking away from where families focused for millennia – the hearth – into a closed off cooking place harboring a sink, a cooking device (other than a fireplace) and an icebox. The kitchen came out of its closet and walked right into living space again – returning from a 100 year segregation.

Weary Boomer families reuniting around the necessities of cooking and eating has made a deep abiding change in most homes, but once again we went the extra mile to polish the apple of our eye. Appliances exploded as objects of aesthetic expression and functional obsession propelled by every technological advance from microwave energy to magnetic induction right into our scrambled eggs.

But as with every other good thing (like ice cream and alcohol) some of us take the Good and make it Grotesque. If gathering in the kitchen is good, why not make a space for it: the family room with a TV, a couch and a table? Another good idea. But if Good is just Good, Better can be making a space that can handle every activity any family engages in and embrace everyone they know: A GREAT ROOM.

The great room is the SuperSized Overkill that has become a cultural embarrassment of useless spatial gluttony: . Rethinking is making for shrinking.

When the Domestic Manifest Destiny goes beyond one room, even A GREAT ROOM, it becomes another discredited overreach based on image rather than need: when cash became unrelated to value The McMansion was born. More is often satisfying in its consumption, but the 5th drink or 3rd burger has consequences beyond the night out. The McMansion is the Anti-Green Statement Home that has become a dirty word:

When plate glass allowed those inside to bring the outside into our homes, Modern Homes created huge voids in their exteriors spanned with huge windows that threw heated air out, created a hot house out of a home, bleaching out everything inside and glaring interiors into hostile environments.

When concrete, block or cast, replaced rocks for home foundations, it occurred to some that what was once consigned to rodents, dirt and summer kitchens might just be viable for living places. If roofs could shed water, why not foundations? Millions of retrofit or designed “Rumpus Rooms” exploded where the sun don’t shine in suburbia. Well, condensation, no ventilation and pressboard surface create a perfect dating service for horny mold spores to mingle and multiply.

P.S. Belief in gutters abetted the idea that water follows any rules besides gravity, another epic failure we have yet to fully exorcise from the conventional wisdom:

When gasoline prices skyrocketed 40 years ago, it hit home. Energy bills skyrocketed along with the cost of filling your gas tank. Soon millions of glass panels with black interiors were tacked onto our roofs and used the sun to heat our shower water: until its penetrations into those roofs leaked and rotted, seals broke in temperature swings and UV decay, fogging the transmission of solar energy. Once again good intentions turned into never ending failures – this time resulting in dead roof ornament technology, – that were all removed before Disco left the dance hall.

When many started measuring the cost of energy consumption beyond dollars and cents to believe in the damnation of the earth by fossil fuel overkill, our homes became the most obvious way to save the planet. Hyper vigilance in limited energy consumption meant created the Green Movement: and at the core of energy efficiency in homes is the sealing up the places we heat and cool to minimize the waste of lost treated air into the world we are saving. This meant the swaddling of where we live in house wrap, super caulking and windows tighter than Under Armour or Spanx.

While air uses less energy to heat and cool when contained, mold and bacteria finds a smaller crockpot very commodious: and they love strength in numbers when it comes to making us sick. It became clear the good idea of minimizing energy use was making Petri Dishes out of our most precious possession: where we live.”Sick House Syndrome” became yet another unintended consequence. So we had to modifying our crock pots to let in new air and expel used air before it became toxic.

Whether its flat roofs that look supergroovey and never stop leaking, or sunken living room “conversation pits” that trapped guests like snared ferrets, or blenders mounted into our countertops, we all want to do better in our homes. Sometimes we need to learn by failure: pretty much like every other effort in human history.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Merv Kaufman permalink
    February 14, 2015 10:04 am

    A splendid column. You said what should have been said—and understood—long ago. It reminded me of that old saying about the path to hell being built by good intentions. I think this should be a series. People have to be reminded—often.


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