The Psychology of a House

life as a house 1


I spent a lot of time explaining to my wonderful high school students how a word’s connotation differs from its literal meaning. The most ready example is “What do you think of when you hear the word home? How is a ‘home’ different from a ‘house’?”

Well, they said, home is where you feel comfortable. And safe. And loved.

Some people spend their whole lives looking for home.

Plenty of research is out there to tell you how your home or office space impacts your physical and mental health. Obviously, it should not have mold in the walls. Tripping over vagrants on your way up the stairs tends to be dirty and depressing, as is finding any human waste or remains on the threshhold. (According to a friend who rented a cheap apartment in New Jersey).

Plants green up a space and make it come alive. Blue light should be avoided to save your eyes and neural pathways. Feng shui is a whole pseudoscience explaining how things should be arranged in each quarter using the five elements of Chinese medicine — metal, earth, fire, water, and wood — to maximize the chi of your space.

Even government office workers  who have nearly blended into the dreary walls after years of loyal service post pictures of their kids and lhasa apsos around their desks to make them feel more at home.

But what about the psychology of the built environment?

I first started thinking hard about this (as opposed to daydreaming casually) when I first saw the film Life As A House starring Kevin Kline and Hayden Christensen before he turned to the dark side and became Darth Vader. It became my favorite new movie almost no one has seen.

A couple of moments in this film let you know that the “house” is a metaphor for something bigger. Just consider the process of building a structure. First you have to tear down what’s already there. It’s hard work. It might even be sad, to take down something someone spent years investing their time and money in, especially if it was your time and your money. It is extremely difficult to reduce to ashes something that feels so familiar but isn’t doing its job anymore.

This condemned place is your soul. It’s a haunted house. It is filled with a lifetime of ideas and beliefs that may not suit the person you are today. It is a rigid structure. The walls are composed of past experiences, relationships, and all the things that make up your perception of life. It leaves a lot of floating dust and a pile of rubble when it comes crashing down. Then you realize, once the dust clears, that you can see the sky and feel the breeze in your hair.

Before you do anything else, you lay the new foundation. This step is very important. It must be a good, solid foundation on stable ground. You don’t want to build on an earthquake fault line, sinkhole, or wetland because the foundation will crack. It might not be today. It might not be tomorrow. But it will happen.

Once the foundation has been laid, the new framework can go up. The frame is composed of your main support beams, load bearing walls, and roof trusses. The job of these things is to make sure the building is sturdy so that it will not collapse or blow over in a strong wind. The frame is made up of your strengths, the valuable construction lessons you have learned, and your will to put the wisdom gained to practical use.

The outside of the house can be wood or concrete or shingles or brick. It can be big or small, linear or curvy, ornate or minimalist. It can even be pink. The outside is the face you show the world. It might be a reflection of you, or it might not. The facade of your building is there to insulate you from weather, noise, and whatever else lurks outside.

Now comes the fun part. You have a lot of clean, empty space to work with. It is up to you if the inside of your house is dressed to impress, or if it makes you feel like yourself. You can fill it with appliances and sculptures. Vintage furniture and photographs may grace your building. You can fill it with friends, with anger, with passion, or with solitude. You can begin to haunt your own building all over again.

The thing is, it can be the most stunning estate with a view of the sea and million-dollar paintings lining the walls, but it might never be home. I’m sure Mary Engelbreit meant the very best with her infamous “Bloom where you are planted” quote, what with her chair of bowlies and optimistic skipping flower children.

But sometimes people just tell you to “Bloom where you’re planted” like its one of the Ten Commandments. And then you feel guilty, like a sinner. Because you don’t know how. What they don’t tell you is you have to experience all the grief and loss and sweat and tears before you have room to bloom. Lightning strikes the tower; the house burns to the ground. Or you tear it down yourself, brick by brick. Only then can you build yourself a life.



Tips for Planning an Unconventional Home



So you want a tiny house on wheels, a treehouse, a hobbit hole? How about an earthship or monolothic dome? Your dream house might be a little off the beaten path. You may even have visions of an entire community filled with off-the-grid custom homes.

Therein lies the problem. Most of us are still on the grid in one form or another. You don’t want to waste a lot of time and money on building something brilliant, only to have your dreams crushed and pulled out from under you by the interference of nosy neighbors and your local permitting agency.

Which is exactly what happened in Oakland, Ca.,  when some well-meaning if misguided outside-the-box visionaries set up a container home mini-community on an overgrown lot.

Cases like this one are why it is essential to keep in mind a few practical considerations when planning your ideal custom home on wheels, tree shack, or gaudy cave mansion.

