Handmade Homes

“Developments in Artificial Intelligence will render 80% of ‘white-collar’ professional jobs redundant over the next thirty years.”

This was one of the very striking predictions made by Dr Stephen Davies of the Institute of Economic Affairs at the Home Renaissance Foundation Experts’ Meeting: The Home in the Digital Age this February.

Education, health – diagnostics and therapies, banking and legal processes will all be more efficiently carried out by the new technologies.

Alongside this startling vision of the future was another prediction: that replacing the human brain with a machine will prove easier than replacing the human hand. Our future will be handmade.

Already it is possible to see a renewed interest in artisanal activities and businesses. How many micro-breweries, specialist bread and locally-roasted coffee shops are there now than there were a decade ago?

Alongside this, websites such as Etsy and Pinterest are providing a platform for hand and homemade articles. There is an awakening interest and desire to move away from fast, faceless mass-production to individual, “one-off”, “bespoke” or “hand-crafted” things for our homes and for ourselves.

These skills and processes speak of time, talent and care. It is appealing to look at a piece of jewellery or furniture – or even a cup of coffee or bread roll – and know that it has been lovingly and painstakingly created rather than rolled off a robotic conveyor belt.

This, then, is an opportunity for craftsmen and women to gain a market for their work, but it also offers an opportunity for all of us to reengage with many of the traditional skills that got left behind in the rush for mechanization.

Only a matter of a generation ago, school children were taught not only the theory of materials and textiles as they are today,  but actually how to make things in wood, metal and clay, how to knit, to sew, to weave and to mend.

With these skills – and admittedly some aptitude and much practice-  a school-leaver was capable of making and maintaining the fabric of their home. Nowadays although this is much less likely, those skills basic to this literal “home-making” are becoming increasingly accessible again. Youtube is bursting with clips of “how to” and many local hubs are offering training in traditional crafts.

One of the best ways of gaining new skills and motivating ourselves to use them is to have a project in mind. It might be to add feature to our gardens: “I made this bench myself”. It might be to make clothes for ourselves or our children – or curtains, or chair covers or whatever else it takes our fancy to make our own distinctive mark upon.

Taking time to immerse ourselves in learning and creating is so much more satisfying than the quick “hit” of buying things. As the days get longer and brighter and our energy levels rise with the coming summer sunshine, why not try your hand at making something for your home? You will be building the future at the same time!


Eating Meals Together: A Key Element for Long-Lasting Families?

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Nobody can be sure who said this first – Mark Twain or Benjamin Disraeli – but the quotation remains as valid as ever.

Where government policy is concerned, statistics matter hugely. Not just in presenting policy favourably. Data is also used to inspire strategy. But, of course, as any statistician will tell you – the result you get out, depends on the numbers you put in.

I say all this in relation to a remarkable twist in the way Britain collects statistics.

The Office For National Statistics has announced that, heretofore, it will now take very seriously a number which the Home Renaissance Foundation has long felt was unfairly marginalised.

That’s right, from now on the ONS will use the family meal as a key statistic.

Its staff will capture and record the number of families who sit down to eat together three or more times a week.

This data will then feed into the Government’s so-called ‘happiness index’ of GWB – General Well-Being. The GWB, scorned in some quarters, offers an alternative to the strictly financial measurements contained in better known acronyms, such as GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

By looking at contentedness, rather than simply cash, the Government has sought to devise a way of monitoring something arguably far more important than spending power.

And this latest modification takes us a step further.

The new yardsticks, which include family meals, are about finding ways of measuring quality of life, without falling back on data sets which look like they ought to tell us all we need to know (for example, income, free school meals, health) but which often fail to tell us why some families thrive while others fail.

This really amounts to quite a revolution.

Listen closely to the following words: “Eating regular meals with family is…. thought to be an important factor accounting for happiness of children with family life and can strengthen children’s family bonds, sense of belonging and cultural identity.”

