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Buildings, Householders, and Reconfiguring Lives

Alfred Bay

Alfred Bay is an architect and builder who completed his master's thesis in Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. This essay includes exerpts from that work, which presented case studies looking at "issues of phenomenology and the build­ing/design process." 

In my fifteen years as a builder, I have un­dertaken numerous residential remodelling projects. Though often frustrating, these projects are fascinat­ing in that they provide a direct view into people's lives‑-a special entry into the private domain of lived space. Gathered in by walls, floors, and roofs are personal modes of inhabiting, of making and taking possession of place.

     In some way, always, the builder is not only reconfiguring the house but, pantographically, help­ing to reconfigure the lifeworld of the householder. There is a relationship between house and inhabitant (the simplest constituency making up a home) akin to that of psyche and soma: a change in one precipitates a change in the other.

     As mind and body inextricably encounter the world together and so constitute a being, so does that taken‑for‑granted plexus of social and physical engagement‑-the lifeworld of the inhabit­ant together with the surrounding, inhabited, spatial environment‑-constitute being-in-the-world.

     I suggest in this essay that, before every act of building, there is a disturbance or dissatisfaction in the lifeworld and that, beyond the act of building, is an image of a reconfigured world in which the physical and psychic modes of being sustain each other‑-a lifeworld made whole. And I suggest that the building process can be grounded in this realization and, looking beyond functional program, can aspire to such wholeness.

     To illustrate this relationship between changing lifeworld and building program, I discuss three residential remodelling projects in which I was involved. In all three projects, I knew the clients socially before engaging them professionally and so have some authority for discussing the more private aspects of their lives.


     Just this past summer, I was approached by a newly married couple whom I will call family W. They were buying a two-bedroom house and wanted to know how hard it would be to build an addition over the garage. This was the first marriage for Mr. W and the third for Mrs. W. She had a teenage daughter from her first.

     "We'd like to give Anna more privacy, so she and her friends can come and go without disturbing us or without us disturbing them," Mrs. W explained as she sketched out a plan for a 400-square-foot master suite with a very large bathroom. Mrs. W had been in a car accident and wanted a large tub for hydro­therapy.

     Opening onto both the bathroom and the bedroom was another small room.

     "What's this?" I asked. "It looks like a nursery. Are you pregnant?"

     She blushed and said, "Yes, but we've only told family."


Mrs. Q owned several houses in the neighborhood where I grew up. She sold them one by one and settled into what had been her mother's house, a two-bedroom, one-bath "bungalow" on an ample lot.

     When her friend Larry fell ill with AIDS, she decid­ed to add a wing to her house that would contain a small hospice where he could live. It would be an autono­mous unit with bath, kitchen, living room and bed­rooms, and would have a discrete entrance but be accessible to the heart of the main house so that Larry could have privacy or supervision as his desires and needs changed.

     Larry died before we began construction, but Mrs. Q had a vision and adapted her plan. The hospice became a rental unit for students from nearby Stan­ford University. This changed the program slightly. The importance of the separate entrance was in­creased, and Mrs. Q demanded visual separation between her yard and the new living kitchen and living room. But still, she wanted the possibility of easy communication between the apartment and the main house.

     "The rent will pay for my winter vacations," she explained, "and someone will be around to keep an eye on the house. When I get old and decrepit, I'll take over Larry's place. And some young family can move into the main house and take care of me."

     Her own children or grandchildren perhaps?


     About the same time I began work for Mrs. Q, I was asked by the mother of a friend to renovate the kitchen of their 1960s open‑plan home.  

     Being friends with one of the daughters, I knew this particular house. I had visited the family off and on during my high school years. I also was familiar with the generic problems of these aging tract houses, having repaired and remodeled a number of them.

     Like most, this house had deteriorated: the roof leaked, the bathroom walls were mildewed to the point of rot; the veneer panelling was scarred and broken. The kitchen was in a similar state, though no better or worse than the rest of the house. But Mrs. B, as I shall call her, was adamant that what money she had should be spent in making the kitchen bright.

     Mrs. B's husband had just died in the house after suffering a year of degenerative cancer. He had spent his last bedridden months in the living room adjacent to the kitchen. There, he had a view of the garden and could be part of daily family life. The I.V. poles and other life-support paraphernalia were still scat­tered about when I began work. 


