The size of our homes shapes so much of our lives.
A physical home is, after all, the primary place where family members or flatmates interact with one another, and a space’s dimensions and layout act as a foundation for how our relationships develop. The ways the interior is utilised – things such as the division of rooms and the amount of dedicated open space – set up opportunities for and limitations on how we’ll interact with those around us (for better and worse).
It may not just be the literal footprint of a space that creates our relationships, though. A small 2019 research report from Brigham Young University, in the US state of Utah, shows that the more positive we feel about our homes, the healthier our interactions in the home can be.
Carly Thornock, an interior designer, led a research team following 164 families with young children in the western US who came from a wide spectrum of home types and income levels – some with fewer than 100 sq ft of space per person.
Over two years, they observed how their physical environments related to four basic elements of family functioning: affective responsiveness, emotional expression, acceptance and decision making. The children and parents also took surveys about their family functioning at home, and were asked to rate their level of agreement with statements like “I feel crowded in my house” or “family members feel accepted for what they are”. Researchers then contextualised these answers with variables including the families’ house sizes, income, number of rooms and family members in the home.
The researchers found overall that increases in physical space per person did correspond to happier families. But what truly surprised them was how families perceived that physical space – the amount of space per person, and whether it felt too crowded or distant – had a much greater impact on their relationships.
Small tweaks in homes and flats, such as rearranging furniture, can help you perceive your space in a totally different (and maybe even happier) way (Credit: Alamy)
Discovering your ‘environmental autobiography’
Perceptions of how our physical homes shape us begin to form during early childhood. By looking to the homes we’ve grown up in, we can better understand the subconscious reasons for our home preferences and perceptions today.
Dr Toby Israel, design psychologist and author of Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places, believes that every person has a distinctive “environmental autobiography”– our own personal history of place. Although often subconscious, our associations and sensations with physical places are reworked, replicated or rejected throughout our lifetime, she says.
Comparing our current spaces to the homes we grew up in can be a fun and insightful way to learn about our own personal histories of place, Israel says. “Very often, people will choose homes with a very similar layout to the homes that they’ve had in childhood. And sometimes they do something totally different.”
It all depends on the experiences you’ve had in the past, and whether you want to change or preserve them.
Israel remembers working with a couple whose environmental autobiographies first appeared to be in complete conflict. The wife came from a single-family home in the suburbs of New Jersey, on a street busy with children and other families. The husband grew up in a seaside fishing village in Greece surrounded by mountains.
Everything is explained by how people feel about their space – Carly Thornock
“He wanted to find a house with lots of land and beauty around it, and he wasn’t so concerned about whether they were in a suburb or by people. And she wanted to find a place that had lots of neighbours, kids for her kids to play with,” Israel says. “And so they were diametrically opposed, it seemed.”
By unearthing their past histories of place through psychological exercises, they were able to understand more directly each other’s home perceptions and ultimately discover common ground. They both had a love of the environment, so they chose a home encircled by woods; it was also part of a development community, with easy access to the neighbourhood. And because the house managed to meet both of their needs, they were more likely to live happily in it.
For people living with flatmates who can’t customise an entire house, you can still discover your preferences in spaces like bedrooms. For instance, do you think of your room as a sanctuary or a place to entertain? Or, have you arranged the flat’s common area with separate areas of function versus a large lounge for all? These spaces can reflect the true spatial needs of co-livers – both past and present.
Perhaps surprisingly, the amount of actual space a home has isn't as important as how the members of the home plan for and use the areas (Credit: Alamy)
If you’re looking to create better relationships in your home, it’s likely financially prohibitive or just too challenging to simply upsize your space because you want to. But changing our homes for the better is always within reach, says Thornock. The most important thing to remember is that our perceptions are under our control – and these make the biggest impact, even if your space isn’t much larger than a cupboard.
“As cities grow that rapidly and there just isn’t enough [space], you have to get creative on the mindset part because, really, your circumstances might not be changeable,” says Thornock. Even if you’re in the same physical place, she says, “there’s always a way to make even the tiniest space work for you”.
For instance, Thornock says that if perceived crowding is the issue, you can start by opening the space with lights and mirrors. People need spaces of sanctuary, she says, which sometimes can be as simple as a dividing curtain or a few pillows arranged on the floor.
Our perceptions are under our control – and these make the biggest impact, even if your space isn’t much larger than a cupboard
Another trick Israel recommends is for families to share each other’s home preferences. Draw a layout of your home and ask each member to use different colours to fill in what they believe are the private, semi-private and public spaces. By looking at the same home through different perspectives, she says the problem areas and places for improvement can become more readily apparent.
Importantly, Thornock says that actively making changes in the name of a healthier home means considering both physical space itself as well as how people communicate within it. Whether it’s a shared apartment with flatmates, or a full family home, designing our spaces with others in mind is key for reaching co-living harmony.
“We need to pay attention to what we’re putting in our home, how we’re moving these structures, and the things that surround us,” she says. In the wake of cultural movements inspired by the likes of ‘tiny homes’ or Marie Kondo minimalism, we’re too often fooled into prioritising the material things and physical spaces around us.
Instead, taking a page out of Thornock’s study, the real way to make a difference in the way you live may be a matter of focussing on the people inside that space.