“The benefits of eating meals together as a family are also associated with better eating habits, nutritional intake and decreased risk of obesity.”
Is this a press release from the HRF? Nope, it is a press release – albeit from the ONS!

The government’s statistical arm goes on to argue that it aims “to capture whether children’s communications with their parents is harmonious and meaningful”.

There seems to be an acceptance here, from Whitehall, that the optimal setting for a nurturing dialogue between parents and children is around the dining table. And, interestingly, they have set the bar high. Not just once a week – but thrice.

The Government’s next step, having decided that family meals are a ‘good thing’, is to incentivise the public to follow through on that policy. And that’s where things get interesting. What is the one thing which makes family meals easier?

Cash? No.

Time? Yes.

You don’t need an Office for National Statistics to know that a family where one spouse is at home is more likely to put on family meals, than one where both parents work full-time.

A “Shockingly Domestic” Actress On The Red Carpet

It’s a strange thing. We are so conditioned to the idea – the caricature really – of what a Hollywood starlet should be, that we are shocked when they don’t always play by the rules.

Take Julianne Moore. The actress has been doing a battery of interviews recently to publicise the release of her latest film, Non-Stop, co-starring Liam Neeson. She must be a showbiz editor’s worst nightmare. Her interviews do not reveal toe-curling neuroses. No diva tantrums. No history of self-harm or drug addiction. Instead there is domesticity and a passion, not for the leading man, but for home-making! In one interview, with the Sunday Telegraph, she outed herself as “tremendously, shockingly, domestic”.
Photo: AFPNot for her an army of helpers in the kitchen. This is a woman who rejoices in telling the world that: “I make a hot breakfast for my children every day, and I always put out place mats and napkins”.

Moore, 53, says she does all her own housework. “My house is very clean and organised,” she said, reminding those of us who have never had to fret about who to thank at the Oscars, that glitz and glamour are not everything. Indeed, her comments suggest that it is possible to imagine a world in which an orderly home might be a lifeline. For those navigating their way through life in the movies, with its reputation for high-octane living, instability and short shelf-lives – there is something to be said for the deeper roots provided by a well-run home.

On one level, it might be said that Moore evinces a desire to assert some control while working in an industry whose practitioners are famously vulnerable to the whims of fashion. A home where, as a mother and a spouse, Moore draws sustenance from the  quotidian drawing-up of household rules and development of domestic regimens. I imagine that amid the ephemera of the entertainment business, the ability to pick up a vacuum cleaner or a cooking pan, and instantly see results, could be quite an antidote to the long, drawn-out process of film-making. Could the humdrum and practical throw all those sensitive showbiz egos into relief?

This is not to endow housework with transcendant properties. As Be Home has argued before, there is necessarily much about home-making that entails unheralded drudgery. But there is also something about being in control of our most sacred personal space – our home – which amounts to a privilege. It is refreshing to hear someone like Julianne Moore state candidly that she sees it that way. This is a woman who has the financial wherewithal to contract out every aspect of household management – and elects not to.

Emblematic Extravagance: The Homes of Strongmen

Opinion Piece -By Joanna Roughton

We have been here before. From Baghdad to Bucharest, from Saddam Hussain to Nicolae Ceaucescu. Tyrants or strongmen, forced from office, whose homes become emblematic of the corruption and extravagance of the ancien regime.

The latest home to be held up to this strange scrutiny belongs to  , the – seemingly – now former president of Ukraine.

Since he fled Kiev, scores of ordinary citizens, as well as photographers and journalists, have been wandering at will around the enormous house he kept an hour’s drive from the capital. There is marble and gold, chandeliers and ball-rooms. There is a golf course, a zoo, even a fake Spanish galleon. The list goes on; a litany of profligacy.

What is it about the men who exploit their countries in a fashion so predictable there is even a word – kleptocracy – to define their style of misgovernance?

And what is it that makes them want to make their home such a garish exemplification of their rule?

Because there does seem to be an identifiable stereotype here. The world is full of wealthy property owners who want their show home to be a statement of their success, their taste – or sometimes – want of it.

