CONSIDERING THE HOUSE AS SOCIAL AGENT
Authors: Sylvia Grace Borda, MFA & Ann Borda, PhD
Houses, whether in an historical or present-day context, are a form of active social agents.
Houses through the process of being lived in and animated by occupants provide a direct platform from which daily experiences and memories flourish, and thus houses evolve and become ‘homes.’ 
The concept of home is a personified one, defined by how we live in a house. A home can be, for instance, where I raise a family, where I spend my leisure or work time, where I grow up, where I’m nourished and where I can entertain and interact with family, friends and community. If a house is designed in empathy with living, it is a safe, familiar, and stable environment that continues to foster–that is as a sanctuary of mind and spirit.
The house is also an essential cornerstone to the meaning of a neighbourhood. Houses contribute to community networks through time-based activities that add further social definition and cohesion to local areas. Together a set of houses can assist in creating a framework of stability. The emotional value of a neighbourhood is not a metric that is often debated or determined in planning. Yet houses are foundational in establishing communities, which in turn, based on their own stability can enable participation, local commerce, confidence and resilience. These positive impacts may enable neighbourhoods to aspire to betterment through combined action or existing social frameworks.
However, if neighbourhoods, as well as the individual houses themselves, are poorly planned without consideration, they become disruptive agents, ultimately disadvantaging those living within its bounds.
Too often houses are viewed as assets or commercial properties with an associated economic worth. In a broader and more holistic approach, houses need to be ‘de-objectified’ and also considered as places lived and defined by the occupant. Within this framework houses become signifiers that act as surrogate identifiers, establishing for instance, where I live, and to a certain extent, who I am.
Rise of the model communities
There have been many movements in our social history calling for greater social capital and more social equity through access to home ownership.
The urgent question of affordable and available housing for current and future generations remains a pressing one for both city planners and citizen groups. This was no less of a problem in the Victorian age when a conscious effort was made to address rapid population growth in urban centres through building equity, planning improvements and the design of model dwellings, among other initiatives.
In a history of planning and housing development – the most generous entities grew communities. Within a Scottish context there have been several remarkable housing endeavours, which through lateral thinking, could necessitate a re-evaluation of where the future might lie in terms of housing.
New Lanark , a working village and cotton mill in Scotland, was conceived by industrialists David Dale (1739-1806) and Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) , and later managed by the social reformer, Robert Owen (1771-1868), for which it is best associated. Under Owen’s supervision, the poorest of workers had access to proper housing, jobs and education. New Lanark was conceived on the notion that generosity can assist in how a community can grow and prosper. To this day, the concepts behind the establishment of New Lanark continue to be discussed as exemplars providing a fit to purpose dwelling, alongside education, employment and community.
In the 1940s, in a post war recovery United Kingdom, the New Towns Act (1946) was established that allowed the government to designate areas as New Towns and passed control of the development to designated corporations. This had several functions, for example, to support ‘overspill’ of urban centres and to generate new social economies, among other factors. Scotland started planning its own modernist New Towns shortly after the Act was established. The concepts of a New Town are extended from those associated with New Lanark and the Garden City movement – residents have a right to access green space, housing tailored to their needs whether family, workers, or retirees, as well as access to essential amenities such as schools, shops, and places of skilled employment.
The New Town experiment needs to be re-appraised in this context. The Scottish New Towns of East Kilbride, Glenrothes, Cumbernauld, Irvine and Livingston embraced citizen well-being through considered Modernist and evolving generous design principles. If one considers the construct of East Kilbride, Scotland’s First New Town established in 1947, it remains a robust and highly livable city – the largest town in South Lanarkshire.
At its core, housing was designed first and foremost in consideration of the current and future needs of its residents. East Kilbride was originally laid out in a series of concentric circles in which the centre holds the majority of retailers and leisure facilities, so that neighbourhoods stem out from the centre and are positioned about 15 -20 minutes away by foot, and similarly schools and smaller local shops are located within reach - an early example of minimizing the carbon footprint. The town was never designed with a specific east or west side, and as result, the market value of each home is fairly similar given the stability of each neighbourhood district. This stability of the housing in place and local amenities has served East Kilbride well, since the town has a low crime to resident ratio.
