This year, I had the opportunity to present my work on flexible homes and psychological wellbeing at the HSA annual conference, Sheffield in April 2022. This blog provides a peak into my studies there were presented at the conference. 

A key approach that makes my research into flexibility of homes distinct is the use of psychological theories and evidence to guide the inquiry into design of homes. Having worked on designs of low-income, affordable, and incremental housing in India, I quickly came to realise that most houses are never really designed with resident’s individual needs or wellbeing in mind; Nor are they designed to be flexible to support residents changing needs and living situations. Our home environments host many psychological processes and behaviours that are important for wellbeing. Whether it is feeling a sense of home, an attachment towards home, or satisfaction with home, enjoying a match between what one needs at home and what a house provides is an important facilitator of wellbeing and something that flexible homes could offer to its residents. Flexible homes have long been theorised to be physically, financially, socially, technologically viable, and associated with reduction in residential mobility and sustainability. One such example is Incremental housing by Elemental as seen in the picture.

Incremental Housing by Elemental. An example of a core house that has been turned into a personalised home owing to a flexible design that allowed growth and change over time.

In trying to define flexibility from a design as well as a psychological perspective, it was apparent to me that a flexible home has to not just offer an impermanence in the built structure, but also allow residents to take charge when it comes to deciding how a house is meant to be used or modified for use. When asking the residents of the UK to evaluate flexibility of their homes, they were asked to think if their homes: offer a variety of rooms, spaces, furniture for different uses; have some transformable structural features like moving partition walls; have features and objects that serve more than one purpose such as a sofa bed, and finally allows residents to engage in the behaviour of making various changes to home – such as personalising, moving furniture or even adding a loft extension. 

These characteristics of flexible homes were associated with key and fundamental psychological needs of Autonomy, Competence, Relatedness and positive affect - attaining which has across many decades, domains, cultures and languages, been associated with higher wellbeing. 

This means that residents experience greater wellbeing at home when they feel:

  • a sense of control and freedom in their behaviour, rather than have it imposed by external forces (autonomy)
  • capable and able to bring desired outcomes (competence)
  • close and connected to significant others in their lives (relatedness) 
  • positive emotions such as happiness, joy, excitement at home (positive affect). 

Satisfaction of these basic psychological needs were attained through everyday activities and tasks such as working from home, cooking for family, having friends and guests over, gardening and so on. As many theoretical papers have suggested that a flexible home could indeed support these needs, empirical evaluations were done to test this association. 

In two online surveys, around 200 residents of the UK rated flexibility of their home and their psychological need satisfaction and wellbeing at home. It was found that the presence of more rooms in the home, and the multi-functionality and adaptability of the bedroom, kitchen, living, and dining room, allowed residents to engage in the behaviour of making changes more easily at home, ultimately improving their psychological need satisfaction at home. 

A very commonly cited and relatable example from the surveys was residents having to find or make a new workspace at home because of the COVID-19 work from home mandate. Having a multifunctional furniture such as dining table meant that people could use them as a workspace too. Having a multifunctional spare room meant that residents could transform them into offices. Or simply having unfixed furniture and some space in the living room meant the furniture could be pushed aside to make space for a simple work desk. Having this workplace at home to effectively accomplish their work (competence), in some instances find privacy and control over this workspace (autonomy), benefitted their overall wellbeing at home. 

The results suggests that in a more flexible dwelling unit, residents experience higher psychological need satisfaction – because they are able to make changes to their homes. Multifunctionality and adaptability are key features to consider when designing homes. In addition, spaces and features like living room, garden, windows, sofa, indoor plants which were found to support psychological needs may not be present in all homes. Student houses often have the living room converted into a bedroom. And some, as I have experienced, do not have windows or good lighting negatively impacting wellbeing. It is perhaps important to critically revaluate the design standards of dwelling units and upon further testing incorporate in it the rooms and other features that are found to be imperative for wellbeing.

In combination, residents being able to, allowed to, or wanting to make a variety of changes to their homes as required, is important for resident’s wellbeing at home. Changes however can be challenging to accommodate in all houses owing to for example policies and restrictions on making changes in the Private Rented Sector. Whilst understanding and evaluating relevant policies – and who it truly benefits, is necessary for the application of these findings, I would like to emphasise that regardless of ownership status, type of house and housing, being able to make small changes to one’s home such as putting up pictures, plants and decorations can go as far as strengthening one’s identity at home and a sense of home. 

The COVID-19 lockdowns have shown us all how important our homes are and how the design influences our interactions with our home. It is currently unknown how effectively flexibility of a home causes higher wellbeing, and there is more to learn how it can be characterised and implemented to support our current and future needs at home. These explorations contribute to a greater understanding of the links between psychological wellbeing and homes, and the subsequent impacts on existing housing stock and new builds, in a world where home environments are becoming increasingly important for wellbeing.

About the author

Sadhana Jagannath is a final year PhD student in Environmental Psychology at the University of Surrey, exploring how flexibility in the design of a house benefits resident’s psychological wellbeing in it. Having a background in architecture, her broader interest lies in creating homes that support residents’ wellbeing. In its simplest sense, environmental psychology is a study of people-environment (or resident-home) interactions and inter-relationships. This comprises of and is not limited to how we perceive and evaluate our homes, behave and feel in our homes, and how in turn our house allows, restricts or facilitates these interactions. Her research draws from related architecture and housing studies and aims to create psychological evidence that can guide design of homes.

Sadhana received a bursary to attend the Housing Studies Association Annual Conference 2022. As part of the bursary, recipients are expected to contribute to the HSA blog, and this blog post is based on the paper presented at the HSA conference. 

Find out more about the HSA conference bursaries

The Housing Studies Association (HSA) is a limited company registered in England and Wales under company number 13958843 at 42 Wellington Road, Greenfield, OL3 7AQ.
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