THE NEW DEFINITION OF HOME:
The 4 Most Important Things to Think About When Building Your Home NOW
By Chris McNally
In the wake of COVID-19, the definition of home has undergone a radical shift. Our living spaces are now doubling as offices, schoolrooms, shopping centers, and storage facilities. We need dedicated areas for work, study and Zoom meetings. Instead of leaving home to get outside, we’re staying home for quality outdoor time, even if it’s on a patio or just sitting next to an open window.
Home designers and architects are already incorporating this new way of life into their planning, but if you’re thinking about building or renovating your home anytime soon, you need to be an active participant in the process to be sure you get what you want and need. Now more than ever, it’s important to know exactly what to ask for.
In many ways, the pandemic has accelerated changes in home design that have been percolating for decades. Your post-COVID home can and should incorporate the smartest innovations without sacrificing aesthetics or workmanship. Whether you’re moving to the country with room for a pool and a yard or renovating your apartment or townhouse surrounded by the culture and walkable urban density you love, there are four primary factors to consider in the new normal:
- Design for Versatility
Working, learning and shopping remotely are now part of family life. And since schedules for various family members are not always in sync, your home needs to allow for a variety of activities, with separate spaces for privacy. Good design will support rather than resist the new ways you’ll use your space. Here are a few functional elements to think about:
- The main entry should be a truly transitional space that allows you to peel off the outside world before entering your home. It should contain ample closet space along with a discreet PPE station for masks, gloves, and hand sanitizing. It should also have a bench for exchanging your outside footwear with neatly stowed inside shoes. Make entering your home a pleasing ritual, with health considerations built in.
- The second entrance should serve not only as the traditional mudroom, but also as a delivery area that allows for the processing of packages and the removal of recyclable cardboard — to keep possible contamination from entering the living spaces.
- The kitchen should obviously be designed for the extra cooking you’ll be doing, and it should have ample storage for perishables and extra pantry goods. Make sure to incorporate trash, recycling, and compost bins, with direct access to the secondary entrance.
- Your “flex space” will be a comfortable place to hang out, play games, watch a movie, or curl up on the sofa to read a book. It can also function as a secondary work area and a backup study area for kids, who sometimes need to escape their bedrooms to avoid isolation and internet distractions. Adults need to be able to multi-task near the kitchen, and this is the perfect place to do it. Storage in flex space needs to be well planned to avoid any clutter. Each family member should have his or her own shelf for books, with dedicated drawers for supplies.
- It’s important to have two kinds of “away space” with doors for privacy — one for desk work, business calls and telemedicine appointments, and another for meditation and quiet thought. Don’t mix the home office with your serenity space; this will undermine both functions. The serenity room should never be used for storage of any kind. This is where you get to leave your baggage at the door.
- Consider designing your bedroom as an electronics-free zone. Studies have shown that using devices at night stimulates the mind and body when we should be shutting down. As the Sleep Foundation puts it, “Using TVs, tablets, smartphones, laptops, or other electronic devices before bed delays your body’s internal clock, . . . suppresses the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and makes it more difficult to fall asleep.”
- Plan for ways to connect to the outdoors from inside. According to people interviewed during the shutdown, this is now one of the most valuable features in a home. Think about adding window boxes with flowers to turn your balcony into an attractive space for your morning cup of coffee. If you only have a tiny Juliette balcony, put a sitting area next to it so you can open the French doors and read a book or have a snack while enjoying fresh air and a pleasant view.
- Health of the Inhabitants
Health in the new home means not only the avoidance of illness, but also vitality, attention span, and mental sharpness, often called “personal performance.” The effect an interior space has on personal performance has been studied extensively in schools and offices, and your home design can benefit from that knowledge.
“Breathing better air,” says one study from the Harvard Healthy Buildings program, “led to significantly better decision-making performance . . .We saw higher test scores across nine cognitive function domains when workers were exposed to increased ventilation rates, lower levels of chemicals and lower carbon dioxide.”
The most important aspect of good Interior Air Quality (“IAQ”) is ventilation — aka fresh, clean air. This goes beyond heating and air conditioning. Proper fresh air is easy when you have windows, live in an unpolluted area with no pollen, and it is nice out. You just open the window. But this obviously can’t be counted on 24/7/365. Modern equipment – properly engineered and installed – can now refresh the air, ridding the home of indoor pollutants and creating a healthy exchange of air from the outside. This is important throughout your home, and especially in your kitchen, where pollution levels can be surprisingly high.
According to a white paper from the NYU School of Medicine,“Despite public awareness and progress on outdoor air pollution, progress on indoor air pollution has significantly lagged behind…The EPA has reported that indoor air pollution is 25 to 100 times worse than the outdoor air.”
Fortunately, there is astonishingly effective equipment available today that provides freshly filtered air at a comfortable temperature and humidity year-round. Energy Recovery Ventilators, or ERVs, harness the laws of thermodynamics to retain heat from outgoing stale air in winter and remove heat and excess humidity from incoming hot air in summer, using a fraction of the energy of air conditioning and heating systems, with the added benefit of exchanging air rather than recirculating the same air.
IAQ has become an even more critical consideration as a result of the coronavirus, which can be passed from person to person through the air. There is some concern that air conditioning and ventilation systems may play a role in circulating the virus within a room, or even from room to room. This worry has brought new attention to air filtration and air sanitizing. The best air filters can remove as much as 70-80% of viral load, and engineers are experimenting with UV lights and ionization disinfecting systems as additional ways to scrub the air.
You can even install indoor air quality sensors, which monitor for carbon dioxide spikes and other pollutants such as VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). Make sure your architect and designer are up to date on these technologies.
