Home Design Lessons From the Coronavirus

planning your home

It's time for a rethink about what's really important in a home.

Four years ago I wrote a series of posts about how antibiotic resistance will change the way we live. It resulted from a worry that we would soon be back to the world between the great wars, when scientists and doctors knew what caused diseases like tuberculosis, but couldn't do anything about them. Now we are in that situation again with COVID-19 and might well be in it for years to come, and unlike antibiotic resistance, this is staring us in the face right now. So I am going to summarize the thoughts from the previous posts, and add a few new ones.

1. Bring back the vestibule.

Even in apartments, there should be a vestibule with a door on each end, a big closet, and enough room to take off your coat and shoes without entering the home. Having a vestibule could also solve the Amazon problem; it could act as an in-between zone where stuff could be left, sort of a giant locker. Perhaps we should even consider:

2. Put a sink in the hall

CC BY 2.0. The famous sink in the hall at the Villa Savoye/ Lloyd Alter

The famous sink in the hall at the Villa Savoye/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Le Corbusier was designing the Villa Savoye for a doctor's family, at a time that many doctors were crazed about cleanliness. As noted before, it was not a coincidence that the Lovell Health House, the Maison de Verre and the Villa Savoye were all designed for doctors. These days, people usually put powder rooms near their front halls, which functionally is much the same thing.

My sink in the hall

My sink in the hall/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But every home I have designed for myself has had the sink in the hall, always accessible and there to remind you. Here is my latest.

Royal Homes bathroom

Typical entry from garage, Royal Homes /Screen capture

I am not promoting single-family housing with big garages here, I am just pointing out that the traditional builders actually get this, they know that when people come in their real front door, which is from the garage, they want the sink and the laundry right there. Years ago when I worked in the prefab modular home biz, I asked why the powder room was often placed in what I thought was a weird place. Pieter, the company owner, told me that most of the homes were built on lots in the country for working people who drive long distances and they often want to dump their work clothes in the laundry room and wash up. So almost every house had this arrangement, where you entered the home essentially through the powder room and laundry. We should learn from them and put this stuff at the front door in urban housing too.

3. Bring back the closed kitchen.

working class

Scan from Light, Air and Openness/Public Domain

This image from 1930s Germany doesn't look all that different from modern houses today, especially when all the schools are closed: kids at the kitchen table trying to do homework, dad hanging around, mom trying to get something done. But as I noted earlier, "When the hygiene movement took root after the First World War, it was thought that kitchens should be more like hospital rooms than living spaces." You don't want these people hanging around where all the food is, leaving their stuff all over the counters and touching everything.

credit: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen 1926

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen 1926/CC BY 2.0

When Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky designed the Frankfurt Kitchen, the whole point was to keep the family out of the way so that you could get some work done in the kitchen and then you can get out. It was designed as if it were a nurses' station in a hospital. As Paul Overy wrote:

Rather than the social centre of the house as it had been in the past, this was designed as a functional space where certain actions vital to the health and wellbeing of the household were performed as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Guests don't get to hang out in restaurant kitchens, and they shouldn't get to hang out in home kitchens either; it should be washable and sanitary.4. Fix the heating and the ventilation.

Quantum Passivhaus under construction

Quantum Passivhaus under construction/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

If there was ever a time that we needed good, controlled and engineered ventilation in our homes, this is it. As Bronwyn Barry noted in a recent post, "I’m betting direct exhaust from wet rooms & fresh supply to living spaces is going to become an essential feature of EVERY building"In most homes in North America, there is no controlled fresh air; it comes through windows or leaks in the wall. The air is recirculated through ducts and a filter at the furnace that one hopes is changed occasionally. The kitchen exhaust probably is a forehead-greaser, or recirculating fan, and the 12 buck bathroom exhaust can barely push the air out of the room.

Inside the magic box

Inside the magic box/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This is no longer tolerable, it is a matter of our health. People need a proper, engineered system delivering fresh air. Whether it is a big HRV in a house or a teensy Minotair in an apartment, every home should have an exhaust system to get rid of stale air and a way of bringing in the right amount of fresh air.This is not just for Passive House; I don't care if it is Active or Pretty Good House, it should be EVERY home.

5. Put a bidet on every toilet.

In Ottawa, Canada, they are having a plumbing crisis. According to the CTV,

"In reality, items such as baby wipes, makeup remover cloths and disinfectant wipes do not decompose in the sanitary sewer system," a notice on the city's website says. "Flushing this material causes damage to the sewer system and may cause sewer backups in your home."

Most of these are probably not being used to clean bottoms, but it is still a reminder that we are supposed to wash our hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, yet all most people do is smear paper across their bottoms.

6. Get rid of everything and go seriously minimalist.

Farnsworth house

Anne Hornyak/CC BY 2.0

There is a reason Mies van der Rohe designed his chairs out of tubular metal; they could be “easily moved by anyone and because of its sled-like base it can simply be pushed across the floor.”

It therefore promotes comfortable, practical living. It facilitates the cleaning of rooms and avoids inaccessible dusty corners. It offers no hiding place for dust and insects and therefore there is no furniture that meets modern sanitary demands better than tubular-steel furniture.
As I noted in my earlier series, this was all about health, not style.
For years on TreeHugger we have gone on about minimalist design, about paring down to the essentials, about living with less stuff. For some, it was about saving money and having a smaller footprint; for others, like me, it was really an aesthetic derived from years of studying Le Corbusier and other modernists. But is ironic that so much of that fashionable minimalism was a response to dust and disease, and a search for light, air and openness as the antibiotics of their day.

Here is the lecture on this subject that I did for my students a few weeks ago. It was my first video, a student holding my iPhone, so the sound quality is not very good, I got better at it later. My apologies if you can't hear it; one critic said, "Wanted to watch this but hearing someone’s nose whistle breathing was too distracting!" UPDATE: slight revision in the discussion of suburban single-family housing, which I am not promoting.