Dwelling, House or Home?

Dwelling, House or Home?

Written by Raymond Smith
APRIL 2024

What does it mean to dwell, what informs the shape and program of a house and what makes a home as opposed to just a place to seek shelter in? These are some of the questions on the topic of home which have received much contemplation in human history by poets, philosophers, designers, and architects alike.

Let’s have a brief walk through this space, the idea of home, which means different things to us all and have taken on many shapes and forms through history.

“Ever since the primitive hut – the U-form of man-made shelter – the primitive house has symbolised a roof over the head, the desire for privacy, for a piece of land we can call our own. At the same time, it is a status symbol, an expression of our freedom and individuality. For within our own four walls, we can do as we please, with no interference. Here we can realise our personal ideas. But how close do we get to this sought-after individuality? All across the country, sprawling new developments present an identical picture: “dream homes’ set into the landscape without imagination.”

The Single-Family House: Myth and Reality, 2005

We live our lives in time and space and therefore we also express and experience such within and through our environs. The subject relates to our relationship with a sense of place or in the way that Christian Norberg-Schulz wrote about in his Genius Loci 1: Towards a Phenomenology 2 of Architecture,1979).

In Genius Loci, Norberg-Schulz explains that we dwell when we feel orientated and can identify ourselves with an environment which is meaningful to us. “Dwelling” therefore implies something more than “shelter”. It implies that the spaces where life occurs are places, in the true sense of the word. A place is a space which has a distinct character” (Norberg-Schulz, 1979:5). It is this genius loci or “spirit of place” which we have to reconcile ourselves within our everyday lives which makes up our “concrete reality”, and it is the function of the architect to visualise it by making “meaningful places” to help us to dwell thereby providing us with an “existential foothold”. Environmental character is made up of concrete things with substance which has colour, texture and form which gives a specific place an identity with which we connect and associate occurrences with. Our existence therefore takes place in a place, they coexist. The bold emphasis in the first sentence was added by me, as it summarises a core issue necessary to dwell. It is a basic requirement which must be satisfied prior to building a home in a specific place.

Norberg-Schulz in The Concept of Dwelling, also explored the word “dwelling”, which clearly means much more than just a roof over the head and some space to use. “First, it means to meet others for exchange of products, ideas and feelings, that is, to experience life as a multitude of possibilities. Second, it means to come to an agreement with others, that is, to accept a set of common values. Finally, it means to be oneself, in the sense of having a small chosen world of our own.” It of course also referrers to the idea of authenticity, of being true to the authentic self. This idea is the origin of the term authenticity.

Norberg-Schulz continues by referring to “modes, collective, public and private dwelling.” Collective dwelling refers to the urban created spaces and places with its institutional buildings making up the public dwelling with the house being the private individual space. Therefore the “settlement, urban space, institution and house constitute a total environment.” This environment is however acted out on a given, the landscape with its specific qualities and character. Place, in this sense therefore, pre-exists and continues to co-exist in a relationship with the built environment. “To dwell, therefore, also means to become friends with a natural place.” For Norberg-Schulz, Orientation and identification are the two cornerstones for dwelling to occur as it is satisfied through organized place and built form which culminates into “the concrete place.” (Norberg-Schulz, 1984). It must be noted that the dwelling itself also functions with parameters/ zones of public, semi-public and private spaces in mind and serves as a micro-organism within the broader macro eco-system of the built and natural environment. We too often regard ourselves as functioning outside or next to the natural environment, but in reality, we are very much a part of the bigger natural eco-system. Nature is not something separate from our existence to be tamed or controlled, but rather the essence of our existence with which we should harmonise our lives with.

A deep human need exists for associations with significant places.


This implies that we would also care about heritage conservation 3 of places and things we regard, as the need for a continuum in the human experience is necessary for emotional happiness. In the introduction of Place and Placelessness, Seamon & Sowers stated: “Geographers have long spoken of the importance of place as the unique focus distinguishing geography from other disciplines. Astronomy has the heavens, History has time, and Geography has place.” I would like to add that Architecture concerns itself with all the above and include phenomenology, the human cultural experience.

In The poetics of space, Gaston Bachelard (1958:3), states that “it is not enough to consider the house as an ‘object’ on which we make our judgments and daydreams react.” Bachelard refers to the geographer who can provide descriptions of the various typologies, but the phenomenologist “seize upon the germ of the essential, sure, immediate well-being it encloses.” To uncover the ‘original shell’, as a way to understand the primary attachment and function of inhabiting is important as our memory of past experiences and images of shelter works in conjunction with our imagination. For Bachelard “an entire past comes to dwell in a new house. This means that our total human experience to date therefore finds expression through our architectural design decisions. In the same way that we have to carefully consider what we think, say, write or act out, we have to especially consider what we build as it has an impact beyond ourselves and our lifetime.

