Opinion

A Home Built for the Next Pandemic

A collaboration between three businesswomen, built by Garman Homes, is betting that Covid will change the way we design, buy and live in our homes.

This summer, they unveiled a Covid concept home based on responses from the America at Home Study, an online survey of nearly 7,000 U.S. adult respondents about what they want from a new home after Covid. I recently toured the home in a master-planned community in North Carolina for a peek at how Americans’ most expensive purchase — our home — reflects changing expectations about work, school and home life.

The study organized questions around two major themes: “How has Covid changed the way you live in your home?” and “What do you need from your home for you to feel safe and secure during a global pandemic?” The results give some insight into how long some consumers believe the current pandemic will last, and how they will respond to public health crises in the future.

The overriding consensus is that the pandemic has revealed that many consumers view the pandemic not as a one-off, but as a harbinger: They will need to work from home in the future. Not all workers have the luxury of working from home, of course. But for knowledge workers, the ability to participate in the economy will be conditioned upon their ability to be productive while working from their own houses. Home offices were on the rise during the pandemic, and while there was much debate on the benefits and harms of WFH life, we increasingly expect that the future of work will include long-term remote options for millions of workers, even as lower-wage service workers are pushed back into workplaces.

The builders of the concept home seem to want to frame the way their home responds to these trends as feminist and empowering — the website and promotional materials explain that the study was led by women’s taste and desires, and the outward-facing reports lean into girl-power marketing copy. But when you peel back the women’s response to see the expectations underlying them, it does not sound empowering.

It sounds like what the sociologist Jessica Calarco studies: the extreme pressures placed on women and mothers during the pandemic. You can feel those pressures expressed in so many of the choices in the Covid concept home. Just beneath the desire for flexible work-from-home spaces is an empirical reality that women have been expected to manage the public health crises for their families. This is all an outgrowth of the way mothers have managed the educational careers of their children while being expected to bring in either money from paid work or to relieve the family of the need for supplemental paid work by doing additional care work. You can see how the builders addressed these needs in the Covid concept home through three different design features.

The flexible space

There are three so-called flex spaces awkwardly placed throughout the home. Awkward because they are very small by suburban new home standards; so-called because they do not “flex” much beyond their obvious function, which is to hold online video conference calls. These “Zoom rooms,” as I overheard a guest describe them during my visit, are decorated for modern presentation of self and not much else. One has an artful brick wall reminiscent of the industrial work spaces that are all the rage in urban areas, and completely out of place in a suburban new-build home on the outskirts of Chapel Hill, N.C. The other has decorative wallpaper, and is directly off the kitchen, with the assumption that this office will be the mother’s work space. This design decision is a response to the idea that mothers need to remain tethered to the kitchen, because the kitchen is the control center of the home. The kitchen is open and gives direct sight lines to another innovation: schooling rooms.

During Covid, the responsibility for educating children has shifted from schools to households, which is to say, in our patriarchal society, most often to mothers. Virtual school, from pre-K through college, was the defining aspect of the pandemic for many Americans but it was especially salient for parents of primary-school-age children: for them, school is child care during working hours. The Covid concept home has a built-in home schoolroom, with a Dutch door that allows the mother to be able to see into the room and theoretically supervise the children, while also providing separation so that she can continue to work from both the kitchen and her odd, small, highly decorated, kitchen-adjacent Zoom room.

According to the study, they assumed that the home needed office spaces for one person who worked full time outside the home, and one person who worked full time in the home. Though they used gender-neutral language, in the United States of America that kind of setup is most likely to mean a male partner works outside the home, and a female partner works inside the home. It’s a gendered division of labor built into an idea of modern design. It has the rhetoric of liberal feminism but is actually extremely retrograde: a mother tethered to the kitchen. But now, instead of supervising the home life and the children, being tethered to the kitchen also allows her the “flexibility” to participate in the paid labor market from her closed-in Zoom room.

