Personal space: Creating emotional bonds with our homes

Creating emotional bonds with our homes

  • The home Catherine Armsden grew up in can be seen in the distance. Catherine Armsden

  • Catherine Armsden used this picture of her childhood home in Maine on the cover of her novel “Dream House.” Picasa

  • Architect Catherine Armsden based a home in ner novel “Dream House” on this house in Maine, where she grew up. Picasa

For the Bulletin
Friday, April 29, 2016


Our houses are more than just brick, and wood and metal, says San Francisco architect and writer Catherine Armsden. No matter where we live — a fifth-floor walk-up in Philadelphia, a 100-year-old farmhouse in Nebraska, an ultra-modern skyscraper in Dallas — our houses are where we build our lives. They become a part of our emotional psyche, and remain with us even as we move across the country and trade the old for the new.

Armsden, a co-owner with her husband, Lewis Butler, of Butler Armsden Architects in San Francisco, spent a quarter-century creating living spaces for clients, so she knows, firsthand, the strength of the attachment people feel toward their homes. But, she began to wonder why, exactly: How are we shaped by our houses? How does an arrangement of rooms impact the emotional life of a family?

“It’s not always easy to make a house feel like home, especially for the many Americans who’ve migrated far from our roots,” Armsden said.

Armsden, 60, talked about the topic earlier this month at the University of Massachusetts Amherst as part of the Department of Architecture’s “Women in Design” lecture series. She was joined on a discussion panel by UMass professor and master of architecture program director Kathleen Lugosch and UMass associate professor of architecture Ray Kinoshita Mann.

“We talk about how our families have shaped us but really our houses have shaped us in profound ways too,” Armsden said in her presentation to about 80 architecture and design students and professors. “They have a way of harboring the best of nurturance but also the worst of injury, and we’re really at our most powerful and powerless when we’re in them.”

Armsden’s interest in the relationship between people and their homes grew out of her work in college, experimenting with structure and the placement of walls, first at Brown University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art in 1977 and then at Harvard University where she received a master’s degree in architecture in 1984.

“I was always fascinated with the idea of walls, and how walls divide us, and how we make windows and doors that sort of penetrate walls and we get a view into something else, how sound is transmitted through walls or isn’t,” she said.

According to Armsden, the connection of walls and rooms can have a large effect on social interaction and the atmosphere of the home.

“In the most practical way, I think the shape of our houses, the layout of rooms, is really critical to how we’re shaped emotionally,” she said.

Art mirrors reality

Those concepts became the heart of “Dream House,” Armsden’s first novel, published in 2015 by Bonhomie Press in San Francisco, for which she used her own childhood home as a template. (See accompanying story.)

That house — a two-floor New England foursquare — has a compact design, with four rooms over four rooms and one bathroom.

“No privacy,” Armsden said during her talk. “Everybody’s emotional lives were on view pretty much all the time.” Sharing one bathroom with her parents, and two sisters was a challenge.

“Being in the bathroom, if you were in there for any length of time, always someone knocked and said, ‘Can I come in? I just want to brush my teeth,’ ” she said.

There was also no audio privacy in the house, she says, which was especially difficult: Like the mother in “Dream House,” Armsden’s own mom dealt with undiagnosed depression.

“Because of my mother’s depression and because we could hear her weeping behind any closed door in the house, because the house wasn’t big enough to get away from that,” Armsden said, “I was kept awake a lot at night.”

She knows firsthand the effects her childhood living space has had on her life. In particular, she says, she values privacy — her own and others’.

“Growing up in that house where we had no privacy made me very aware of my own kids’ need for privacy while at home,” she said. “I was determined to convey to my kids my excitement about their independent endeavors. I actually think I’ve overcompensated a bit, though, because I’ve been told by them that I don’t call them enough.”

You can’t go home again

Armsden revisited her childhood home in Maine shortly after her UMass presentation. The woman who lives there now invited her to see how it had been remodeled. It was her first visit to the house since her parents died — her mother in 2006 and her father in 2009.

“When I went in the house, I realized that my feelings for it are gone,” she said. “I think being there sort of drove home the fact that my parents are gone now and that they were the energy in the house.”

Armsden says the resonance she once felt with her childhood home is what people look for in the architecture of houses, and they search for pieces that remind them of old homes they have loved.

“So many people, they’re really looking for ways to capture elements of past houses that they’ve lived in. But they’re also trying to strike out and do something new.”

But, she says, the balance between creating a dream house and a house that feels like a home can be elusive.

“People work on trying to change their houses, sometimes relentlessly, and trying to just get it right,” she said. “Sometimes they never do.”

Some of her clients tried to control every detail in their house, only to sell it a few years later, she says.

“Obviously they weren’t getting it,” Armsden said. “Whatever it was they were after they weren’t getting it the first time.”

When it comes to making a house feel like a home, details do matter, but each person has a different trigger. For example, Armsden had one client who desperately wanted an attic in her house, even though attics are unusual in new builds, because she and her brothers used to spend hours in her parents’ attic as children. Personal elements like this, she says, can have an immediate effect on people.

“It happens in the details. It’s actually kind of amazing how people respond to, when they’re creating a house, just the quality of light that reminds them of a place they’ve lived before.”

Armsden says when she and her husband were remodeling their own house in San Francisco, they had to place a bathroom window high on the wall because it faced their neighbor’s house.

“I was so struck and so happy when I realized that my house in Maine had two windows that were high up on the wall, that like my house in San Francisco the wall faced south,” she said. The way the sun came in through the windows reminded her of the Maine house she left behind.

“Something as small as that can just evoke some emotional response in someone living in the house,” Armsden said. “It’s about some kind of sensory equilibrium that makes people feel at home.”