There are several dimensions of home that Gifford cites as organizing principles for understanding residential satisfaction. These dimensions are essentially categories of meaning that people hold for their houses. Remember that a house is not a home. A house is a physical structure, whereas a home is a collection of evolving cultural, demographic, and psychological meanings that we hold for the physical structure. A home is one's castle, as the saying goes, but it must also be much more to satisfy the variety of psychological needs we bring to it.
To begin with, a home must function as a safe haven, which is one of the dimensions of meaning that Chris was referring to when he described the small rooms as "cocoon"-like. A home must offer privacy, security, and protection from the outside world in order for us to adequately relax and replenish ourselves. For Eichler lovers, the openness and light create a relaxed and renewing experience, while others may react with vigilance. Again, its a matter of personal preferences and needs.
Another dimension of home is identity. We want our home to reflect who we are as people, both to establish our place in the world and reinforce and serve our needs for comfort and expression. If you think about it, observing someone's home can tell you much about who they are as people: ramshackle or tidy, light or dark, cramped or expansive, functional or disorganized, modern or traditional. Within certain parameters, the home serves as a screen for what we project onto the world.
For Beth, the layout of her Eichler reflects her spiritual beliefs, which in turn feeds her life as a mother, artist, businesswoman and teacher.
"My home feels like a mandala, which is significant because I teach the mandala," she said. "A mandala is a circle with a central focus, and everything comes into harmony around that circle. The circle is contained within the square. The circle is man's attempt to reflect the cosmos, while the square represents his effort to contain the cosmos. My home has that feeling of central focus, which is the atrium and the sense of everything being in harmony around it. As such, these homes are inclusive, a basis for reflecting your inner life."
Still another dimension of home is referred to as connectedness. Connectedness represents the patterns of spatial and temporal order that help us feel connected to loved ones, the place, the past, and the future. As we move through our lives, each home we create has linkages to past homes and the memories that are associated with them. Each new home may represent an evolution in our development—the old becomes mixed with the new, resulting in a new acceptance of where we are in our lives. Beth's family encountered this evolution in connectedness when they moved into their Eichler.
"After my divorce," Beth pointed out, "my children—my son especially—were horribly agonized about moving, because that house had been his family home his whole life. But when we moved in here, he just loved this house. He loves his room, which opens out onto the atrium. He can look out and allow his eye and soul to contemplate and travel. He can connect to the outside as well as look across the atrium to see me in the kitchen. At his age—he's 14—he can be of the family, but doesn't have to be in it or interact with it, which is perfect for an adolescent."
Gifford writes that when these dimensions of home are highly positive, "then home has great personal and social meaning for us, and we likely also experience a sense of belonging, happiness, self-expression, and good relationships within the home." Eichler homes are successful because they not only rate highly on these dimensions for the people who choose to live in them, but they also contain specific design elements that extend what people ordinarily want from their homes. They allow people to stay visually and proximally connected to family through the use of glass, single-story design, and the inclusiveness of the layout.
Rather than oppressively forcing the person to navigate his or her way in a stacked (multi-story) and slotted framework of traditional row and ranch homes, Eichlers promote a spreading out and flow, an integration of inside and outside. Eichlers with A-frame roof lines especially promote an expansiveness similar to the feeling of being in a rotunda. For some people, including myself, the effect is inspirational.
All of these design qualities affect our sensibilities each and every day, to the point that we may come to take them for granted. Without thinking about it, we may not be fully aware of how we are actually affected by these design features. But next time you are in a traditional home, pay attention to your felt experience. Don't be surprised if it feels like you've lost your dance partner!
J. Patrick Gannon is a licensed psychologist in private practice, in San Francisco, and teaches at the California School of Professional Psychology, in Alameda. He and his family live in an atrium-model Eichler on a cul-de-sac in Terra Linda. If you would like to share comments about this article with Patrick, he can be reached by phone at 415-751-8927 or by fax at 415-492-9382.