What Is an Ideal Home? Survey Shows Priorities Are Changing

Research finds that safety and security are now paramount ... but what does that mean?

A family facing a house in a black and white photograph

Getty Images

For many years on Treehugger, I have been trying to get people excited about the Passivhaus standard, developed back in the late 1980s with "the ambitious objective of an exceedingly small heating load." In North America in the years since, energy prices have been relatively low, so we would stress the ancillary benefits that came with the standard: comfort, air quality, quiet, and resilience. People still yawned, preferring net-zero smart houses with solar panels on top or that fancy new killer bathtub inside.

But according to sustainability consultancy Shelton Group, the events of the last few years may be changing our ideas of home. They have done 16 surveys over the years (we have covered them previously) and find that "for many years, Americans’top priority for spending money on their homes was 'make my home more comfortable.'" That number has been steadily decreasing and they found people are now prioritizing safety and security.

graph comparing comfort and safety across the years

Shelton Group

The change since 2017 is remarkable: Comfort used to be four times as important as safety and now they are almost the same. But before you go out and become a burglar alarm salesperson, safety and security are not what you think they are, and comfort isn't what it used to be.

In her post about the survey, Shelton Group founder and CEO Suzanne Shelton wrote that safety has as much to do with air quality as it does with door locks.

"Long before the pandemic, we saw in our regular surveying of Americans that indoor air quality (IAQ) and comfort were the real drivers of home improvement (mixed in, of course, with a desire for beauty/improved aesthetics). And, not surprisingly, through the pandemic we saw IAQ take on increased importance. What IS surprising, though, is that safety and security aren’t just important – they’re the primary way we define comfort. In other words, we can’t feel comfortable in a home if we don’t feel safe and secure in it. And one of the primary ways we feel safe and secure is – wait for it – through IAQ measures (“a space free of chemicals and allergens” to be specific)."

Comfort has always been difficult to define. It is interesting that the root of the word in the late Latin "conforto" (to strengthen greatly) from earlier Latin, con- (“together”) and fortis (“strong”). So in a sense, redefining comfort as safety and security is going back to its roots.

Then there is thermal comfort, which engineer Robert Bean has told us for years is all in our mind: “Thermal comfort is a condition of mind that expresses satisfaction with the thermal environment and is assessed by subjective evaluation."

Graph of percentage of people who rated it extremely important to create a feeling of comfort in the home.

Shelton Group

So our new definition starts with safety and security, followed up by clean air, good windows, no chemicals, and no drafts.

All of this sounds like Passivhaus with good locks. The report stated: "The meaning of home has changed — from 'the place where I want to feel physically comfortable' to 'my main source of safety and security, right down to the air I’m breathing.'"

And importantly, when Shelton asked what the definition of safe and secure is, 71% say "a space free of chemicals or allergens" and 58% say "security systems," so even the leading answer—safety and security—is not what we think it is.

Shelton said, "This creates a real opportunity for builders of high-performance homes and the makers of products that go in them. Reframe your thinking from 'safety = security systems' to 'safety = security systems AND healthy air AND tight envelopes AND climate resilience.'"

Indeed, it may all be coming together for Passivhaus. We have expensive and uncertain energy supplies, which puts efficiency back on the menu, along with the resilience that comes from being a thermal battery. Indoor air quality is also being considered in ways it wasn't before the pandemic; people are becoming obsessed with it, for good reason. As University of Toronto epidemiology professor David N. Fisman has noted, air is the new poop.

Of course, safety and security don't come just from the way we build our homes but also from the way we build and maintain our communities. Security doesn't come from Ring doorbells and big SUVs, but as activist Jane Jacobs wrote in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," "There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street."

Shelton concluded: "We now see our homes as havens that should provide the protections we’re seeking from all the real-life boogeymen lurking in the world, and keep us safe from both the things we can see and the things we can’t." But that can't just end at the front door.