At the root of Rosslyn Redux is a question. What makes a house a home?
Simple question. Less simple answer. More precisely, the answers to what makes a house a home are diverse and possibly even evolving — slowly, perpetually — as we live our lives. What defines “homeness” as a child likely differs as a young, independent adult, nesting for the first time. And our first autonomous forays into homemaking likely morph as we live through our twenties and into subsequent decades, family and lifestyle changes, etc.
Let’s start with a playful poem by Edgar Albert Guest.
Ye’ve got t’ sing an’ dance fer years, ye’ve got t’ romp an’ play,
An’ learn t’ love the things ye have by usin’ ’em each day;
Ye’ve got t’ love each brick an’ stone from cellar up t’ dome:
It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home.
— Edgar Albert Guest, “Home” (Source: Poetry Foundation)
If you haven’t read this Edgar Albert Guest poem, I recommend it. And I strongly suggest you read it out loud!
I start with Guest’s insights because they’re thoughtful despite the playful affect. They capture both the breadth and the subjectivity of answering the question, what makes a house a home? And they hint at the protean nature of this inquiry.
An Evolving Recipe
Just when I think I’ve narrowed down a reliable recipe for what makes a house a home, I question it. Whether catalyzed by a conversation with another homemaker, exposure to an especially compelling or innovative home, or a eureka moment totally unrelated to “homeness” (recently, sailboat design of 35-50′ sloops), my reliable recipe is suddenly less reliable. It needs a few tweaks. I remove ingredients less essential than previously believed, and I introduce new ingredients. A teaspoon of this, an ounce of that. Season to taste…
The mercurial nature of “homeness” is not really that surprising given the subjectivity of our residential tastes, needs, means, ambitions, and limitations. The rise of a thriving van life culture in recent years offers a healthy reminder of how little is actually needed for many individuals to feel at home. And yet, the proliferation of van life blogs and social media streams celebrate the individuality and subjectivity shaping perspectives on what makes a house a home. Overlanding in a tricked out van, living aboard a wind and water washed boat, or nesting on an anchored spot of terra firma, it turns out that what makes a house a home is profoundly personal.
One of the joys of homeownership lies in expressing ourselves through our surroundings… Most of us can hardly wait to put our personal stamp on our living spaces. It is, after all, part of the process of turning a house into a home. (New England Home)
The process of transforming a house into a home — fixed or mobile — inevitably encounters elements and conditions that shape the nesting process. In other words, our will and whim are only part of the equation.
Once upon a time
this handsome old house
became our new home,
and along with it
almost two hundred
years of backstory,
lives, styles, and lifestyles…
— Geo Davis, “Old House, New Home“
Snipped from my short poem about repurposing Rosslyn into our home, I’m acknowledging the property’s history and preexisting conditions. It’s a nod to inputs outside of Susan and my personal needs and desires. Just as these inherited inputs can be hurdles or challenges, often they introduce character and richness, add depth and texture, and even invest an aesthetic or programmatic cohesion that might otherwise be lacking.
I’ve frequently joked that no detail of Rosslyn’s rehabilitation escaped our fingerprints, [but] much attention was paid throughout to preserving the buildings’ unique heritage. My bride and I were far less preoccupied with our own personal stamp than we were with finding Rosslyn’s personal stamp, her DNA, and reawakening it to guide our renovation. (Reawakening Rosslyn)
I suspect that there’s often an even more abstract but profoundly important force at work in making a house a home. Intersecting our needs and appetites and the preexisting conditions, there exists an ineffable consciousness, even a conviction, that we feel at home. Can it be a sanctuary where we feel safe, happy, calm, nourished, revitalized, and creative? Can the house, as our home, become an oasis nurturing the sort of life that is indispensable to our wellbeing?
I understand that this wonderful old, living and breathing home provides for us in innumerable ways every day. I know that Rosslyn is a house of dreams and daydreamers. And for this I am extremely grateful. (House of Dreams)
This consciousness or conviction is totally subjective and deeply personal. Clearly articulating it can prove elusive. But we recognize the feeling when we’re fortunate enough to come across it. Sometimes the pull can be so powerful that we yield despite logical and practical considerations, and even despite obvious counterindications.
