Friday, May 14, 2010

Wants vs. Needs, Private vs. Public

Just as we did here at TAA after seeing the capsule hotels and apartments in Asia, Erin at Unclutterer has raised the same philosophical questions about living in small spaces: how much space do we really need? How much of our "need" is actually "want?" According to her, there are a lot of things to consider. She says,
Many factors go into answering the question: “How much space do I want to be happy and safe?” Location of property, floor plan, cultural norms, rent/mortgage, amenities, storage, air quality, and aesthetics are all considerations that weigh into an individual’s want response.
Interestingly, she turns to the example of prisoners and their cells to examine how space relates to happiness (or at least, the "happiness" one can achieve in a prison, anyway). After all, amenities are stripped down to the bare essentials, and inmates spend most of their time in their allotted space. One would expect that they'd be a perfect case study as to how living space size affects its inhabitants:
Since safety and happiness are major concerns in U.S. prisons (“happiness” in the sense of keeping rioting, violence, and suicide rates at a minimum), I expected minimum square footage per inmate mandates to exist. Turns out, the federal government does not define how many square feet a prisoner is required to have for conditions to be considered something better than “cruel or unusual.” As a result, inmates are given anywhere between 35 square feet (common when two prisoners share a 70 square foot cell) to 100 square feet (quite uncommon, but more likely to be found in solitary-confinement situations where prisoners never leave their cells). And, research about the penal system shows that rates of riots, violence, and suicide don’t appear to be directly correlated to cell size (much like job satisfaction isn’t based on office size).
In the comments, a reader named Rosa aptly pointed out that inmates don't have only their cell space; they also have common areas, such as kitchens, showers, and outdoor yards. Bringing it back to the non-convict population, she notes that:
People I know who live in very small spaces actually spend most of their time elsewhere; at work, at restaurants, outdoors in rural areas, at parks. More and more I think that’s healthier – less private space and more shared space. But it depends on other people valuing the shared space as well, to keep it accessible and usable.
How much space do we need to live, to shelter us from the elements, store our food, and provide a safe place to sleep? How much space do we want for our comfort, to hold our books and our art and have a place to entertain guests? And how are these two questions affected by the availability of public spaces? If you're spending 8 hours a day at the office and 8 hours a night sleeping, and you're outside of the house in public spaces for a few more hours per day, you're really only spending a short amount of time in your private living space. Does that make smaller spaces more bearable? It also makes me wonder about the kinds of public spaces available to us and how we use them. I don't have a back yard, so I get my nature fix at my favorite Los Angeles parks. And I'm writing this right now from a Starbucks, which has become the de facto office for many a laptop carrier. Restaurants are convenient and social eating spaces. But would I be cool with a communal kitchen? If I could pay a lower rent and sell off my kitchen tools, would I be okay with a shared food prep room instead of my own private kitchen? (That'd be the end of getting bowls of cereal at midnight in my undies, that's for sure.) What about a shared bathroom? I know for many people, having to share a bathroom with just their significant other is a road too far. Still, people all over the world manage just fine with minuscule living spaces and shared amenities. And you probably did as well: you survived sharing a bedroom with your younger sister back at home, and you survived sharing a bathroom with the entire floor in the dorms, didn't you? Could you do that again? Would you? Of course, if you're sent to the slammer, you won't have much say in the matter. But let's hope it doesn't come to that... or at least that you're good at turning a toothbrush into a shiv. Via Unclutterer.


  1. I've lived in a variety of spaces -- both alone and with others -- and have found that for optimal happiness and healthiness I need enough space to take four good strides across a space, and to stand in the middle of a room with my arms out and turn in a circle in place without bumping into anything. Less room than that and I start to feel claustrophobic, the effects of which magnify and multiply over time. I'm 6 feet tall with a 6'6" wingspan -- the amount of space needed to allow me to move freely is greater than for a smaller person. I have happily found that sharing space with others whom I feel comfortable wearing pajamas and messy hair in front of doesn't increase the amount that I need to feel healthy and happy -- my 700 square foot apartment is no less perfectly sized for me when my girlfriend is helping to occupy the space than when I'm alone.

    Which is a long-winded way of getting at my point: I don't think that the amount of private or semi-private space needs to be rigid on a per-person basis; having two people living in a space where each have an area that's reserved for solo use, sharing all of the common area could diminish the amount that the pair needs in total.

  2. I appreciate that your design blog also contains thoughts on shivs. Well done!

  3. about to move onto campus in Wollongong, Australia.
    in a tiny tiny campus bedroom.
    probably with my boyfriend.
    you have been so helpful.


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