     Here, we have three cases of straightforward functional programs generated, apparently, by life­world change. The architectural solutions proposed in the cases of Mrs. Q and family W were intended to support the spatial demands of change.

     More occultly, however, these solutions can be seen as physical modellings for the emergence of an extended lifeworld structure, literal trans‑form‑ations, gathering the old into the new while offering an armature around which the still‑yet‑to‑come can in its turn gather.

     Family W needed more room because another member would soon join the household; but more than that, they needed a house that would accommo­date a more sophisticated juxtaposition of domains.

     In selling the house that was the scene of her second marriage and buying a new (smaller) house only a few miles away, which would be the scene of her third, Ms. W was already making a statement that her life had a new structure.

     In visualizing the house with a new arrangement emphasizing vertical separation (new husband, baby, and self upstairs; teenage daughter connected, but with some autono­my, downstairs) joined to a hori­zontal realm of communal areas, she was proposing a concrete way her two separate families might unite.


     Likewise, Mrs. Q, while embracing an architectur­al solution to immediate lifeworld needs, was also proposing a vision of how she would like her life to unfold. Income from the "rental" unit would provide more amenity for her retirement years. I also hap­pened to know, however, that her means were already sufficient.

     In my assessment, what was more important than income was the literal attachment of people to her household. She had raised her children in another house a few blocks away‑-a great, wooden, three-story structure in a gorgeous yard across the street from the local grade school. Now she was alone‑-husband and children had left‑-and she wanted to ensure that she would remain at the center of a shifting constella­tion of young(er) people.

     In making the first gesture towards Larry, quite consciously, I think, she was expressing the hope that, when her turn came, someone would do the same for her.


     In the case of Mrs. P, the gathering was more implosive‑-a single emphatic statement that, in the very presence of death, life goes on.

     In the prototypical arrangements of many cultures, kitchen and hearth are the same. In houses today, they are almost always separated. Still, the hearth lingers on as a metaphorical heart(h) giving the animated heat of life to the home, while the kitchen continues as the hub of communal activity.

     In the open plan of Mrs. P's house, the kitchen was the visual and geometric center of the communal areas. In designating it as the locus of renewal, she literally attacked the heart of the matter.    In a single         In a single gesture both pragmatic (the kitchen did need repair) and symbolic, she was asserting the continuation of the household and the life it held. (And also, per­haps, her hold on the house.) It is interesting to note that the deathbed was positioned between the kitchen and the fireplace.


But what does all this have to do with making build­ings? That, after all, is the ultimate purpose of my work: getting buildings built so that they, in turn, may support a world to fulfill the clients' expecta­tions and move them on towards their dreams.

     In the case of Family W, the what remains to be seen, though I would guess that the new construction will read as a separate volume rising out of the mass of the old and that emphasis will be put on the connection between upstairs and down.

     Looking back to Mrs. P's project, it is hard to say if my design for the kitchen upgrade (which was simple and straight forward) would have changed had I not known the circumstances in which the project was embedded. In other situations, I more likely would have encouraged the client to spend less money to bring one corner of the house to life and more money to repair other parts, such as the bath­room. My sense of Mrs. P, however, was that she really wanted one room in the house to sparkle.

     In the case of Mrs. Q's addition, her shifting program did directly suggest a tri‑partite plan.The end spaces evolved around the bath‑kitchen nexus, and either end could be bedroom or sitting‑room/­study, depending on the degree of connection or separation, privacy or supervision, desired.

     Less consciously, my reading of Mrs. P's program appeared in the attention (both time and money) I devoted to the approach and entrance way. I generat­ed this detailing in response to what I felt was one of Mrs. Q's driving, but not overtly stated, interests: to make the "little house" (she's come to call it that even though it's attached) a place of its own that would be honored and loved. 


     Whether our acts of building are as simple as arranging posters on a bedroom wall or setting a chair in a favorite sunny corner, or as involved as converting the mess hall of a children's camp into a house, we are remaking the world in our own image and, in the process, remaking ourselves in the image of that world.

            In the examples above, I have tried to illustrate some possibility of relationship between lifeworld shifts and design. Building is a way in which we can literally change the structure of our world and thereby change the structure of our lives.