We had joked about how much time and money it would take to make Rosslyn habitable, categorically dismissing it as an investment. And yet it clearly had captured our hearts. If it were our home and not a short term investment, then maybe the criteria were different. Maybe the potential was different. Maybe the risk was different. (We Could Live at Rosslyn)
Many of us have found ourselves in this push-pull between the abiding rules and paradigms we use to navigate most of our life’s decisions and the sometimes conflicting passion we feel for a potential home. Over the last decade and a half that I’ve been trying to understand “homeness” and the curious exceptions that some of us are willing to make when it comes to our homes, I’ve picked the brains of family, friends, and total strangers when opportunities arose. And sometimes when they didn’t! I’ve been struck as much by the overlaps as the distinctions. There do seem to be some almost universal notions of what makes a house a home, and yet a beautiful bounty of unique attributes are at least as important to the individuals creating (and sometimes recreating) their homes.
Vox Populi, An Introduction
Rather than pretending I’ve distilled the perfect formula, I’m going to showcase a relatively random but recent collection of perspectives and opinions gathered from family, close friends, and several contributors to our current projects. That’s right, I’m going to sidestep the tempting trap of defining what makes a house a home in lieu of broadening and diversifying consideration. Or, put differently, I’ll bypass my own bias by crowdsourcing the question.
I reached out a few days ago to a couple people with whom I’ve discussed this topic before. I asked them all some version of the following.
I have a quick challenge-type-question for you. I’m drafting a blog post about “homeness”, and I’ve reached out to a handful of people that I think might offer interesting perspectives. If you have 30 seconds, I’d love to include your thoughts. If not, no worries. No deep thinking. No fancy answers. No pressure. Just a spontaneous, off-the-cuff, candid response to the question: what does it mean to make a house a home? In other words, what transforms a house into a home?
I was so enthralled with the first few responses that I decided to postpone the post in order to solicit even more perspectives. What follows is a fascinating array of responses, starting with several collaborators on Rosslyn’s icehouse project (Tiho, architecture; Hroth and Eric, construction/carpentry; and Pam, project/property management) and Mike, a carpenter who works for us in Santa Fe (as does Hroth, although we’ve been fortunate to have his expertise at Rosslyn as well since July.)
Tiho Dimitrov: What makes a house a home? For me, it’s my books, my guitars, and the odd pieces of art that I own. It’s the art and the books that bring a sense of me or a sense of my spirit. Combine that with the smell of freshly brewed coffee, and you have a home. It’s the imperfections of a place that make it perfect.
Hroth Ottosen: Off the top of my head the difference between a house and a home would be family. But that doesn’t apply to my life. My circumstances are extremely exceptional. I consider my house in Mora, New Mexico my home because I built it from scratch without much help from anybody, and to my own specifications and desires. Not many people can say that. (Later…) While making dinner I thought about what makes a house a home. A name doesn’t hurt. I consider Rosslyn my home right now!
Eric Crowningshield: Home is the place where I feel proud and comfortable being! I joke around saying we are the dream makers because we try to take homeowners’ dreams and turn them into a reality!
Pamuela Murphy: A house is a house, but a home is where the love is. It takes love, hard work, and teamwork to make a house a home.
Mike Hall: To me it it means cozy and comfortable and someone to share that with. This popped into my head because my wife and I are at the Bosque del Apache celebrating our 31 anniversary!
My next pollees are family members, starting with my beautiful bride (Susan), then on to my parents (Melissa and Gordon), one of my nieces (Frances), one of my nephews (Christoph), and my cousin (Lucy).
Susan Bacot-Davis: It’s easy to see Rosslyn as my home. We’ve invested sixteen years of our life reimagining, renovating, and sharing her. But I learned in Côte d’Ivoire where I lived in 1989 and 1990 that home can be a place very foreign to me. I came to my village wondering how I would ever be comfortable there. I departed almost a year later wondering how I could ever bear to leave. It was my neighbors, my friends and colleagues, my community, and my sense of belonging within that community, not the concrete hut within which I dwelled, that embraced me and made me feel safe and nurtured.
Melissa Davis: I’d say home needs comfortable spaces for you to do the things that you like to do. That means you need to know what those things are! So I need a place to sit and write, draw, type, pay bills, and address Christmas cards. And I need a place for the related “stuff”. And homeness means music in the places I do my activities as well as space to actually do the activities (room for yoga mat, comfortable chair/bed to read paper and books, do crossword puzzles, and drink coffee). House becomes home with enough outdoor space to grow something to eat! Eventually a home has memories throughout it which solidifies its homeness, and that requires people who are important to us.
Gordon Davis: Takes a heap a livin’ to make a house a home. And snacks.
