What's happening to the American home?

Traditional ideas of home as a place of refuge and comfort are being challenged by a 'work-centric' culture and ever-larger houses

It was one of those "click" moments for journalist Maggie Jackson.

As she was putting her two young daughters to bed one evening, their usual leisurely routine of stories and hugs stretched on and on. Mindful of a looming deadline, Ms. Jackson found herself uncharacteristically impatient. "Go to bed," she snapped. "Mommy has to finish her work."

Like millions of other Americans, Jackson uses the family home as a second workplace. A laptop, a fax machine, and papers spread out on the dining-room table in the evening give her Manhattan apartment the temporary look and convenience of an office. But work, she realized that night, was invading their home.

That "click" of recognition led Jackson to ask a central question: What is home in the 21st century as the technological devices that liberate workers from the office shackle them to their jobs at home, encroaching on private space and family time?

The question stands at the heart of her new book, "What's Happening to Home? Balancing Work, Life, and Refuge in the Information Age" (Sorin Books, $19.95). In it she argues that traditional notions of home as a place of comfort and retreat are being threatened by a "work-centric" culture.

"Home has become redefined as a base camp for living, a work-based place where you survive, but perhaps don't have very much time for intimate relations or reflection or just thinking time," Jackson says. She likens home to a railroad station, a place where busy family members are always coming and going.

Without a real sense of home, she cautions, people begin to live lives of rootlessness. "We need anchors," she adds.

Jackson is one of a scattering of authors, architects, and social observers who see signs of a hunger for rethinking the idea of home.

That hunger and reexamination were under way before Sept. 11. But they have intensified since then as people seek refuge and stronger family ties. In the wake of that tragedy, she has observed "a raw battle" between the need to work harder and the wish to enjoy life and home.

Hearth-watchers see three trends affecting the 21st-century sense of home. In addition to the Age of Technology, which brings the workplace into the domestic sphere, this is the Age of Accumulation. Surrounded by a surfeit of stuff, time-short Americans risk becoming prisoners of their possessions, bound by the time-consuming need to clean and care for them.

This is also the Age of Bigness. Since 1985, the size of American houses has increased 24 percent, averaging 2,080 square feet. For new homes, the average size is 2,200 square feet. Ironically, the larger sizes come at a time when families are smaller. Americans also spend less time at home and have fewer leisure hours.

Over the centuries, people have always worked at home. "If you looked at Europeans in the 19th century, most professionals literally lived above the workplace," says Witold Rybczynski, who has written extensively about housing. "The bank was on the ground floor."

But at least the 19th-century banker didn't get up at 3 a.m. to check his e-mail or draft a memo on his laptop. Nor did he need to carve out space for a home office and buy special furniture for computers and faxes.

Americans now spend an estimated $3 billion a year on home-office furnishings, according to Gary James, editor of SoHo Today, a trade publication covering the home-office market.

Today's work-oriented culture, linking office and home, also leaves families with little time to cook, clean, and keep clutter under control. That leads to what Jackson calls "outsourcing domesticity" – hiring a battalion of cleaners, gardeners, home organizers, and delivery services.

However convenient these might be for those who can afford them, Jackson suggests that they may further detach people from their homes. Now that a majority of women, the traditional hearth-keepers, are employed, many no longer want to be saddled with domestic duties. Yet many men still regard home as the "lesser" sphere, Jackson finds. The result is an "orphaning" of domesticity by both sexes.

That orphaning is also complicated by a pervasive consumer culture that shouts an insistent message: Buy. Acquire. Accumulate.

Architect Sarah Susanka describes a vicious cycle: People buy a bigger house because they have a lot of possessions. That requires them to work harder and make more money, which allows them to buy more things. Then they need a bigger house.

"We're not living our lives," she says. "Our stuff is living us."

Cindy Glovinsky, author of "Making Peace With the Things in Your Life" (St. Martin's Griffin, $14.95), puts it even more strongly. "If there's one addiction that's holding the human race hostage, it's an addiction to things," she says. She has watched marriages fail because couples could not let go of things, and has met parents engaged in constant conflict with their children over possessions.

"I've seen people who haven't had a guest in their home for years because they're having so much trouble keeping up with stuff, and they're so ashamed of the way things look," Ms. Glovinsky says. "Yet these people refuse to let go of things so they can have people in their lives."