You may seek for the end of the rainbow
Over mountains and valleys afar,
You may wend weary miles in your questing
Until evening blossoms a star–
When homeward you turn, disappointed,
Heartsick at the end of your dream-
You see from your small cottage window
A bright, broad ruddy beam
That beckons you in “O come hither,
Too long from the fireside you roam,
The goal of real joy that you seek for
Is found nowhere else but at home!

To our Good House

Not unlike most other human endeavours, histories on how humans have sheltered themselves through the ages in various parts of the world are not short in supply, and rightly so, if Wilson is correct by pointing out in The Domestication of the human species, that the most important advance in human social evolution occurred when we started living in houses (Wilson, 1988). When contemplating Wilson’s remark, it makes sense for various reasons as expressed by Norberg-Schulz in The Concept of Dwelling earlier. Building a house forced us to negotiate with others, the community, to agree on where and how we can settle. It brought about technological advances such as agriculture and how to manage water for use where we needed it. Further to this, it introduced the notion of ‘care’ for our surroundings as we became concerned about whatever happens in this place where we built our home.

In Witold Rybczynski’s A Short History of an Idea Home (1986), he provides a brief account of five centuries of human habitation from the ‘hall’ concept in the Middle Ages, in which the owners, their children and workers lived together without privacy. Animals were kept in the basement and the time of day determined the function of the space. It explores developments and ways of living up to contemporary expressions of open plan houses and other modes of dwelling. As in all histories worth reading, it provides an account on how changing social and cultural influences determined their design.

A more critical and current account on the subject would be Living Complex by Niklas Maak (2015), which provides a short history from the Neanderthal man who lived in large groups with temporary shelters as their homes, through to the hunter-gatherers of the various stone ages who lived in caves and later in skin covered huts, among other. An interesting observation referred to is that the single-family home was in fact not an invention of the nineteenth century. According to Maak, houses occupied by single families existed even in ancient Ostia, second century AD, referred to as ‘domus’ which consisted of two levels for one family. The norm seems to have been large homesteads in which extended families lives. He reminds us that the idea of the nuclear family lifestyle was promoted with the emergence of social differentiation which led to the formation of the middle class and that “prior to industrialization the norm was the extended family, the village community, and prior to that, the horde, …” Apparently workers preferred the convenience of living in extended families as it provided for assistance with children, food and care in times of illness. The single- family unit none the less prevailed, at least in Britain, for various ideological, political, and probably economic expediency reasons through the ‘cottage economy’ nuclear-family habitation of the time. In short, since the advent of the industrial revolution, a woman’s place was at home to cook and care for the children while the husband had to leave the house every day to go to work. That was the model which was regarded as the norm for a few generations. Maak takes us further in advocating new creative ways of living such as exploring notions of ‘collective living’, ‘communal living’, ‘shared space’ and more. It provides a good analysis on contemporary urban spatial problems with specific reference to various housing experiments, modalities and typologies.

Perhaps it is time that we stop building houses, but rather create homes. The latter takes more care to realise but, is worth the effort in the long term as it not only satisfies the inhabitants but is also regarded by the community. Such homes are sustainable and contributes to human cohesion, health and happiness as they care as much for it’s inhabitants as the inhabitants care for them over time.

Home is a safe, a calm retreat,
To rest the weary soul;
Home makes one’s happiness complete,
Where love commands the whole.


In closing, a list of concepts describing various typologies of dwellings / houses / homes drawn from familiar English dictionaries — Oxford; Cambridge and Collins.

