I took a research trip to Brighton to see for myself how airbnb works. The place I choose was based on a lot of recommendations, the central location, and the affordable rate. The photos on air bnb presented a neat and quirky apartment.
(Above: welcome note)
I never once met the owner, which seemed very odd. This kind of trust in strangers is certainly unusual and most people I spoke to after, consented that they would never let strangers into their house whilst they were absent. We were given free reign of the house and could’ve done what we had liked but out respect and civility, (and fear of being caught) we were cautious in our browsing. The owner’s bedroom was left undisturbed and the cupboards untouched.
Being let into someone’s private space that I had never met before, I found myself constructing the image of the owner from the furniture, notes on the fridge, ornaments and books. I drew conclusions that I will never be able to validate.
There were still uncertain boundaries of social etiquette that I assume anyone would question when staying in a stranger’s house. Although I had paid to stay, was it ok for me to use the kitchen and the owner’s crockery or utensils? I assumed it would be awkward to start cooking a meal, but I was also too uncomfortable to make tea. Could I take a bath if I wanted to? And were the towels left out in the bathroom for us to use? These are the kind of questions that wouldn’t arise in a hotel.
In the morning, when I finally heard the owner in the next room, I had come to realise that they probably didn’t want to meet us. It was easier for them to get on with their own business than making forced polite conversation with people they will never see again.
After my stay, I felt that there is definite scope for design in a lot of aspects of airbnb and similar sites. I could well have been a complete stranger to Brighton and had no idea of where to go and what to do, thinking that I would have been able to rely on the host for information. The only guide left for us was an A to Z of Brighton. Another aspect to investigate is how can an owner depersonalise their house for strangers staying? What can be done to stop guests exploiting a host’s facilities and resources?
Mapping my area
I illustrated personally significant landmarks of my local area.
RIBA - BBC Radio 4
I went to panel discussion at RIBA a couple of weeks ago, for BBC Radio Four’s Thinking Allowed on the subject of Home. The panel was varied with a Dr in Sociology and Politics, the RIBA president, an architecture critic and a Cambridge professor.
The idea that the British have an obsession with home ownership was very prevalent and the panel discussed whether or not it was actually important for us to own our own homes. It seems to be the aspiration and the British ideal to own a home even though it’s a long-term investment and personal commitment that leaves people with a huge weight on their shoulders. It was pointed out that most people don’t really own their home as banks and building societies lend us the money to pay for them.
On the other hand, the importance of having a stable and comfortable home is imperative, especially as so many of us look back on the homes of our upbringing with imbued nostalgia. The conception is that ‘home’ is not necessarily a static space or place; it is an evolving process that is an expression of our personality. It’s the practises and relationships within the home that make it.
There was an across-the-board agreement that the homes being built now are not up to scratch with the much higher standards of post-war housing.But we as consumers should be demanding better homes, instead of buying into these generic, poorly built estates built by private companies. Discussion arose about how we can live a sustainable future and put imagination into the planning system.
Multigenerational homes and co-housing were suggested. The critic Jonathan Glancey advocated the interesting architectural designs of cross-sections of old Parisian apartments, in which he intricately described,
‘in the attic there would be a lonely poet drinking, and down below there would be someone playing the violin writing a wonderful score, then there would be a sociologist and philosopher and a president of an institution living with their families…’
Architects and planners need to build communities and homes where people can really find their own sense of privacy, identity, and communality in the narrow confines of a city. If people choose to live alone it doesn’t mean they want to be isolated. The panel suggested we consider the complexity of use for buildings that offer flexibility: with young and old people living together, people working from home and the importance of outdoor space.
From the discussion it became clear that the rise in home networking sites is ever more significant. It could be looked at in several ways, either we could be seeing our homes as financial assets providing a means of income by following business models, therefore becoming somewhere between a home and hotel. Or perhaps our homes become increasingly public places for transient tenants and an increase in sharing accommodation for a more socialist vision so are homes are re-designed to accommodate strangers.
A quick prototype looking at how I can make basic crockery look more luxurious. I vinyl cut an ornate pattern and painted a mug gold to give the impression of gold leaf. The secret component: nail polish.
onefinestay is a company that acts as a go-between linking holidaymakers with one of a kind accommodation – peoples’ homes.