While East Kilbride was designed in the 1940s, nearly 60 years before the establishment of the United Nations Millennium goals, it has accomplished a certain level of sustainable development in its own right. New Town housing and amenity design focused on considered features to support well-being, such as maximized light harvesting, enabling more access to natural daylight, whilst also minimizing reliance on electrical lighting. Other design approaches such as receding and staggered apartment housing created a more livable environment in which sight-lines, abundant greenery and pathways were sought. One could argue these efforts had a clear social mission to support an egalitarian standard of living and well-being improvement. The town was also specifically designed to preserve as many natural water reservoirs and burns in its environs, and to establish woodland areas and tree belts to maintain wildlife and to make these areas accessible to neighbourhoods and educational and recreational communities.
Housing and the notion of generosity
What the New Town of East Kilbride promoted in its housing design was the notion of generosity, as also evidenced in other precedents, such as New Lanark and Victorian model dwellings, among other examples.
In general, the fundamentals for generous design may be considered already present in how architecture and urban design are often enacted (and through common ground agendas), however both metrics and recognition of these are not necessarily considered as successes against economic efficiencies.
Notwithstanding, we are learning by extension that generous design can increase building lifespan and use and can add value intrinsically to a location. There is an inherent motivation of participants to be defined in relation to it. Generous planning potentially promotes economic growth, and fosters civic and societal engagement and general betterment, thereby, creating more stable communities.
We need to understand generous design, however, not just as part of the past, but part of the now and the future. Generosity is after all about acute observation and empathetic action. Why shouldn’t we aim to live in a Newtopia, a place for sustainable living across environmental, social and economic considerations?
Drawing from this, adequate housing needs to be more than just a right to a roof, but a place that is ultimately part of a wider eco-system. A house is not a stand-alone structure, nor are its residents solely living in isolation. Both house and resident function and amplify more complex socio-economic needs.
The concept of housing can start to be broadly remapped into generous guidelines or goals, such as the following:
- Homes are an essential need and right
- Homes are places to settle in, live and interact
- Homes need to be built in empathy with the needs and well-being of both people and environment
- Homes form part of social networks, communities and larger systems
- Homes should draw from and contribute equitably to resources (e.g. schools, jobs, parks, local economies)
- Homes are not footnotes to urban or larger building plans
- Homes should not displace others
As Scotland starts to celebrate 2016 the Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design the notion of generous housing and all its potential facets can particularly offer a form of input or public stewardship of ideas and innovation in this dynamic space.
Above all, the notion of generosity is based on respect, and the recognition that it is critical to work in tandem towards achieving the right balance of the necessities of all inhabitants (human and nature) at the present time and into the future. Ultimately housing needs to be better understood and discussed in context of use, design, and its evolving and active contribution to place making for all.
 There are multiple meanings of ‘home’ that are explored in this article in relation to housing, and further definitions of the word home can be found at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/home [Accessed 29 October, 2015]
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Model_dwellings_company [Accessed 29 October, 2015]
 http://www.newlanark.org/ [Accessed 29 October, 2015]
 http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/history-art/robert-owen-and-new-lanark/content-section-2.2 [Accessed 29 October, 2015]
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Arkwright [Accessed 29 October, 2015]
 http://robert-owen-museum.org.uk/ [Accessed 29 October, 2015]
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_towns_in_the_United_Kingdom [Accessed 29 October, 2015]
Accessed 29 October, 2015]
 http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/ [Accessed 29 October, 2015]
Dr Ann Borda
Ann is a health informatician and Hon. Principal Research Fellow based in the University of Melbourne Medical School. She has lead on a number of government funded initiatives in education and research in the UK, Canada and Australia with key interests in sustainable development, and the impact of environmental and technological factors on health and well-being.
Sylvia Grace Borda, MFA is a social entrepreneur, lecturer-artist, who is acknowledged for her research and observations about the built environment through contemporary art practice. She recently spoke at the British Council’s ‘Absorbing Modernity’ Venice Biennale roundtable in Northern Ireland and at the Glasgow Lighthouse ‘Recasting Modernism seminar’ on the topic of how the arts can be a means to chronicle and reflect on regional Modernism. Sylvia also delivered a seminal lecture and was part of a panel commenting on the social planning with Sir Peter Hall and Derek Walker as part of the New New Town planning conference (2008). At present she is working on a social regeneration project in the Baltics in addition to advising on the development of a housing scheme. She has contributed articles for AAI:Building Material, Photography &the Artist's Book, and Banff New Media Institute Dialogues, among other publications. Her artworks have been reviewed in journals, such as Canadian Architect, Architecture Today, AJ, and Photomonitor.