Sunday, January 9, 2011

Domestic bliss and the keys thereto

In the short time I've been married, I've come to realize that the key to domestic bliss is having a theoretical framework before engaging in delicate negotiations. (Before you snigger, no, "negotiation" isn't meant euphamistically like routes to other kinds of bliss: "commerce", "congress", "intercourse", "relations", "union"; though you might find the rest of this post much more entertaining if you add a dash of your own innuendo.)

The wife and I are thinking that we might not want to spend the rest of our lives together in a 1200 ft2 apartment. Before plonking down hard cash on something with a volatile price, we thought it might be good to figure out what we (collectively) want, so while the wife looked at house listings, I came up with a theoretical framework to save our marriage from the stress that hasty decisions would lead to decades from now.

Observation 1: When buying a house, you usually have to buy the whole house. You can't buy the kitchen and bedroom and not pay for the formal dining room. Which parts are valuable to me and which aren't?

Observation 2: When selling a house, people expect certain things. In addition to the obvious walls, they expect a foyer, and many houses devote more space to baths than to showers. Since Winston Churchhill, has there been a gainfully employed adult with time to take baths?

Observation 3: After living in small apartments in San Francisco for a decade and change, I struggle to imagine what we could do with 7000 ft2. What do people do with 13000 ft2 houses? Sharks with laser beams? I need a way to separate the definitely useless from the merely probably excessive.

So I want a way to think about the following questions:

  • How much is a given existing house worth to me?
  • Of two houses with rooms of the same dimensions, and the same fixtures, but different layouts, which should I prefer?
  • Given time and a plot of land, what should I build on it, and what should I build now?

Being a reductionist, I will try to answer these questions by dividing each concrete house into smaller abstract houses.

Each quality of the real house (the existence of a room, a fixture, a nice material or finishing, and qualities like the view, location, neighbors, and availability of jobs) goes into at most one of these houses and I should be able to easily classify things as I walk around a house or look at a plan.

A practical house
The portion of the house that its inhabitants use on a regular basis. At a minimum, this includes the master-bedroom, a front-door, and a bathroom. Unless the nature of your work makes it impossible to bring it home, it will almost certainly include some kind of quiet study space.
Note: Bachelors, this may not include the kitchen.
An entertaining house
The portion of the house (not in the practical house above) that encourages wanted guests to visit. This probably includes guest rooms, extra pantry space, wet bar, extra parking, and any dedicated dining room.
Note: See "safe house" re unwanted guests.
A safe house / a contingent house
That portion of the house that you hope you will never use, but might. This includes your alarms, guns, flashlight batteries, canned food, fire-extinguisher, and other things that you want to be able to lay your hands on quickly; but that you'd lose if mixed in with your everyday things. Unless you're older or disabled, this probably includes any elevators.
Note: Survivalists, this includes your moat, bomb shelter, life boat, escape pods, and extra ammo.
Note: Yuppies, this includes your portable wealth, "the hounds" and their release switch, and that earthquake preparedness kit you've never opened.
Note: Hipsters, this includes your zombie preparedness kit, and the sealed cache of LPs that you're preserving for future generations.
Note: Zombies, no, brains go under (1).
An ornamental house
That portion of the house that exists solely to impress non-inhabitants to allow resale or to meet legal requirements. This probably includes any formal dining room, and most if not all baths.
Note: New-Agers, this does not include your chakra attuned crystal chandelier.

Hopefully as the examples make clear, this is a subjective assessment. A particular feature, like a pool, might be practical to some people who swim often, entertaining to people who want to entice their grandkids to visit, may be an essential safety feature to someone who is afraid of catching on fire, or might be an ornamental feature when every other house on the block has a pool. Finally it might not be in any house, an expensive hazard to busy parents with a toddler.

Is there anything I'm likely to want in a house that doesn't fit in these four houses?

If the residents don't want to use it (1), guests don't want to use it (2), it's not useful just in case (3), and it's not required for resale or for appearances, then why should it be part of the house?

This will not satisfy a pack-rat, to which I respond, "Don't be a pack-rat!" I have no better argument for its completeness than that I haven't seen a counter-example ; I've tried applying this taxonomy as I've looked at houses and have yet to find something that I could not easily classify based on my likes/dislikes and expected usage patterns.