They find the most elegant, interesting and upmarket homes in London (in zones 1-2) and provide a service that facilitates the householder to transform their home into vacation rental when they’re away. It is a chance for homeowners to earn extra cash and tourists to have an authentic and local experience.
onefinestay is in effect, a hotel service, providing a concierge, cleaning, soaps, towels and linen for each home. I interviewed someone from their team to discuss the company and find out in depth what they offer.
The idea behind onefinestay is clever and unique by following the model of a hotel but the principles of local and personal tourism such as Couchsurfing and airbnb. It is a promising business model. They have a found a formal exclusivity overlooked by airbnb, but also discount the need for host and guest interaction.
I like their small touches such as tamper tape on drawers to prevent (or perhaps encourage) noisiness and the welcome pack that has a letter and house rules. Each guest is greeted by someone from onefinestay and shown around.
They have paid a lot of attention to detail by making postcards of each house and even taking the archetypal ‘do not disturb’ sign and turning it into marketing flyer to advertise their company.
I am interested in whether the concepts behind onefinestay can be adapted for more affordable and shabbier homes and if we can do this ourselves. How can we prepare our homes for a stranger coming and make this acceptable to everyone? I want to adapt the home to become a temporary public space by providing a service that delivers the means to transform it into a temporary hotel. Im sure are many ways we can ‘dress’ our homes up and secret ways to make our houses to look swankier than they are.
It is impossible to find the perfect housemate or guest and how we portray ourselves online is often completely different to how we really are. Facebook should be called, ‘Life edited (to the good parts)’. On the Couchsurfing and other sites, people make their profiles upbeat and lively. We have to advertise ourselves to look appealing and amiable. But someone virtually is a different experience to the reality. It is a big step from seeing someones profile to actually having them in your house in the flesh. Maybe we should be more honest.
Homes and Hotels
From exploring idea of tours and guides I am intrigued in how we navigate our way around spaces, particularly in homes and hotels. I am interested in how they are structured and designed for our movement, why and where furniture is placed and what we portray about ourselves through furnishings and decoration.
The disparity between hotels is immense, which is why there are different set standards determined by a star rating. Researching on Airbnb, you can compare the prices of different accommodation, and see that there is effectively an invisible star rating dependent on what the host offers (pool or rooftop views perhaps) their location and furnishings.
I want to know where the line is drawn between home and hotel because of the plethora of home networking sites. It seems that many people are willing to open up their homes to strangers. So can we prepare our houses for stranger staying? There are issues of trust, sanitation and privacy to consider. I spoke to a friend’s mother who said she would never have anyone to stay she didn’t know in her house because of,
“Security, obviously you’ve got all your possessions, money and valuable things left around and also you don’t know what their personal habits are, they might not fit in with yours and if they’re going to use your kitchen. Are they clean are they tidy? And using all your facilities I just don’t think it’s a very good idea. And you don’t know what sort of personal sanity they’ve got, they might do some sort of wacky things in the night or something….”
When it comes to opening up their homes I think some people follow quite a ridged hotel business model to give themselves distance from a guest, where as there are plenty of people who are less unconcerned about the condition their house and who stays.
To gain a little more insight I went to look at two very opposing hotels. The first was the Premier Inn, which was as expected, highly standardised with no variety between the rooms and minimal furnishings. Everything is colour coded in their signature white and purple, and the furniture is basic and unadorned. The overall style is no-frills, disinfected; and supplies your basic needs: bed, bathroom, and generously, tea-making facilities.
I undertook a transformation for the second hotel visit from poor student to wealthy, engaged woman. I was given a tour by the hotel’s concierge in a renowned 5 star hotel in Central London of two suites each starting at £1500 a night. Both consisted of a living room, bedroom, walk in wardrobe and bathroom. Each had its own style and signature decoration and some of the furniture was especially created for the rooms. There were fresh white towels, bathrobes, magazines artfully placed on the coffee table (Vogue etc.), soaps, two T.Vs, flowers and butler service. Marbled floored bathrooms, thickly carpeted bedrooms, and carefully chosen paint for the walls with old-fashioned touches such as skirting boards, borders and crown molding. The overall feel was, grandeur, elegance and comfort nonetheless at an inflated cost.
