What a homeowner views as most important changes, sometimes dramatically, over the course of their lives. Having worked with people of widely varying ages and stages of life, and experienced ownership of five different homes myself, I’ve come to see some patterns in those changes.
When a prospective client comes to me, they typically talk in terms of needs. For example, they might say:
— We need 4 bedrooms, 3-1/2 baths, etc.
— I need abundant natural light in every room
— The house needs to be generic enough so that we can easily sell it if I get a job transfer
— The dining room needs to be large enough to seat 14 for holiday dinners
— The exterior materials need to be as maintenance-free as possible
— We need 12-foot high ceilings in the living room
— I need a view of… (a particular site feature) from my exercise room
Before going further, let me clarify what’s meant by needs. For years I struggled with “needs” (as being legitimate) versus “desires” (as being arbitrary or capricious). This dichotomy isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s profoundly un-helpful. My advice? Accept the best definition of someone’s needs as simply: whatever feels truly important to them. Using this definition, we can look at how homeowners’ needs change over the courses of their lives. But before getting absorbed with the finer details, let’s first establish an overall perspective.
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Everyone has an intuitive understanding that there are differences between a “starter home” versus a “forever house”. But what exactly are those differences? While trying to articulate them I kept coming back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, originally formulated by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940’s.
To those unfamiliar with Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs, by the end of his professional life Maslow had formulated an eight-stage model of needs. He represented it as a pyramid, with more basic human needs starting at the base, successively rising to more evolved needs toward the peak. The lower half of the pyramid serves what he termed deficiency needs, whereas the upper half serves growth needs. Deficiency needs are experienced as deprivation – a lack of fulfillment. Growth needs, on the other hand, are experienced as unrealized opportunity.
Everyone I feel is intimately grounded in understanding deprivations – lack of food or water, or protection from heat, cold or rain. Growth needs perhaps deserve some further explanation. What kind of growth are we talking about? It starts with humanist psychology, which posits that humans have free will, are basically good, and have an innate need to make themselves and the world better. Growth refers to this individualistic sense of betterment which is sometimes expressed as “becoming your best self”.
Applying this to dwelling, the most fundamental differentiation between a starter home and a forever house is their respective primary orientations toward serving limitations versus opportunities. Now let’s break this down to a level of detail that’s more directly applicable to house design and/or real estate searches.
Going back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, the eight-tiers of his model, stated in order of ascendance, are:
— Biological and physiological needs
— Safety needs
— Love and belongingness needs
— Esteem needs
— Cognitive needs
— Aesthetic needs
— Self-actualization needs
— Transcendence needs
Transcendence needs?! (Well, more on that later.)
Eight tiers are, I feel, a bit too granular for articulating a model for dwelling needs. I think it works better to consider Maslow’s needs in pairs. Looked at this way, four home ownership need categories can be identified as:
— Starter Homes; attending primarily to biological, physiological and safety deficiency needs
— Growth Homes; attending primarily to love, belongingness and esteem deficiency needs
— Destination Homes; attending primarily to cognitive and aesthetic growth needs
— Forever Homes; attending to self-actualization and transcendence growth needs
With four tiers, am I arguing that you need four houses over the course of your life time in order for you to feel complete? No. Having owned five houses myself, obviously I’m not in my own four-step program! You certainly could have either more or fewer houses in your life. Is it possible that your “starter home” could be your “forever home”? Unlikely, but yes, it’s certainly possible. The goal here is not to prescribe a program of home ownership steps, but rather to help people clarify their needs as they anticipate making or adopting a new house for themselves.
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Let’s drill down into the four distinctly different sets of dwelling-need types to understand the constellation of needs each one serves.
