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The Future of Staying Home

What is lost when houses become fortresses against fires, floods, and disease?

Karim Sahib/Getty Images

A life lived indoors has long been viewed as the height of economic attainment: Elites relax in palatial compounds while couriers fetch packages and convey news of the dangerous world beyond the gates. Even the restaurant is a relatively recent invention, a stop for harried travelers looking for a quick bite before it became a place people would go to voluntarily. Long before the pandemic closed down many public spaces, people in developed countries already spent 90 percent of their time indoors; they are, largely, creatures of malls, suburban homes, and automobile interiors, who go for the occasional jog or day at the beach. Modern Americans might like to imagine themselves as dogs, yearning to leap out the back door and run free, but they are actually cats, content with a sunny spot to stretch out in.

The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape our Behavior, Health and Happiness
by Emily Anthes
Scientific American, 304 pp., $28.00

Yet what we want from indoor spaces is changing. Increasingly, our houses and apartments are more than a place to recharge. They are the last defense against germs, fire, flooding, and heat. In early 2020, Australians holed up at home to protect against the worst air pollution in the world caused by wildfire smoke. This may become a seasonal event in many parts of the world, including most of California, which has seen over 7,000 fires this year alone. Those unaffected by fire sought refuge indoors as the coronavirus spread across the world in spring; by mid-April all but five U.S. states had issued some form of shelter-in-place order, and over 100 counties instituted lockdowns. With office buildings and schools closed, home has also become the workplace and the classroom during this time, often both within the same four walls. In the near future, homes will have to be outfitted not just for leisure, work, and childcare, but as field hospitals, quarantine wards, air purification boxes, cooling centers, and, perhaps, even as pontoons.

The majority of buildings in the United States are still “ticky-tacky little boxes” or the bigger boxes of Walmarts and office parks, but that era is ending quickly. In her book The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape our Behavior, Health and Happiness, Emily Anthes traces a shift toward purpose-built structures that will use data and smart-home features to respond to the environment. Cities with enough resources to embrace this future will soon have energy-efficient homes, offices, and institutional buildings that are equipped with air purification, water recycling, climate control technologies, and more. The new “super home” will not just be able to activate solar panels on a sunny day, it will also use sensors to monitor your moods and direct a ray of sunshine at you when you are feeling down.

As buildings get more personalized, they also may get more privatized. The smart home is calibrated for its owners, tempting them to spend more time there as well as to defend their safe space. As natural disasters worsen, people who outfit their homes for survival are not just prepping for severe weather but for the consequences of escalating inequality. Smart home surveillance is directed inward for the well-being of the occupants, but also outward: to keep interlopers from sharing the private refuge. And as federal and state governments renege on their responsibility to protect citizens from microbes and other hazards, the unit within which one feels safe may get smaller and smaller.

The idea of home as a place solely for family and leisure is relatively recent. Before industrialization, most people in Europe worked from home. They got up in the morning, had a little beer (coffee was too exotic, with an impossibly long supply chain, and water was usually unsanitary), and they walked into their field or their home workshop. Artisanal life created households in which family, work, and leisure mingled freely and the workday was rarely structured. This was both less productive, as anyone currently tasked with remote work and homeschooling knows, as well as less constricting: Family lunch could include a brief siesta or a romp in the nearby pasture. 

Factory work and then white-collar labor diminished home life. Suddenly, every neighborhood became a bedroom community with education, work, and even leisure off-site. Large numbers of workers housed in single-purpose buildings suffered overcrowding and the spread of diseases like cholera. Early urban reformers, such as Jacob Riis and Jane Addams in the first decades of the twentieth century, were quick to link urban blight and social deviance. Slums created morally compromised residents, or so the thinking went. In many cases, they claimed it was literally the buildings’ fault: Reformers set about mandating windows in every bedroom, more hygienic air shafts, fire escapes, and minimum lot sizes for tenements so that landlords could not squeeze new buildings into squalid backyards. 

Yet this modernization drive also had unexpected long-term consequences. Dilapidated housing was not replaced by comparable housing of a higher quality. Instead, modernism sought to raze and rebuild cities into either vertical towers or sprawling suburbs. In the high rises that took the place of tenements, “elevators get pride of place; they are prominently positioned in bright, gleaming lobbies, practically demanding to be ridden,” Anthes writes. “Stairwells, on the other hand, are often narrow, dark, and dingy, not to mention hidden away behind heavy fire doors.” Like dependence on the car, this produced efficiency but also adverse health effects for residents who no longer move enough in their everyday lives. Stairs were an unremarkable but healthful flash of cardio within the daily routine, but soon buildings dependent on them were stigmatized as unmodern and fatiguing for residents. Having only stairs, even for a four-story building, became like living with a privy rather than an indoor toilet: an embarrassing failure to keep up with the times. 

New home technologies gradually cut down on the number of trips we needed to make to the outside world. In the last century, a succession of new appliances helped us to store and prepare food, washed our clothes, and soaked our sore muscles; in turn, this has doomed most corner grocers, laundromats, and public baths. Appliances made chores easier and facilitated even greater urbanization, but they also shifted our habits, making us more solitary. 