But there does appear to be something very particular in the way that dictators do decor. In the gaucheness so abundantly obvious in the home-cum-palace of Yanukovitch, you can almost sense the megalomaniac’s insecurity. It is money spent in a rush, splashed-out at the instruction of a man for whom money is no object, who knows that one day the mob will come crashing through the front gates.

These are homes designed to strike awe into apparatchiks, to intimidate visitors and reassure cronies. They signal to fellow travellers that they are backing the right horse. “Look at this place,” it almost screams, “stay with me and such lavishness can be yours too”.

Such a home is not designed to be comfortable. If there is an architectural purpose – it is to be credible. In the same way that the builders of bank branches would flirt with classical design, doric pillars and the like, to inculcate a belief in customers that there could never be a run on such an august institution.

A home like the one so recently vacated by Victor Yanukovitch, and his hangers-on, is not homely. They are the product of millions extorted or siphoned from the masses. And sometimes, when the putsch comes, it is to the people that they are returned.

The Home Must Prevail in the Winds of the Housing Market

-By Joanna Roughton

The average price of a house in England and Wales has now breached a quarter of a million pounds mark.

This milestone is a reminder that the chief characteristic of a home has, for many people now, become a price tag and a set of calculations. How long will it take for me to pay off the mortgage? What will it sell for? And so on.

These are entirely understandable considerations. They are predicated on a view that sees the home as an asset, a commodity to be bought and sold, an investment that can go wrong; but rarely does.

How should we at the Home Renaissance Foundation feel about such a trend?

Should we sigh when we hear another person announce that their “home is my pension” – a financial lifeboat that will save them from the razor-like rocks of penury.

Ought we to recoil at stories of ‘gazumping’, ‘gazundering’ and all the other underhand tactics employed by people whose moral compass goes haywire when the big numbers of the housing market come into play.

Or should we feel neutral. That it is nothing to do with us.

Well, here are some questions of my own.

1. Are householders less happy in their home if their decision to leave that home has nothing to do with its utility, and everything to do with the moment that property reaches a certain optimal value?

2. Might homeowners who see their property as an investment vehicle spend too long looking at it as a balance sheet, rendering them reluctant to spend money on improvements that might make it a better place to live, but which they will not recoup when they sell?

3. Do communities become less cohesive when first-time buyers cannot get on the housing ladder, increasing the number of properties in an area which are on short-term lets and whose occupiers have, ergo, less of a stake in the neighbourhood around them?

4. When a property is seen solely as an investment, it can often lie unoccupied; either as a second home or while awaiting resale at a premium. Is there a less happy home than an empty one?

I could go on. But the point is that our mission to explore the nurturing quality of the home may run counter to the prevailing winds of the housing market. This is not to wish for a slump or begrudge homeowners the right to turn a profit on their appreciating asset. It is simply to note that when we say the word ‘home’, many of those who hear it see before their eyes something very different to our ‘Vision of the Home  ’.

* An Evening Standard investigation revealed that more than 700 “ghost mansions” — worth a total of £3 billion — lie empty and unused in London.

HRF Ahead of the Curve in Tackling Obesity Through Research

-By Joanna Roughton

Every think-tank strives to be relevant and we believe our research initiatives have been ahead of the curve in key areas of social policy research.

One good example dates back to 2006. That was the year we hosted a conference entitled Excellence in the Home: Balanced Diet – Balanced Life. There were several papers assessing the importance of eating at home as a family unit. It was an area of domestic life which we felt, hitherto, had not enjoyed the fullest scrutiny from academia

Immodest it may be to say this out loud – but it seems we have been remarkably prescient. Because in recent years there has been a mounting consensus that family meals matter.

And all the time, research on this subject is delivering fresh and surprising insights which support this think-tank’s educated guess – that sitting down as a family to eat together as regularly as possible delivers a range of positive and demonstrable outcomes.