Nearly everyone aspiring to owning their first house is coming from either a rental situation or their parent’s home. Thus, the new house, rather than providing a first roof over their head, is actually serving the need for getting out from underneath someone else’s roof! Starter houses are about independence – being able to stand on your own two feet in the world. While plenty of aspirations for the finer things in life will be present in the minds and hearts of starter home buyers, at the end of the day, a great many of them will need to be sacrificed or deferred, lost to the necessities of economic survival. Compromises are usually significant in terms of site location, house size, amenities, construction quality, long-term durability, and attention to aesthetics and details. However, the house will address the primary needs for providing a sense of self-sufficiency, environmental protection and stability – the proverbial “stake in the ground”. At the end of the day, a starter house is about getting into the game.
With growth homes, it’s about mastering the game and expanding your capacities. Having gained the confidence of independent living, growth homes are about expanding one’s resources and relationships. The most prevalent growth need is family-building. Growth homes tend to focus on increased size (for more people and their attendant stuff), better locational proximity to supporting infrastructure, more appliances and labor-saving amenities, and increased social and play spaces. General emphasis is more toward quantity than quality, but with an increased attention to materials and systems that save time in daily activities. Growth houses address the hot steamy mess of cultivating family, relationships and resources to support a multi-faceted, dynamic work/lifestyle. Aesthetics typically take a back seat to functionality and the house is typically viewed as a commodity purchase, where resale value will be important.
I think of Destination Homes as what comes into view after cresting a hill at the end of an arduous ride. They represent a cause for celebrating mastery of the game. How that plays out varies tremendously from person to person. Some celebrate quietly, allowing themselves the pleasures of higher quality finishes or a tonier neighborhood. For others it can take on far more exhibitionist qualities, showcasing the latest technologies and lifestyle fashions. If there is any phase that encourages a “second childhood” or indulging in hedonistic desires, it’s the creation of a Destination House. The emphasis is typically on aesthetics and pleasure, lifestyle enhancements and cultivating nuance and refinement. Congratulations, to anyone who feels that they’ve arrived to the first level of growth needs, which is the heart of what Destination Homes embody.
After triumphantly mastering numerous life goals (needs), and perhaps celebrating with a Destination Home (or not), something needs to follow. It’s human nature to ever look for “what’s next”. Particularly as people advance in years, the “what’s next” often assumes a more reflective posture. People’s attentions are increasingly held more by nuance than spectacle and their needs shift to finding deeper meaning and harmony in life. A Forever House attempts to achieve a stronger sense of connection to place (sensual awareness and emotional engagement), while also fostering a deeper respect and sense of wonder of the world(s) beyond one’s control (i.e. “nature”). For this reason, Forever Houses often engage with nature more overtly – emphasizing the ebb and flow of natural light, seasons and the weather, and showcasing landscape vistas and vegetation. In this final stage of increasingly nuanced awareness, one attends to quality over quantity. Forever Houses tend to be comparatively modest in size, emphasize aesthetic awareness, and seek respectful harmony with their larger contexts of humanity and nature. They seek to provide a sanctuary where owner(s) can find and cultivate their best self.
The primary advice I’d like to offer to anyone contemplating a house purchase (either building from scratch or selecting an existing one) is to try and not assume that you can condense all of your dwelling needs into a single house. That having been said, I certainly understand the urge to have one house serve all of the needs of your life! Designing or selecting a house, moving, and furnishing a home to reflect one’s lifestyle requires a huge investment – of time, money and especially, emotional energy. Why would any sane person want to go through that more often than absolutely necessary?
Let me answer by way of analogy. Would you want to cram all of your birthdays into a single celebration? No, you want to savor at least milestone birthdays as unique to your stage of life and interests. You’ll want to look back fondly at your 16th birthday, 21st, 30th, 40th, etc. as distinct events of who you were at the time – not some generic, averaged conglomeration. Similarly, when you feel that the time is right to consider a house purchase, you want take stock of where you are in your life’s journey, and focus on meeting those particular needs with gusto – rather than trying to address every possible need you could imagine. If you consider building or buying a Forever House, you’ll know at a gut level when the time is right for you.