In addition to ventilation, pay special attention to:
- Humidity Levels. Consider adding a central humidification system to add moisture to the air during dry winter months. A recent article by a member of the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force states, “humidifying the indoor air to between 40%-60% relative humidity decreases the number of infectious particles in the air and simultaneously bolsters our respiratory immune system — a two-for-one benefit.”
- Water tightness. Make sure your team includes an experienced waterproofing consultant. Water infiltration is a pervasive beast, with major health consequences from mold and financial consequences from damage to the property.
- Daylight and views. Even if your home is in a city, try to build in a connection with the outdoors for mental and physical vitality. Macomber and Allen’s book, “Healthy Buildings, How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity,” cites a nine-year study demonstrating a “staggering” difference in healing times, medication consumption and lengths of stay between surgery patients with a “window view of a natural setting” and patients facing a brick wall in different rooms on the same floor of a hospital. Views were found to have a restorative effect.
- Lighting. Talk to your design team about the best choices for saving energy and enhancing wellness. For example, there is growing interest in circadian rhythm lighting, which mimics natural cycles of light and darkness to support the body’s internal clock. A paper by USAI Lighting states, “research now tells us that a disrupted circadian system is connected to a whole host of long-term health and behavioral problems.” Circadian lighting helps by using “tunable white light” that automatically adjusts the color temperature of light throughout the day.
- Peace and Quiet. High-quality windows and wall insulation will result in a reduction of noise from outside, and good internal acoustic design will limit the transmission of noise from room to room.
- Water Quality. A water filtration system is important not only for removing impurities from drinking water but also from bathing and laundry water. Water filtration can be either “point of entry,” which means filtering all the water coming into the house, or “point of use” where small filters are installed at individual faucets. Planning your filtration system should start with a test of your water supply. This is beyond basic plumbing; it takes a trained expert. Whether you choose a franchise such as Culligan or a custom operator to install your system, make sure the technician understands your household’s specific water usage patterns.
- Non-Polluting Materials. Many everyday furnishings, carpets, window treatments, paints and other interior design elements give off unhealthy gasses — sometimes for years. Be sure to ask about choices that are “greener” and safer, with little or no harmful off-gassing.
- Health of the Habitat
With all the current challenges to both our personal health and the health of the planet, we’re lucky to be living in the golden age of sustainable, energy-efficient design and engineering. Alongside a revolution in sustainable design, the new generation of building codes require more attention be given to energy efficiency, and the cost gap between traditional and sustainable systems is closing rapidly. It is becoming less a question of whether or not you should spend the money on sustainable building, and more a question of how to achieve the standards within budget. You may want to go beyond the new standards to renewable sources such as solar or wind energy. The relatively high upfront costs should be measured against the savings you’ll reap year after year by getting off the grid.
Today, building responsibly means thoughtful siting, sustainably manufactured domestic materials, minimal construction waste, efficient water consumption, and energy-efficient systems. Doing it right does not have to cost more; ignorance is what gets expensive. Check with your local building departments for the latest land use requirements. Pay special attention to regulations regarding wetlands and flood plains. Make sure your architect knows the land in your area and is familiar with the goals and concerns of local conservation organizations.
One enormous side benefit of the evolution to more sustainable home design is that the new building practices require superior quality in planning and execution. Your architect, engineers and builders need to bring their A-game in order to achieve code-mandated efficiency and sustainability, and you’ll get a better house as a result. Beware of any architect or builder who pooh-poohs the new direction or acts as if building today is business as usual. It is definitely not business as usual, and it’s time to weed out the home experts who are stuck in the “way things are done.”
- Integration of the Parts into a Successful Whole
It’s always harder to make something simple than it is to make something complicated. Obviously, you’ll need to hire a number of experts in specific fields in order to achieve excellence. The inherent risk in this system is that specialists often work in the comfort of their own lanes without a sensitivity to how their part serves the whole. This “siloing” of talent can result in unnecessarily complicated outcomes and irritations that can affect your quality of life. Your home might turn out to be less user-friendly and intuitive than it should be. When little things are not designed efficiently, you may find that you need to think too much just to turn on a light or play music through your cutting edge sound system —so you stop using them. You can end up with devices on your wall that you don’t understand, which means your expensive systems are not used to their full potential. Siloing can also lead to more fundamental, hard-to-resolve problems such as persistent leaks or a traffic flow that simply doesn’t flow.
The solution is to have an expert with broad knowledge of all areas overseeing and coordinating the entire project team. This is the role of the project integrator — an evolution of the more conventional and less hands-on role of owner’s representative. The project integrator wears many hats, with responsibility for establishing and maintaining a culture of success on the project through communication, discipline, and maintaining the morale of the entire project team, from architect to interior designer to the on-site workforce.
A skilled project integrator will also help you cull the overwhelming amounts of information coming at you so that you only deal with what is necessary and beneficial. In today’s world it’s important to know what not to pay attention to. The project integrator must be a person with leadership qualities and broad knowledge — and most important, a person you trust.
Winston Churchill, who managed one of the most complex projects in history — World War II — with all of its specialists and moving parts, said this of his method: “It is most important that at the summit there should be one mind playing over the whole field, faithfully aided and corrected, but not divided in its integrity.” While not a war, the difficulty and complexity of building a home that really serves you, that makes your life smoother and healthier and your surroundings more inspiring, is often underestimated. You need a leader who has credibility and expertise at every level of the operation.
Custom homes have always required custom approaches, and today’s home demands a whole new level of excellence. With thoughtful coordination from the top down, you’ll get a home that’s safe, healthy, simple to use, and a delight to live in for decades to come — in short, a house that works.