Starting back in high school, I dabbled in designing homes. I would craft layouts and make rough sketches of how such a house would fit into existing and unusual landscapes. I completely ignored important details like plumbing, storage closets, or common sense. All of these homes were designed to include the luxuries I thought I would want as an adult: a full-sized gym, a recording studio, or an elaborate library spanning three stories that would make the Beast bristle at its ostentatiousness. My first completed schematic offered more than 16,000 square feet of living space but only three bathrooms.
As I grew older – and especially after going to college – my design assumptions changed. Floor space seemed less and less important, and so did amenities. I stopped thinking about a house as a place to exist in comfort and luxury. Rather, the purpose of such a building ought to be about nurturing family and building community.
For the bulk of human existence, we have lived in close-knit tribal communities. There were always friends or family nearby. Personal needs were tied to group needs. But now, Modern Western culture has replaced a tribal-centered existence with an independent one. As with everything, unintended consequences followed. There has been an unprecedented level of disconnect among people. In Gregg Easterbrook’s book “The Progress Paradox,” he wonders why all elements of life seem to be getting better, but people are less happy overall. Louis CK has a famous comedic bit aptly called, “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” Are we less and less happy as we grow more independent? Could those things be related?
I think they are. There is an abundance of evidence that shows that we are happiest when our lives are deeply interconnected with the lives of others. The economist John Helliwell put it like this. “Humans are more than simply social beings, they are so-called ‘pro-social’ beings. In other words, they get happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others.” Gregg Easterbrook agrees. “The human yearning for love and intimacy,” he says, “is part of our evolution – even that, chemically, the brain evolved a need for closeness as part of the stimuli that make it function correctly.” Pursuing independence flies in the face of what our psyches have been hardwired to need. We are in a state where we exist on the psycho-social equivalent of eating food only twice a week.
The single-family home, then, is not an optimal model. A community-based arrangement would be much better suited to maximizing our happiness and well-being. This is the direction I started to take my architectural doodles. I no longer have any drawings of the concept, but imagine something like an apartment/single-family house hybrid. There would be discreet, private living spaces for family units – bedrooms, bathrooms, storage, and additional space to utilize as they see fit. The rest, though, would be community space. A dining room to comfortably seat every member. Such a living situation would save money and decrease stress. Think about meals: it’s far cheaper – in terms of price per meal – to cook in bulk. Families with small children would have far greater flexibility. You know that old proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”? Wouldn’t it be nice if we had more “villages”?
One could formulate many objections to such an idea. For some, it might seem weird or uncomfortable. Communal living has a counter-cultural connotation. But atypical hardly means wrong, bad, or unhealthy. As we experiment more and more with hypermodernity, we find ourselves reaching back again and again to our historical roots in an attempt to better our lives. (You need think no further than the Paleo diet.) We have left behind customs and structures for reasons we no longer understand. Community is the basic building block of civilization. This is vintage community with a modern twist.