7 Things I Learned About “Home” from Talking to Architects on Every Continent

published Aug 29, 2019
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With a brick facade, a cherry red front door, and a gate, my home just outside of Denver is pretty much a prototype of starter homes. It’s filled with the fairly common features, too: An oversized walk-in closet, a lot of storage space throughout the house, a separate laundry room, an eat-in kitchen rather than a formal dining room, a small backyard, and a two-car garage (with one car and a lot of outdoor gear in it).

But as a travel writer who visits many different places around the world (and stays in homes in some of them), I’ve come to realize that my home isn’t truly as ubiquitous as I think it is. It’s just American. While you could probably find some version of my home in any state in the nation, it would look very odd next to Montreal’s iconic duplexes with their twisting iron staircases. My yard, gated to keep my Boston Terrier from wandering to the bakery three doors down, would stick out among Sri Lanka’s lack of fences and open courtyards with water bowls for stray dogs. Visitors from Japan would notice that my first floor was all the same level and my shoes strewn in the living room—an anomaly compared to their homes with the space to take off their shoes in the entryway then a one-step up gradation to denote the transition from public to private space.

Through their architecture, our homes can say so much about our country’s collective culture, and what makes a house feel like home to me—space to entertain friends and family, a private yard to safely play with my pup, and lots of storage space for all my new buys—is definitely unique to my experience as an American.

And this got me thinking: How else can a region’s culture affect how homes are designed around the world? Or better put: What can we learn about a region through their homes? While we didn’t have quite the budget to do an around the world tour, we thought talking those who have worked in architecture from one country on each continent would be a good intro into the idea of cultural architecture. While no one country, city, neighborhood, or person can define an entire continent’s architecture or culture, it can at least give a small, anecdotal snapshot of difference—of how “home” can mean entirely different things in different places. With that, here’s what I learned:

In Kenya (Africa), homes are built in community in mind.

Expert: Nimeet Dodhia, a real estate developer who has worked on housing projects in middle and low-income sectors in Kenya. Dodhia grew up in Kenya. 

Nearly all homes in Kenya will have a balcony or outdoor space that’s typically near the kitchen, Dodhia explains. That’s because Kenyan families cook with jikos, which are charcoal stoves. 

“In Kenya, from low-income households to the highest-income households, everyone has a jiko,” he says. “It’s something that’s very traditional.”

Another common feature that’s common is a having a wall between toilets and showers, he explains. The split facilities are for efficiency’s sake in homes where there’s only one bathroom.

In Norway (Europe), homes are egalitarian.

Expert: Nina Edwards Anker, of Brooklyn-based nea studio, who previously lived in Norway and earned her doctoral degree from Oslo School of Architecture and Design. 

“In Norway, wealth is rarely displayed in the form of architecture,” Edwards Anker says. Good design and respect for building methods outweighs extravagance and size.

It’s important that homes in Norway withstand the challenges of the local climate, which is dark and cold for much of the year. In other words, well-oriented and well-sized windows are built to capture daylight advantageously, and well-insulated construction is necessary. 

“The [post-WWII] Norwegian architectural tradition is influenced by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Sverre Fehn and his school,” Edwards Anker explains. “They believe in architectural structures that are modest in size, determined in great part by their natural sites. Architects pay close attention to surrounding natural elements such as rocks and trees.”

In Antarctica, “homes” are a place of strength and survival.

Expert: Bruce Curtis, the production designer for “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”

Antarctica, no doubt, was the wild card. No one actually lives there on a permanent basis (it’s called “Mars on Earth,” after all), which gives architecture an otherworldly, sci-fi feel. But scientists do make temporary visits to research stations here, and the structures that are built for that purpose need to withstand extreme conditions, like temperatures that can plummet to -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit and blustery gusts have potential to kick up to 110 miles per hour.

With the release of “Where’d You Go Bernadette,” we gleaned some insight from the set designer, Bruce Curtis. (For those unfamiliar with the book or movie, Bernadette Fox is an agoraphobic architect who goes missing before a family trip to Antarctica). 

For the set design, Curtis got permission from London-based architect Hugh Broughton to reproduce one of his famed Architect research station designs, the Halley VI Antarctic Research Station. The style of the station is commonly seen among the few structures on the continent.

“The architecture is extremely modern,” he says. “It’s very space age. It’s very ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.” 

The station boasts eight modules, which each sit atop ski-fitted, hydraulic legs.

“It’s such a cool design to begin with,” he says. “Why not show it off to the rest of the world?”

In Australia (Oceania), homes are a place to connect with the outdoors.

Country: Australia 
Expert: Noah Mynt, partner of Patioland.

Australian architecture is distinguished by the love of outdoor space, with barbecuing and grilling with family and friends being a large part of the social fabric, Mynt says.

“From charming swimming pools to entertaining decks, the pride and joy is the outdoor place where we can laze around all year,” he says.  

It’s extremely rare in Australia for homeowners to not have any backyard space. Most home renovations are done in the front or backyard, he says. 

In Chile (South America), homes are a conduit for history.

Expert: Juan Pablo Yavar, a Santiago-based architect with the University of Chile and Wings Design.

Translated from Spanish:

According to Yavar, there is a big focus in Chile right now on tourism, which affects which home projects are prioritized. Largely, it means a widespread consciousness in sustainability—both in restoring architectural heritage and creating an eco-friendly mindset in the cities. There is a sense of trying to preserve the communal, historical feel of Chile.

He notes that in Santiago, many architects are now working to revitalize “heritage houses” (las casas antiguas patrimoniales), which date back to the early 17th century and are built of adobe or stone. Over time, due to high maintenance costs and stringent laws, they’ve been neglected and are now in disrepair.

Additionally, there has been more attention on creating or restoring wide open, green areas “that bring life to the city,” he says.

In Canada (North America), homes are focused on the individual.

Expert: Ryan Schwartz, a licensed architect with Nordhaus in Canada, specializing in residential architecture.

North American homes tend to revolve around the kitchen, Schwartz says.  

“A great kitchen will quickly become the focal hub of a household,” he says. “As a central space where people can gather informally, it’s a room that families and guests both gravitate to.”

Gone are the days of small rooms with specific functions, like formal dining rooms, Schwartz says.

“Today’s clients and families are requesting more flexible open concept spaces that are adaptable and evolve with their needs over time,” he says.

Some other important considerations in North American homes include lots of outdoor living space, and self-indulgent features like master en-suite washrooms, large walk-in closets and multi-vehicle garages, he says. He’s also noticing more attention being paid to energy efficient features and appliances.

In Singapore (Asia), homes are part of the landscape.

Expert: Yen Yen Wu, with Genome Architect

The seamlessness between indoors and outdoors is something that’s immediately recognizable in Singapore architecture, says Wu. 

“We have the ability to erase boundaries of internal and external spaces,” she says. 

The roof eaves and overhangs are what architects in the tropics pay a lot of attention to, both in function and in expression, she says. They need to integrate solutions for shade, heavy rains, and also take into consideration the expansion and contraction of materials from moisture and humidity. Inland breezes from the seas can move still air and help negate the humidity, which is something that is considered in design. Homeowners, she says, enjoy having flexibility with year-round access to natural light and air.

Interested in seeing how homes look around the world? Check out The World At Home—a collection of house tours from across the globe.

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