Frances Davis: What makes a house a home in my mind is the few mementos that hold special memories or are sentimental for any reason, which we bring with us to each new place we live in. For example, random mugs collected over the years, or certain books, or even a sweater that we wore after high school grad. Whatever they are, these items carry significance in our hearts and bring our past into whatever new building we’re in to make it our home.
Christoph Aigner: Home is a place that draws people in, a space that makes one feel comfortable and at peace. It is familiar to those who call it home, and it reflects a person’s or family’s values and the life they live.
Lucy Haynes: Bringing the outdoors in – branches, plants. Living things. Also – antiques and pieces that have been used. And enjoyed.
On to friends, diverse personalities with whom we’ve fortunately become acquainted across the years.
Kevin Raines: The word home has it’s roots in the old English word ‘ham’ and means a place where souls are gathered. I like that idea because as a house is lived in it grows rich in memories that welcome and enrich the inhabitants and guests who frequent the structure. Through the gathering of souls space becomes an extension of self, past, present, and into the future.
Lisa Fisher: Home is not the house where you live but your relationship to it. If within the space you feel comfortable, yourself. To be “at home” is to have a sense of belonging — to a place, to the world you have made within it. I think it was Heidegger who came up with the notion of individual worlds, meaning the stuff we surround ourselves with, including ideas and beliefs, but also our physical realm. Homenesss speaks to the human element of habitation: the inhabiting of a space.
Alexander Davit: The stories that are created while people are living there.
Miriam Klipper: House is the structure. A home is all the things you’ve put in it — including memories. By the way, memories include selecting every painting, carpet (remember our visit in Turkey?), crafting the most beautiful house, every perfect detail…
Amy Guglielmo: What makes a house a home? For me it’s comfort and color! Soft natural textures, local art and touches. Softness, coziness, calmness. Always views for us. Aspirational space to dream. And accessibility to community. Beach, pool, recreation. Close proximity to nature. We’re wrapping up designing our new home in Ixtapa, Mexico, and we’re only missing books and games at this point. But I think we nailed the rest!
Roger Newton: Love.
Jennifer Isaacson: Surrounding yourself with things/objects that hold a history and meaning to you.
Lee Maxey: What transforms a house into a home… One word “life”. Living things, people, animals, plants, and any items that support or enhance life. Cooking implements, cozy blankets, music, well read books on a bookshelf, and signs of soul. Today is the 2nd anniversary of my mom’s passing. I have just spent a couple hours going through photos and crying and writing in my journal. One of the things I miss most are the smells. Our smells make a house our home.
Denise Wilson Davis: For me, simply, what makes a house a home is the feeling that love resides there. That, as an owner you’ve put love into it… from the care and fixing to the furnishings and found objects that bring joy or remembrance. Home is an intimacy — a reflection of your heart and creative soul — that welcomes guests and makes them comfortable.
David Howson: This is similar to the saying, “at home”. When one feels “at home”, they mean they feel a certain kind of comfort and peace. One wouldn’t say, I feel “at house”. I fondly remember the first night I stayed at Rosslyn. While it wasn’t my house, you and Susan certainly made me feel “at home”.
Ana June: I think of home as curated and designed. It is a space where your heart is visible in your environment.
I’m profoundly grateful to everyone who offered their quick thoughts. And I was warmly surprised by how many wanted to expand the exchange into a lengthier conversation. So many intriguing notions of “homeness” and personal perspectives on what uniquely distinguish their own living space. Often relationships, shared experiences, and love wove their way into our discussions. I’ve abbreviated this post, and yet I realize that I’d like to dive in a little deeper with many of those I’ve quoted here. With luck I’ll revisit again in the near future.
Until then, I’d like to weave in one additional thread that I personally consider an indispensable component of our home. Pets.
While Susan is the beating heart around which our small nuclear family orbits, we’ve never been without a dog for more than a few months. For us family and home are intrinsically connected with Tasha, Griffin, and Carley. Although Tasha and Griffin are chasing balls in the Elysian Fields, they remain with us, surfacing every day in our memories and conversations. They’ve left their imprints in the ways we live and play and entertain and in the way that we raise our current Labrador Retriever, Carley. On occasions when our little threesome is temporarily divided, for example this past October while I was away in California while Susan and Carley were in Santa Fe for a couple of weeks, our home felt incomplete. Despite good adventures with good people, Susan and I both acknowledged the voids we were feeling. Our home was temporarily divided. Returning to my bride and my dog instantly made me feel complete once again. So, for us, an important part of what makes a house a home is all of the beings — human and not-so-human (although our dogs differ on the distinction!) —that inhabit and visit our dwelling.