Much has been written about the Eichlers, but there's been little focus on the actual experience of living in these unusual homes. What is the impact of Eichler living on the person? How are people affected emotionally? How does it contribute to feelings of well-being and security and sense of self?
As an Eichler home owner of three years and a clinical psychologist by profession, I've been playing with these questions ever since I walked into my first Eichler. "You'll either love 'em or hate 'em," my real estate agent had warned. Hearing this surprised me, because I doubted that a house could inspire such strong passions. Needless to say, I was wrong. I loved the feel of the house and then—as is my inclination—proceeded to wonder why.
After a couple of years of Eichler living, some informal research into the nascent field of environmental psychology, and a few interviews with Eichler owners, answers started to emerge. To begin, think back to your first experience with an Eichler. What grabbed your attention right off? What associations did you have to the house? What about the house provoked particular reactions? The fundamental but cliched question that begs to be asked is: how did it make you feel?
Chris Morris lives with his wife, Molly, and baby in a non-atrium Eichler in Marin county. An avid outdoorsman who cites the California climate and terrain as a major draw to his moving here, Chris felt a visceral impact when he encountered his first Eichler.
"I remember walking into the house and feeling like I had entered a park or a forest, in the sense that the open space was in the living room," Chris recalled."My blood pressure immediately dropped. Walking around the rest of the house, with the lowered ceilings, made me feel a bit confined, but for me it was like being in your own cocoon. Together, these features offered a sense of peace and security."
Beth Susanne is an artist, art dealer, and mother of two who operates her business out of her Eichler home. For her, a key attraction of the Eichler design is the open atrium around which her house is built.
"Even before I knew about Eichlers, I dreamed of a house with an open atrium with the rooms flowing off it," she confessed. "So when I first walked into one I thought, 'Oh, my God! They really exist!' Eichlers offer a melding of nature and man. The outdoors and indoors are totally integrated. The atrium, with all of the plants and flowers, offers a sense of healing. There's an experience of light and expansiveness here that I've never had in any other home. You can feel it in every cell of your body. In fact, I don't think I could ever live in another kind of house."
What can explain the strong and personal reactions to their homes voiced by Chris and Beth? One source to draw upon is the second edition of Environmental Psychology: Principles and Practice by Robert Gifford (Allyn and Bacon, 1997). Gifford writes that the central concept underlying environmental psychology is the "transaction" or interplay between the person and the home.
Most of us take for granted that we will shape our house through interior decorating, renovations, and landscaping. What we may overlook is how the home affects us in return. In reality, the home and its inhabitant are engaged in a silent dance that reflects a very intimate relationship, with a style of give and take all its own. When something happens to the house, or when it comes time to move out, people are often surprised by the intensity of feelings of loss. Only then are they truly aware of what this relationship has meant to them.
The key to understanding this dance is to identify the ways that the Eichler design interacts with the tendencies, traits, and preferences in people's personalities. On one level, these interactions produce either satisfying or conflictive reactions which, to echo my real estate agent, is just another way of saying you "love 'em or hate 'em." But what I am coming to understand is that the interplay between house and soul is much more complicated. Like any dance, it reflects a more nuanced, layered, and synergistic constellation of felt experiences, sensations, and emotions that combine to yield a living, breathing collaboration that is open and evolving over time.
The openness of the Eichler design, for example, brought a peaceful feeling for Chris due to his positive association to the forest. For others, however, the openness may suggest exposure to natural elements, which could produce feelings of fear and vulnerability. While Beth sees the atrium as a symbolic source of healing, others may see it as a hole in the building that must be walked around. Different personalities have different reactions to various elements of the Eichler design.