How does this answer "How much is a given existing house worth to me?"

Once the inhabitants agree what is in which house, then the problem reduces to a simpler set of questions:

  • What kind of creature comforts are important to us? Value of (1) to me
  • What would our guests enjoy? Value of (2) to me
  • How likely are various disasters? Value of (3) to me
  • How soon will I resell the house, and how much will an impressive house benefit my career or community life? Value of (4) to me
  • How many fewer creature comforts are we willing to put up with to get our friends to visit? (1) vs (2)
  • How many comforts are we willing to forego for emergencies? (1) and (2) vs (3)
  • How many comforts are we willing to forego for increased status? (1) and (2) vs (4)
  • etc.

How does this answer "Of two houses with rooms of the same dimensions, and the same fixtures, but different layouts, which should I prefer?"

If we had the luxury of embedding a house with N rooms in a space with N+2 spacelike dimension, then we could easily have every room adjacent to every other and still be 3 dimensional. Alternatively, we could wedge shaped rooms radiating out from one central corridor that is an N-gon.

But such houses are either physically impossible or hard to resell, so we need to know what makes a conventional 2½ dimensional house livable.

If the practical house is dispersed, then we're going to spend an inordinate amount of time walking through rooms that we don't use. So we should prefer that the practical house be concentrated and that it be easy to get from one part to another.

11         11

When entertaining, we're almost certainly going to be using some parts of (1) like bathrooms and kitchen space, but we may want to keep guests away from other parts of (1). So a good arrangement has (1) adjacent to the entertaining house with the common parts at the joining edge.

11         22

In an emergency, we want to be able to get to the safe house from (1) and less often from (2), but we don't want to lose our emergency stuff by mixing it with a bunch of everyday stuff, so (3) is ideally located at the periphery of (1) and (2) ideally adjacent to both.

2211?????????33   ZOMB
2211         33   IES!

Finally, (4) should almost be entirely at the periphery where possible. Why would we want to waste time walking through parts that nobody uses?

114444222444433   ZOMB
11    222    33   IES!

So if you consider an adjacency graph of rooms, then it seems that the best layout has the practical house (1) as a densely connected subgraph (and probably adjacent to the outside), with (2) next to it with special attention paid to common areas, and (3) distinct but reachable from (1) and with (4) out of the way.


These diagrams should be taken with a grain of salt. Each real room doesn't necessarily fall within one abstract house. E.g. most of a stove might be practical, used daily, but maybe you only bake when entertaining, so a nice convection oven would be in the entertaining house.

How does this answer "Given time and a plot of land, what should I build on it, and what should I build now?"

The second part of this question is easily answered. You need most of the practical house early on. You can delay expensive parts of the other houses, and there's no real need to build the parts of the ornamental house that are for resale until you plan to resell. Building (1) then (2) then (3) then (4) may be ideal if you arrange it so the adjacency graph is in shells to get the layout described above.

The first part of the question can be answered by coming up with a wish list for each house and budgeting for it. The relative size of the practical and entertaining houses depends in part on how often you think you'll be able to entertain. The size of the ornamental house depends on how well funded your neighbors are, and the size of the safe house depends on how risk-averse you are and how well funded your enemies are.

Then you need to pare things back. Are all the things in the practical house things you will actually use on a regular basis? If not, maybe kick it into the entertaining house. Are all the things in the entertaining house things you or your guests will use? If not, get rid of it or move it into the ornamental house. The value of something in the safe house is the portion of the cost of the disaster mitigated by the probability of the disaster minus the cost. Consider insurance instead. For the ornamental house, ask whether it can be delayed or faked.

If you've pared it back to the bachelor minimum (bedroom, bathroom, front door), congratulations, your wife is going to leave you so you're done.

Does this framework make delicate negotiations easier, more tractable, more likely to come to correct conclusions?

I don't know. The post-reduction questions above are by no means easy, but for a relationship to survive delicate negotiations, each needs to learn what the other values. They need to get things out in the open so that decisions are made with eyes open to minimize the chances of hidden resentment down the road, and maximize the chances of both enjoying their decisions. I hope these questions get to the heart of that.

† : I use the term "use" broadly; one who appreciates art uses it, and that a house is in a good school district is a practical concern if a child uses the school afforded by the house's location on a regular basis.