Understanding socio-cultural diversity is key for designing Comfortable Homes

In one of my previous blog posts, I critiqued the commonly used concept of The Occupant and proposed that we should design buildings for People. The difference between these two concepts is that, while Occupants do not have a life beyond Indoor Environmental Quality, people have friends, families, aspirations, goals, and culture. This article is about this last characteristic.

I recently explained what I think a comfortable home is. As I mentioned back then, one of the key elements to consider is the fact that people always put comfort in context. In other words, that people are sometimes happy to sacrifice comfort as long as doing so helps improve other aspects of their lives. The reason for this is very simple: even if comfort is a goal in itself, it is not people’s only goal.

Apart from their desire for feeling comfortable, people also want to be safe, financially stable, have some privacy, and more. Moreover, even if we assumed that comfort is their only goal, people will still want to maintain some balance between the elements that determine Comfort (i.e., Acoustic, Thermal, Visual and Air Quality). From this perspective, comfortable homes can be evaluated based on how effective are they at eliminating the conflicts between people’s desire for Comfort and their other goals. Comfortable homes do not force people to make choices in which none of the outputs is desirable. My research allowed me to compile a list of these Trade-Offs that you can use for understanding what I mean and as inspiration for your own designs. You can check it out in the Atlas of Comfort.

It is not possible, then, to design a truly comfortable home without understanding the role that Comfort plays in the lives of the people who will occupy it. On the contrary, designing Comfortable Homes implies understanding what are people’s goals and how Comfort relates to them. During my research, for instance, I met a woman who was very aware of the Acoustic- (i.e., noise) and Air Quality-related issues caused by open plan kitchen/dining/living spaces. Despite this, she explicitly said that she was not willing to live in a house with these spaces separated. This might outrage Indoor Environmental Quality purists, as they sometimes insist that letting noise and pollutants spread around the house is just unacceptable. However, this view incorrectly assumes that people’s only objective in life is Comfort (or Indoor Environmental Quality). Purists are designing buildings for Occupants, not for People.

After saying all this, it should be relatively straightforward to understand the importance of acknowledging socio-cultural diversity when designing comfortable homes. Safety is more of a concern in some places than in others, privacy might be more valued by some cultures than by others, aesthetic standards change from place to place, and the value of the views depends on what surrounds the dwelling. Please, consider these things when designing houses, and when writing briefs for others to design houses, and when writing building codes, and when choosing what to simulate, and when deciding on the assumptions you will make in your simulations. You get the point.