Home, she observes, "is not a happy place to be if you have a clutter problem."

For a decade, leaders of the so-called simplicity movement have preached a quiet counter-message: Pare down. Simplify. Set yourself free. That message is amplified in two current books: "The High Price of Materialism," by Tim Kasser (MIT Press, $24.95), and "Dematerializing: Taming the Power of Possessions," by Jane Hammerslough (Perseus Books, $25).

Also in the works is a PBS television series called "Simple Living." Wanda Urbanska, one of the producers, describes it as a how-to show to help viewers simplify their lives.

"As we have so many luxuries and so much affluence and so many conveniences, we lose the thread that keeps us all tied together," she explains.

Fifteen years ago, Ms. Urbanska, then a reporter, and her husband, Frank Levering, then a screenwriter, left a fast-paced life in Los Angeles and moved to Mt. Airy, N.C., to rescue a family farm. They also renovated a farmhouse that had belonged to Mr. Levering's parents, deliberately keeping it simple. Their eclectic mix of furniture blends a few good family pieces with a style she calls "high Goodwill." A slipcovered sofa and wood floors keep maintenance low.

"It adds a lot of stress to people's home lives to try to live in islands of perfection," Urbanska says. "They can spend so much time cleaning and mopping and caring for things that the time with family and loved ones gets away from them."

Americans also feel conflicted about their need for space. Skyrocketing sales of large new houses may indicate a desire for status more than a need for bigger quarters. In a survey by Taunton Press last month, only 10 percent of those polled said they need more living space. One-fifth actually want smaller homes.

The quest for bigger houses baffles some observers. Professor Rybczynski, who teaches urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, has friends who are home builders. "They don't really understand why people buy houses with four bedrooms if they have one kid," he says. Builders speculate that homeowners fear they might be unable to resell a house with fewer bedrooms.

Glovinsky, a personal organizer, often experiences a sense of sadness when she works with clients who have a big house and an abundance of possessions. When possessions assume a primary place in people's lives, they are missing something, she says. "A lot of times they don't seem very happy."

A lack of privacy can further diminish the sense of home as refuge and retreat, Ms. Susanka says. Modern architecture, with its emphasis on open spaces in houses, makes acoustics what she calls a "nightmare." Typically, the bigger the house and the more vaulted ceilings it has, the greater a problem acoustics are.

"We've made everything open, so there's no place to be quiet," she says. "But there's still this thing called a door."

Architect Susanka, whose book "Not So Big Solutions for Your Home" will be published this fall, often includes an "away room" in the houses she designs. This compact space, usually the size of a small bedroom, provides an acoustically private activity area that can serve as a study, a place to get away from television, or a place where the TV set can be isolated. The room remains visually connected to living areas.

It has been 20 years since futurist Faith Popcorn coined the word "cocooning," which she defines as "the need to protect oneself from the harsh, unpredictable realities of the outside world."

Home as cocoon. Home as refuge. That need, that yearning remains strong. Yet how do people find home today, and a sense of haven and balance?

No one is suggesting that work-related technology be banished from the home. As Judi Casey, director of the New England Work and Family Association in Boston, says, "Some people appreciate being able to work from 10 p.m. to midnight."

The challenge, she and others find, involves setting boundaries to keep home and personal life in balance. Glovinsky, for one, draws boundaries of space by discouraging people from putting computers and other office equipment in the bedroom.

Jackson also encourages boundaries of time around the dinner hour, between 6 and 8 p.m. "No TV, no pager, no instant messaging from teenage friends," she says. "You're really drawing a little island, at least temporarily, around your family."

As men's and women's roles evolve, Jackson emphasizes the need for more equality in keeping up a house. Domesticity is not an exclusively feminine sphere.

Americans must also rethink priorities. Glovinsky, the personal organizer, says, "The best things in life aren't things, they're moments. Moments when you're with your family, or doing something that really engages you."

And moments, journalist Jackson would add, when work is silenced, allowing parents and children the luxury of leisurely bedtime stories, without interruptions from beeping faxes and blinking computer screens. For an hour or two, the cross-stitched motto on the wall could read: Home Sweet Low-Tech Home.

"To create a home, you must make the time to forge a sheltering place," Jackson says.

She urges individuals to redefine ideas of refuge, domesticity, privacy, and work. "Home is not a separate world, a Victorian island," she adds. "We are all pioneers in the re-creation of home."

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