Thus, with a growing culture of home networking or as I will name it ‘Domestic Tourism’ how can the model of a hotel inspire us to adapt our homes for temporariness? I would like to design subtle and economical alterations to modify our homes for someone staying. A lot of what hotels provide is a carefully planned and branded experience, so I want capture this with a third party facilitator to these existing sites.
Continuing my research into guides, I booked myself onto the Jack the Ripper tour around East London. Positive reviews on trip adviser encouraged my spur of the moment decision. I didn’t take into consideration the temperature that evening: -2 degrees. Even my 6 layers and 3 pairs of socks didn’t let me forget about it. The tour itself was fascinating. I didn’t appreciate the outing’s popularity till we saw all the competing tour operators performing in the same spots with groups huddled around them. The rivalry seemed a serious matter, spurring on enemy spectators to slyly whisper “our tour’s better than yours” as they passed us. In Mitre Square known disturbingly as, ’Ripper Corner’ there were at least 5 other groups. I expected some kind of dance off between us at any minute.
One aspect I believe that led our tour to be superior was the guide’s ‘Ripper vision’, aka a mini projector. He had put the time in to edit the Victorian building facades onto photos of the existing buildings today, and also projected photos of the murdered women. Till I saw the pictures, I had forgotten how horrific the killings were. It made me question everyone’s morbid fascination with them, as well as reminding me of the tuna salad I’d eaten earlier, which unexpectedly made me quite nauseous. I do think the projector brought the tour alive, but the guide was also talented at recounting the stories and describing the Victorian east end. It was ‘the poor, the very poor or the homeless’ surviving on the lowest standards of living at that time. I will definitely never be able to see east London in the same way again.
The highlight may have been when we were stood outside a former women’s doss house, which is now part of London School of Economics. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a bored student watching us out the window, and as the guide was in mid-flow, the student had some sort of inspirational brainwave and began to re-enact a murder scene by pretending to earnestly stab one of his fellow peers. All in good taste.
I went to visit the historic residential home of the 18th century author and lexicographer, Dr. Johnson a couple of weeks ago to remind myself of how restored public homes are presented and preserved and how we conduct ourselves in such an environment. What do we learn about the occupants and the way they lived from seeing their home and work place? The house is hidden away in an unusual setting within the City of London, next to the urban, privatised and sterile New Street Square which can been seen from looking out the windows of Johnson’s house.
Instead of wondering aimlessly from room to room, I took an audio guided tour which made the visit much more interesting. Perhaps it is a lazy man’s audio book, but I found that it gave the history of the house a sense of a personal narrative and a set structure, which I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.
There is something very intimate about audio guides, in the same way as when you listen to your own music through headphones. Being directed through he house with a scripted account made me feel much more knowledgeable and painted a picture of how the house was used.
Each house has stories and memories collected over the years. What if we all had audio guides for our homes? Or if a couch surfer or guest were to stay it could be a different way of showing them your home. Due to the rise in home networking services such as CouchSurfing and Airbnb, many people’s homes are becoming increasingly more public. I made a video of how we could present our homes in the form of a hotel.
The Kindness of Strangers
I decided to join the CouchSurfing network to fully understand the breaking down of privacy boundaries, as it literally is letting a stranger into your home. I’ve heard a lot of positive and interesting stories from friends about CouchSurfing and was really intrigued to find out more. What I didn’t realise is that I would discover a whole new community. CouchSurfing instantly facilitates encounters with new people from all over the world in an open and (hopefully) honest environment. Your judgements on whether to stay with someone or host him or her are made quickly and perhaps alarmingly just from someone’s profile, akin to the old days of MySpace. People list their interests with as much detail as they like, from their favourite films to their ‘philosophy’ that is usually as predictably cheesy as you can imagine. You can read references left by friends and other couchsurfers, which is a good initiative but really puts on the pressure to leave a good impression so that you aren’t blacklisted with a negative reference.
It seems like the future of judging people and even meeting them is ever increasingly done online. Websites like Facebook and dating sites encourage and determine the use of technology as an agent for developing friendship and ‘finding the one’. Or perhaps in a lot of people’s cases induce you to unashamedly stalk people you barely know. How many times have you seen one of your friend’s family, housemates or friends in photographs before you’ve even met them and then upon finally being introduced have to pretend you like you don’t know them?
