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More Than A House: The Meaning Of Home

Written By Jamila Haynes, MArch, B A (Hons) Arch Studies, PMP., RA 

Images Supplied By Elements Architecture Ltd., The Barbados Institute of Architects and SRM Architects Ltd. 

Nothing perhaps captures the spirit of ages in any country better than the architecture of that country – if only we are able to look and see perceptively. For architecture, particularly as reflected in domestic dwellings, encloses and organises space into a variety of shapes and sizes, and for a variety of purposes to suit the needs of human beings.  

(Fraser & Hughes, 1986)  


When we speak of houses we tend to discuss their aesthetic qualities, but they are more than visual objects. A house is a place for shelter that contains daily patterns. They are domestic spaces for the human activity of living: cooking, eating, bathing and sleeping.  


There is also the meaning that we attach to the house that transforms it into a home - a place of protection, rest and privacy. Homes can also express the personalities and lifestyles of those who inhabit them. For each of us, our day starts and ends at home. It is where family values are instilled, routines of everyday life are found, and memories created. In Barbados, many hope to own “a piece of the rock” and build a place they can call “home”. Let us take a look beyond the façade of the Barbadian single-family house and see what we can discover about the concept of the Barbadian home. 


The origin of the Barbadian home finds its roots in the chattel house. Early chattel houses were single units separated into two spaces for sleeping and living; the cooking and washing were done out in the yard. During slavery, the colonial society gave rise to this basic way of living; these small wooden houses were the solution to the temporal circumstances of the workers. The nature of the plantation system meant that workers moved from plantation to plantation. This insecurity required a home that was easily transported, placed on a loose foundation and not fixed to the ground.  


The labour system of the 1930’s reinforced the ties of the formerly enslaved individuals to the plantation. They were leased a small piece of land and the chattel house remained a common housing structure throughout Barbados. Upgrading and extending the single unit chattel house occurred as resources became available; homeowners created additional units for bedrooms, eating and kitchen areas as well as verandahs and entry porches. When piped water was introduced, bathrooms were attached to the houses. Many people repaired and extended their timber houses to incorporate this new convenience. Later, the traditional chattel house concept was transferred to early concrete houses as a step towards the modernization of houses in Barbados.  


In 1966, Independence brought with it many social changes, including access to education, improved health care, and infrastructure in roads and telecommunications. These developments, combined with the shift from a plantation-based economy to a service-based one, led to the development of the Barbadian working class, a rise of social mobility and the creation of a large middle-income group. This was the beginning of the socio-economic changes that continue to influence people’s attitudes and values today.   


Historically, the privilege of owning land and a house represented freedom from the elite ruling class, and building a house was typically achieved through the private effort of the individual. If you could afford to own your own land and home, you had done well for yourself and your family. However, when population increase created too strong a demand, government and private entities had no choice but to become involved in the production and supply of houses. The building industry expanded and mass houses were designed and built for a typical customer profile.  


In the 1990s and beyond, societal change evolved the need for the houses to become more specific to individual preferences. There were changes in the number and kinds of rooms used in houses, such as the inclusion of the study or laundry and utility areas. The houses also contained spaces for activities beyond basic living requirements such as the family room, powder room, garage and storage. Likewise, the relationship between the house and the street changed. Unlike the upgraded chattel houses with a front-facing verandah, outside living was now a private activity occurring on the back patio.  


From 1930s to now, homes in Barbados have changed from single-room timber chattel houses to two-storey multi-room concrete blockhouses. The chattel house was a unique expression of incremental change in Barbadian economy, convenience and comfort despite the inequalities of the time and few opportunities in society. However, houses are more than physical objects; there was stigma attached to living in a chattel house and hence drove an aspiration to own a concrete one. The wall house became a notion of ownership and a mark of achievement. History was rejected in favour of newness; the modern replacing the traditional.  


In the 2020s, there is still a segment of the Barbadian population with financial constraints to owning a “piece of the rock”. The rise of the large middle-income group did not mean an increase in opportunity and general prosperity for all. It begs us to ask the question: how do we design to address the ever-evolving Barbadian society and its associated housing needs? There will always be new problems and new solutions required to address housing the masses versus housing the individual.  In housing developments, the house is seen as a physical commodity – a product to be marketed. Can we offer design solutions that maintain the dignity and the importance of the individual’s aspirations for their expression of home and family life? 


Whether the architect is designing a house for an individual client or housing developments to serve a group in society, domestic architecture must respond to people and their needs. As architects, we create in collaboration with developers, governments and society; our designs must respond to the socio-economic considerations of the time and the intrinsic desire to create a space to call home.  

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