Design of home can affect mood, experts say


Everyone has had the experience of walking into a house and feeling immediately at home. And even in a real estate market driven by fear, inflated prices and a scarcity of buyers, finding that personal place of security has value that goes well beyond economics.

"People's response to the physical environment and architecture and interiors and so on is primarily an emotional response," says Susan Painter, senior planner and director of research at AC Martin Partners Inc., and a principal at ForrestPainter Design, which she runs with her sister Constance Forrest. "We've studied neurobiology and brain development, and one of the things that we know is that emotion and our response to the physical environment are all stored in the same part of the brain as the content of experience."

Because of this, the way a home is designed affects how a person feels on a daily basis. "People definitely have a nesting instinct, because establishing security is a primary need," says Painter. "And one of the configurations that people are very attracted to is something that is described as refuge and prospect. If you think of when people evolved, and they were living in caves, people were looking for a safe, enclosed place and then a way to look out over the distance to see what was coming. Enemies? Saber-toothed tigers?"

Of course, when it comes to what is many people's biggest financial investment, their needs and desires extend far beyond a simple room with a view. Frank Lloyd Wright believed that California awakens in people an urge to reinvent themselves. Many people live out these fantasies through their houses: Spanish Colonials that dial into Southern California's romantic missionary past; contemporary dwellings that project a feeling of newness; downtown lofts that tap into the bohemian world of starving artists and industrial chic; Craftsman houses that convey a sense of heritage and closeness to nature. "Often the people who buy authentic Craftsman-style homes are craftsmen themselves who undertake the complex and detailed restoration of the original doors, moldings, etc.," says Painter, adding that even McMansions -- those enormous homes built on lots intended for dwellings half their size -- connect people to the tradition of English manor houses and make them feel like lords of their own domains.

There are many social forces that have led to homes becoming an increasingly important expression of identity. "A lot of people are working from home, and they're spending more and more time at home," says DAK Kopec, associate professor at the New School of Architecture & Design in San Diego. "A lot of people are looking for unique homes, which often translates to the older homes, which in Southern California tends to translate to lower square footage. So you're looking at homes between 900 and maybe 1,700 square feet. The solution has been to put additions onto older homes (but) that opens up the whole can of worms with the city permitting process, and that tends to be stressful."

When it comes to the mood of our nation as a whole, no trend speaks more loudly than the midcentury modern home craze. "People are going back to them partially because that period of time -- the late '40s and '50s and '60s -- was a time of tremendous optimism; (there was) a very strong sense of security in the country as a whole," says Painter. "The financial markets are jittery and weird, and there's a huge housing bubble. People are maybe going back to that midcentury tradition because it provides a sense of us having control over what's going to happen."  


OVERVIEW: Home designs affect mood

Home view: Snapshot of house styles and furnishings:
Mid-century modern