The latest data secured widespread publicity as recently as mid-January 2014. It came from the University of Illinois. The study found that children who eat with their parents at the dinner table are better able to learn the signs of feeling full, reducing the chance of overeating. The research also recommends allowing children to serve themselves instead of pre-plating food.

“Family-style meals give kids a chance to learn about things like portion size and food preferences,” lead author Dr. Brent McBride, director of the child development laboratory at the University of Illinois, said. “When foods are pre-plated, children never develop the ability to read their body’s hunger cues. They don’t learn to say, ‘OK, this is an appropriate portion size for me.’ “

What seems to be happening is that research is following the money! Obesity is arguably the most pressing public health problem, with latest projections suggesting that half of adults in the UK will be obese by 2050 (see the recent post on this one). Empirical evidence has established that there is a link between eating as a family and reduced obesity. Now the hunt is on to refine our understanding as to why that can be.

And there is no shortage of theories. Just a few months ago Brian Wansink of Cornell University in New York and Ellen van Kleef of Wageningen University in the Netherlands put together a paper which suggested that “family dinner rituals” played a key role in keeping the weight of family members under control. 

Conversation with other family members seems to be the decisive factor in this, helping diners to pace their consumption. That speed of eating matters. Columbia University found that meals were increasingly rushed affairs for a growing number of us. A survey of 1,000 teenagers in 2011 found that a third of families spent 20 minutes or less eating dinner – a six per cent rise in just two years.

Of course, it is not simply obesity that has an inverse relationship with high-quality family dinners. The HRF’s own Dr Sophia Aguirre has published research assessing the impact of not giving the family meal the space and thought it needs. Dr Aguirre has noted strong correlations between a dearth of family meals and increase in so-called risky behaviours, from drug abuse to self-harm.

She is not alone in pointing out that it is at the family dining table (an increasingly rare thing in new-build homes which are shrinking in size and often now only offer a kitchen/diner) that soft-skills are learned. Where the art of conversation is first honed. Where children learn what is appropriate behaviour in a formal setting surrounded by adult company.

Professor Dr Marta Elvira, Professor at the IESE Business School quotes Brillat-Savarin to explain how the very necessity of nourishment may have led us to take it for granted. We may also have taken it for granted that people would learn healthy eating around the family dining table.

Professor Elvira shows how preparing and sharing meals is a central social action with important consequences for physical and psychological wellbeing.

So, well done to the pioneers of the HRF. The tide of research is gathering strength around a subject we have helped unwrap. The next step will be to gently persuade policy-makers that a family meal is a social good that sensible governments can and should make possible as a priority for all.

For further reading please click on the links below:

Domestic Imaginaries: The Role of Homes in Film, Literature and Popular Culture

Yesterday Home Renaissance Foundation’s Research Coordinator participated as a delegate at the Symposium “Domestic Imaginaries: Homes in Film, Literature and Popular Culture” at the University of Nottingham.


The conference addressed both symbolic and material elements of the home through panels from such perspectives as “Materializing Home”, “Homes away from the House”, “Nation, Home and Identity”, “Migrant Homes” and “Femininity and the Home”.  The conference explored extensive audiovisual materials, including a screening of several short films about the home and the concept of domesticity.

Among the highlights of the conference were lively discussions following the keynote address “Justifiable Home-icide? Clutter, ‘Thing –Power’ and Light-Green Living by Dr. Tracy Potts, exploring the concepts of clutter and hoarding in the home and their interaction with green consumerism and sustainability.  The second keynote addressed the striving for a better sensory future through both sound and light, in relation to the modern British Home in a presentation by James Mansell entitled “Lighting the Modern British Home: Towards a ‘New Jerusalem’, 1920-1955”.

Home Renaissance Foundation was pleased to be represented among distinguished academics and practitioners at the forefront of research on the home, including delegates from universities from four continents, as well as prestigious UK institutions including the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Queen Mary and Nottingham as well as the London-based Geffrye Museum of the Home.Image