So from judging the person’s profile we choose whether to except them as a guest or request them to host you. Are more people judged on their photographs or what they write? Do we accept people from some countries and not others? Are ‘CouchSurfers’ as open-minded as we like to believe? I’m pretty sure that some people abuse the concept CouchSurfing and treat it as a dating site, although I am not dismissing this practice. It certainly becomes a lot harder to meet people when you are stuck in the daily grid of a full time job. Having new and exotic people come and stay with you as often as you’d like could make life a lot more interesting. I have heard stories of people starting a romance or crudely putting it, having a one-night-stand. Questionably, I do not think this is the usual custom, but not to be dismissed with two like-minded, consenting adults.
Anyhow, my own reasons and experience of CouchSurfing are entirely virtuous. I am using it as a chance to meet new people from different countries and essentially I am curious to see if there design opportunities to discover. I had my first couch surfer come and stay with me last week.
She was friendly and intelligent, putting me to shame by speaking four languages. I enjoyed hosting her for two nights, however I also had another close friend of mine staying with me so I think she helped me to relieve the pressure of having to constantly think of entertaining conversation. Obviously, there were few uncertainties such as do I offer food? Being a frugal student and already having a friend staying for the weekend I didn’t want to fork out of food for someone I haven’t met before. I was more than happy to offer some of my dinner but what about breakfast? It was socially unacceptable for me to sit in front of her eating my breakfast without offering anything. Another small problem was that one of my housemates was completely against the idea of a stranger sleeping in our house. Thankfully, it wasn’t as awkward as I had dreaded. The dynamics and complexities of CouchSurfing serve as interesting insights to how the model can be adapted and tailored by the host or the guest.
The couch surfer also wanted me to show her around central London more than I could, which made me realise that there is an element of being a tour guide with hosting people. Admittedly, I was not interested in seeing Big Ben again, but I was more than happy to show the local spots. Dependent on where and whom you stay with can paint a very different picture of a city, which is invariably the essence of CouchSurfing, experiencing the place from a unique and personal perspective. Overall, I found the experience enjoyable and insightful. I have my next couch surfer coming to stay this week.
Letting People In
The mode of photography in our own lives has developed rapidly in recent years; we are willing to show off our photos to the rest of the world through many different virtual sites such as Facebook, Flickr and various blogs. Even though our lives in some respects have become increasingly private, progressively dispersed and our homes ever more guarded we are willing to publicise our lives digitally. I would undoubtedly consider this to be a counter culture against privatization.‘In the virtual world, ideas about privacy are changing at the ground level and what we do online will have a greater impact upon future privacy laws than any legislation that results from the current offline inquiry’ states Aleks Krotoski in an article for The Observer [Krotoski, 2011].To a certain extent we are virtually inviting people into our private lives. We may communicate with people through social networking that we barely know, but I would be surprised if most people even spoke to their neighbours. But what interests me the most about unraveling and exposing the private realms of homes is how can I achieve this myself?
The answer already exists by taking the step beyond the virtual into reality in the form of the cultural and social phenomenon of hospitality exchanges via social networking. The movement has developed into a diverse array of sites promoting travel and independence such as: couchsurfing.org, airbnb.com and helpx.net among others inspire young and old minds. Helpx has been set up for travellers on a limited budget where they,’work up to 28 hours a week in exchange for food and accommodation’ [Cahalane, 2011]. People’s attitudes are changing to become more adaptable, flexible and adjustable.
The idea of couch surfing has been around for many years; staying on friends sofa’s or people’s couches through recommendation. But now it has become a fully formed legitimate internet- based network for users. CouchSurfing was set up ‘in 2004 and has grown to more than 2.4 million members’ [Kittle, 2011] Essentially the very core of CouchSurfing is trust.The very notion of ‘sleeping with strangers’ [Aslop, 2006] would be deemed absurd to many, nonetheless one only has to look the number of people involved to realise that it is a realistic, viable and a spur of the moment option. CouchSurfing facilitates the breaking down of privacy on an enormous scale. Its success has motivated Stanford University to carry out research on the CouchSurfing website. They explain,‘Since lack of trust may be at the root of problems such as corruption and poverty, they believe that figuring out how to build trust can benefit society as a whole’ [Santos, 2010]. Since the lack of trust is an ever-growing issue due to unequal societies the opening up of homes to strangers is a seminal feat achieved by CouchSurfing.