  • Abodea place of residence; a house or home.
  • Accommodationa room, group of rooms, or building in which someone may live or stay.
  • Apartment – a flat, typically one that is well appointed or used for holidays.
  • Barnhouse (Byre-dwelling) – a historical house type of a combined house and barn.
  • Berth a fixed bunk on a ship, train, or other means of transport.
  • Biosphere a region of the surface and atmosphere of the earth or another planet occupied by living organisms.
  • Burrow a hole or tunnel dug by a small animal, especially a rabbit, as a home.
  • Cabin a small wooden shelter or house in a wild or remote area.
  • Cave a natural underground chamber in a hillside or cliff.
  • Collective housinga way to share space and time to enrich and support the lives of residents.
  • Commune a group of people living together and sharing possessions and responsibilities.
  • Condo an individually owned residential unite in a complex or building of like units.
  • Condominium a building or complex of buildings containing a number of individually owned apartments or houses.
  • Cottage a small house, typically one in the country.
  • Crib a child’s bed with barred or lattice sides; a cot.
  • Den a wild mammal’s hidden home; a liar.
  • Dig a room that you pay rent to live in.
  • Domicile the country that a person treats as their permanent home, or lives in and has a substantial connection with.
  • Dormitory a large bedroom for a number of people in a school or institution.
  • Dwelling a house, flat or other place of residence.
  • Duplex a residential building divided into two apartments.
  • Environment the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates.
  • Flat a set of rooms for living in, usually on one floor and part of a larger building.
  • Haven a place of safety or refuge.
  • Habitat natural environment of an organism.
  • Haunt a place frequented by a specified person.
  • Home the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.
  • Homestead a house, especially a farmhouse, and outbuildings.
  • Hostel an establishment which provides inexpensive food and lodging for a specific group of people, such as students, workers or travellers.
  • House a building for human habitation, especially one that consists of a ground floor and one or more upper storeys.
  • Housing houses and flats considered collectively.
  • Landscape all the visible features of an area of land, often considered in terms of their aesthetic appeal.
  • Lifeworld all the immediate experiences, activities, and contacts that make up the world of an individual or corporate life.
  • Locale a place where something happens or is set, or that has particular events associated with it.
  • Lodge temporary accommodation.
  • Mitwelt an individual’s social or cultural environment.
  • Nest a structure or place made or chosen by a bird for laying eggs and sheltering its young.
  • Nook a corner or recess, especially one offering seclusion or security.
  • Pad a place where one lives.
  • Penthouse an apartment or dwelling on the roof of a building, usually set back from the outer walls.
  • Place a particular position, point or area in space: a location.
  • Residence a person’s home, especially a large and impressive one.
  • Room a space which can be occupied or where something can be done.
  • Row housinga single-family home set at the same point on the property line as its neighbouring units, sharing a common wall, roofline and generally, a consistent exterior design.
  • Settlement a place, typically one which has previously been uninhabited, where people establish a community.
  • Shelter a place giving temporary protection from bad weather or danger.
  • Site area of ground on which a town, building, or monument is constructed.
  • Simplex a property which is in a sectional title development constructed on a single level.
  • Sustainability the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level. Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.
  • Space the dimensions of height, depth and width within which all things exist and move.
  • Terrain a stretch of land, especially with regard to its physical features.
  • Territory an area of land under the jurisdiction of a ruler or state.
  • Town housea tall, narrow traditional terraced house, generally having three or more floors.
  • Uberwelt religious or spiritual beliefs about the ideal world, the way an individual wants the world to be.
  • Umwelt the world as it is experienced by a particular organism.
  • Quarters be stationed or lodged in a specified place.


  1. Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, (1958).
  2. Binswanger, Ludwig. Heidegger’s analytic of existence and its meaning for psychiatry. In J.Needleman Ed. Being-in-the-world. New York: Basic Books, (1963).
  3. Dawkins, Richard. The Extended Phenotype. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1982).
  4. Heidegger, Martin. Building Dwelling Thinking from Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper Colophon, (1971).
  5. Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment. Routledge, (2000).
  6. Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, (1991).
  7. Maak, Niklas. The Living Complex: From Zombi City to the New Communal. Munich: Hirmer Verlag GmbH, (2015).
  8. Moran, Dermot. Introduction to Phenomenology. London: Routledge, (2000).
  9. Norberg-Schulz, Christian. Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. New York: Rizzoli, (1979).
  10. Norberg-Schulz, Christian. The Concept of Dwelling. New York: Rizzoli, (1984).
  11. Pearson, M.P. and C. Richards. Ordering the World: perceptions of architecture, space and time. In Architecture and order: approaches to social space. eds M.P. Pearson and C. Richards. London: Routledge, (1994: 1-37).
  12. Relph, Edward. Place and Placelessness. London: Rion, (1976).
  13. Rybczynski, Witold. Home: A Short History of an Idea. New York: Penguin Books, (1987).
  14. Seamon, David & Robert Mugerauer. Dwelling, Place and Environment. Netherlands: Springer, (1985).
  15. Schittich, Christian (ed.). In Detail. Single Family Houses: Myth and Reality. Berlin: Birkhȁuser. (2005).
  16. Wilson, Peter J. The Domestication of the human species. New Haven: Yale University Press, (1988).
  17. Glossary of Psychology: Uberwelt
  18. Discover Poetry: Poems about Home
  19. Drawings by the author Raymond Smith


1 Genius Locithe prevailing character or atmosphere of a place.

2 Phenomenologyan approach that concentrates on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience.

3 Heritage Conservationthe measures taken to extend the life of cultural heritage while strengthening transmission of its significant heritage messages and values.