Indiana pimp house

The firt thing you will want to do is research local building and planning regulations. Someone in the planning permission office at City Hall will be happy to explain these regulations in layman’s terms if you are persistent. Then you can apply for the permits that will legally cover your project.

Every local building permit agency has its own little idiosyncracies, but here are a few tips to get your project started the right way.


You’ll want to consider carefully where you want to put your dream house. If you are planning on setting up camp in a metropolitan  or other highly populated area, you should anticipate running into a whole flock of issues, just like the container-folk did.

Any time you have a neighborhood with different lifestyles living next door to one another, you are going to butt heads. People who could actually afford to buy residential property near San Francisco were going to have conflicts with a tribe of boxouse container-living hippies. It doesn’t take a fortune teller to predict that.


One mistake those guys made was ostensibly causing a ruckus by welding and drilling at night. Check your local noise ordinances, and always be aware that coexisting means respecting others’ rights, as well as your own.

If your dream property is out in the middle of the woods, perched on the side of a mountain, or hidden in a vast swamp, you will have less run-ins with more traditional residents complaining about noise or unsightly structures. ( Your spontaneous room additions and swinging tree bridge are also less likely to be discovered.) However, you will still want to research local building regulations to factor in the environmental impact of construction and personal safety before beginning construction.

For example, will the construction require the removal of trees? This often requires a permit to preserve native species. Pete Nelson, a well-known treehouse builder and author of the book  Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on A Limb, began a prolonged battle with the Department of Development and Environmental Services in King County, Wa., when he built “The Temple of the Blue Moon” on his riverfront property.

temple of the blue moon

Nelson’s main violations were removing two trees without a permit and building in a flood zone. Even if you feel that regulations don’t apply to your situation, as Nelson does, illegally ignoring them won’t make the regulations go away.

Mobile Homes

So you are ready to live in a residence you can take with you, like a comfy snail shell that provides both shelter and freedom.


Maybe you are ready to tour the U.S. , stopping to rest in campgrounds or parked at the side of a magnificent glacial lake.

It’s time to dig in to that savings account. Traditional mortgage lenders consider mobile homes a major risk. There is a mainstream loan program under the FHA that supports mobile properties. If the manufactured home is attached to a foundation, you can purchase your mobile for as low as 3.5% down, depending on county loan limits.

Prefabricated modular homes are also covered under certain FHA loans, and these are more lending-friendly.

Thinking of a tiny house on wheels that will actually move when you do? It will be way more difficult to obtain a loan to finance it. If you have excellent credit, you can check with your bank to see if they have a loan that will suit your needs. “Tiny House Lending” also matches buyers with lenders based on credit history, prospective loan amount, and your state of residence.


Living Underground

You want to build down instead of up. Some truly wonderful houses have been built around caves and boulders.

An underground home is usually built one of two ways — as a submerged earth shelter  or an earth-bermed shelter. The earth-bermed shelter will have one or more exposed walls and an exposed roof, like Bilbo’s house in Lord of the Rings.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the advantages to this type of shelter are many, especially when it comes to conserving energy. Being packed in earth keeps the home cool in hot weather and safe from freezing temperatures when it’s cold. The shelter blends naturally into the surroundings, and requires less outside maintenance. An earth shelter will cost less to insure because it is protected from natural disasters, storm damage, and Terminator-style apocalyptic scenarios.

The downside is the initial construction cost will be up to 20% more than building a traditional house. You may have to fight ongoing problems with moisture condensation to avoid mold and mildew taking over. The shelter will be more difficult if you decide to sell it, partially because mortgage lenders will give the buyers a hard time.

If you have your heart set on an underground home, consider the climate and terrain before building. Earth shelters do best in extreme temperatures with low humidity. You will want to choose gently sloping terrain to avoid additional excavation costs. Permeable soils that compact well, like sand and gravel, are ideal for your shelter because they allow water to drain efficiently.

Plan the drainage system and construction materials carefully. Added insulation can help combat problems with condensation. You will want to make sure you have adequate ventilation. Also, be aware that radon gas is produced when rocks dissolve.

DOE codes require that every sleeping space has a window to the outside world. The opening should be 5.7 square feet, a minimum dimension of 20 inches, and no more than 40 inches above the floor.

You will have issues whenever you buy a house, and no one said that you can’t make a success of your personal hobbit hole.

The Atlantic Beach Dune House down the street from me was built around 1975 by the famous architect William Morgan. The earth-bermed duplex was constructed in a sand dune made by Hurricane Dora in 1964. How Morgan got permitting for this one from the Atlantic Beach City Commission is beyond me, but maybe things were different back then.

atlantic beach dune house

How anyone can afford the flood insurance is another question. The lair was for sale for as long as I can remember. It sold in 2012.