The dual fridge

The Covid concept home reflected the idea that American middle-class families need to stockpile food and supplies. The home has two full-size modern refrigerators, one in the kitchen, and one just off the kitchen, in the laundry room. Second fridges are not uncommon in American homes, but they have not been thought of as a middle-class consumer item. They were either associated with working-class and poor rural communities, for bulk-buying and freezing, or the high-end luxury consumption patterns of people who had multiple refrigerators for entertaining and household management, as well as storing food for housekeepers and nannies.

The concept home is solidly middle class, as evidenced by the survey respondents’ income level. The idea of having two full-size refrigerators is said to be, according to the study, an accommodation for parents who say they need more refrigerator space so, among other reasons, they can stockpile food items. In an area like North Carolina, where the Covid concept home is being built, the stockpiling of the goods in two refrigerators seems like overkill — until one considers where this new home construction is happening. Like many master-planned communities, this one is redeveloping an exurban area where infrastructure is not keeping up with the influx of new residents.

The place — described by the developers as “near (but not too near)” major cities like Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham — was important to the study. People in these exurban communities have to travel miles to the nearest grocery store, which is more akin to how rural people have to go into “town” to get goods than to living in the city or suburbs. If you’re going to take 30 minutes to drive to the grocery store, you may be stocking up, not just in response to Covid, but in response to the transportation costs and the time and effort required to get to grocery stores as housing developments outstrip retail’s ability to keep up with consumer demand.

The escape room

The Covid concept home has a hidden room upstairs in the master bedroom that was obviously designed to be a “mom room,” where mothers can hide from their spouses and their children. It has a bookcase, a false bookcase door, an opening — again, only accessible through the master bedroom. It is decorated with floor pillows, reminiscent of California cult chic. It looks like the kind of space where one is expected to chant and to achieve vibrations that will pull them closer to the ultimate energy source. Or whatever.

This room is the most divisive design element among those with whom I shared the concept home. Women with small children, in particular, like one woman I toured the home with, said some version of: “I could absolutely use a room like that, because what Covid showed me is that so much togetherness with my family is not good for my mental health and my well-being. And I cannot escape the home. So I need escapes within the home.” But some men and women were appalled at the room’s concept, describing it as pandering. As one woman said to me, getting away from your children can’t solve the problem of how unfair and unsustainable modern motherhood is. It can’t rebalance a disproportionate division of labor. She called it akin to building a bubble bath to solve the social structural problem of gendered labor and expectations.

“Calgon, take me away …” Remember those commercials from the 1970s and ’80s? As I recently told an audience, a bubble bath isn’t going to fix what is wrong with you. Because a lot of our burnout and ennui is not about being tired. It is about being unsupported. Child care, transit, elder care and health care would do more for our collective well-being than a bubble bath. Much in the same way that a secret not-so-secret room — in a middle-class home designed for a woman to be constantly accessible and continually managing the liminal space between her multiple social roles, from the “control center” of her overextended middle-class home in a master-planned exurban community that requires her to drive 20 to 30 minutes for all of her necessary services — can in no way qualify as self-care.

The Covid concept home demonstrates both the exuberant quality of American consumption — that we can buy our way out of everything — and its limits as a solution. Designing for problems that may seem straightforward in a survey may sound really cool, and may provide you with some really cool features. Listen, I thought that the laundry room was impressive, and I never imagined myself being impressed by a laundry room. But the problems posed by Covid can’t really be solved at the level of the household. These are structural, collective problems: politically and culturally, economically and spiritually. A concept house for our post-Covid reality probably needs to look more like dense, accessible, affordable housing so that women can untether themselves from the control center of their homes, and instead just enjoy a simple cup of coffee in the kitchen.

The Covid concept home is 2,600 square feet, was built in 60 days and is not yet priced but is expected to be listed at some point next year. It has four bedrooms and three and a half bathrooms. You can see pictures and take a virtual tour from the comfort of your own home.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

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