As housing has evolved, the built-in forms of connectivity of the early twentieth-century city—the stoop, the open courtyard, and unfenced gardens—have been difficult to emulate. Even big midcentury high-rises seem more social when compared to the gated cul-de-sacs of modern suburbia and the key-fob-restricted condos of redeveloped downtowns. With fewer truly communal spaces, we miss out on the serendipitous encounters that help to ground us in our everyday lives. Most new developments market “community spaces,” but these are often limited to roof decks you must book in advance or a windowless lounge buried in the building’s unused core. The trend has been toward self-sufficiency and fragmentation. More and more, we are, to use the new pandemic phraseology, confined to our “bubbles.”

Anthes is bullish on the possibilities of the smart. “Tomorrow is here,” she rhapsodizes. “In homes across the world, smart thermostats glow, autonomous vacuums spin, and intelligent speakers stand at attention.” She interviews scientists who are making prefabricated homes that function as giant medical devices, sensing our vitals and recording them. She considers that these technologies will be able to generate population-level health data that will allow local governments to track diabetes clusters and build parks and affordable grocery stores in those areas.

Yet, while smart homes have great potential for energy conservation, they may not be the public health miracle their boosters promise. Like so many innovation-focused efforts, smart homes that generate health data locate problems, but that does not mean they can fix them. City governments already know all about lead-contaminated water, childhood asthma, and food deserts. It is not data they are missing: What they are lacking is political will and economic resources.

This points to a larger problem with smart buildings: They may make an increasingly harsh environment more livable for those who can afford them, but what about everyone else?  How do we protect communities from becoming “smarter” but more unequal? Data can be empowering, but it is also a potential tool for surveillance and coercion, especially in the U.S., where business consolidation and deregulation risk turning our current cities into company towns. What’s more, how do we embrace life indoors without creating citadels? Will those without lodging or work be pushed out of sight and out of mind behind walls and spools of barbed wire?

If the trend toward suburban sprawl created looser social ties, then smart dwellings further threaten us with luxurious alienation: They offer us opportunities to turn on the washer via an app or set the coffee machine for 7 a.m., but few incentives to interact with our neighbors or the world around us. In this new reality, many Americans are only pushed into social interaction by their pets, engaging with their neighbors via their dogs alone. 

Every smart home is, for smart city boosters, a potential “laboratory.” This marks a shift for the inhabitants as well as the designers of buildings. Three generations of architects have, in the fashion of Le Corbusier, subscribed to some form of the thesis that buildings are “machines for living.” In pushing the machine metaphor, Modernist architects wanted to bring rationality and standardization into a profession still dominated by style, custom, and, often, whim; but they could hardly have imagined that the architecture would take over the reasoning from its human inhabitants. Currently, this is mostly limited to minor tasks like adjusting thermostats, dimming lights, and locking doors, but one can easily imagine a scenario in which homes are tasked with buffering us from an increasingly hostile exterior world: filtering out smoke, deploying inflatable dams to push back floodwaters, or raising gates to divert fires. The smart home’s system might face a daily barrage of trolley problems, while its occupants remain blissfully unaware.

This homebound lifestyle will potentially create a nation even more obsessed with prepping, stockpiling arms, and bunkerizing suburban living. Smart homes may cause people to burrow further into the personal, rather than the civic, realm. Companies that sell new home technologies will likely address deep-seated societal problems with market-driven personalized solutions. Problems previously regarded as collective may become segmented across geographic and class lines: Many will only see the world that extends to the end of their driveway.

One can look at the recent effects of extended lockdowns to see the ennui and emotional instability that come with too much time cooped up. As many of us have discovered, leaving home isn’t just about going out for milk or walking the dog: It’s an inbuilt trait because we are an ambulatory species. Some of our desire to roam can be tamped down with treadmills, V.R. goggles, and travel documentaries, but there are times when the great indoors closes in on us.

Cities have, historically, accommodated a dynamic mixing of interior and exterior spaces with hybrid public and private functions. But with climate change and global unrest intensifying, we will likely see a retreat from shared spaces. “Brazilianification”—the evaporation of the middle class and the increased fortification of small islands of privilege—is occurring across the world. What is lost isn’t always obvious. Cities are made up of buildings, but it is the thousands of interstitial spaces—like plazas, parks, stoops, and streets—connecting a largely private realm that make urban life dynamic. These “odds and ends,” identified 40 years ago by William Whyte, in his book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, are where serendipitous encounters occur, deals are made, and civic virtues are formed. Attempts to transplant the vibrancy of shared outdoor spaces to indoor worlds have largely fallen flat.  

Cities centered on smart homes will leave people increasingly reliant on technology that is personalized for them, and cut off from their neighbors. Every dollar spent on embedding new wall sensors or upgrading indoor oxygen diffusers is great for those lucky enough to be at the cutting edge of construction technology, but individual structures cannot do the work of socially beneficial programs like forest management, municipal recycling, or community-based agriculture. We are fascinated by high-tech innovation, but it is also the least important task cities now face. Much of the immediate work that must happen to keep American cities afloat is quite “dumb”: replace train tracks, shore up bridges, and make sure pipes aren’t leaching lead. Bubbles are in no way sustainable. We need to provide for the world around us.