How to design a sociable home
Architecture and interior design can help build our personal relationships, and numerous design strategies can nurture fertile ground for social interaction. We explore how to foster feelings of togetherness and set the tone for sociable life at home.
Humans have been communing around a fire since the first flintstones were bashed together to ignite a spark. Archaeologists and anthropologists suggest that tending fires and performing rituals taught Homo sapiens how to plan, cooperate and possibly even speak. Those early gatherings established the essential social interdependence of human groups. We are social creatures, and our mental and physical health is closely tied to our connection with others.
Loneliness manifests when a person feels a mismatch between the relationships they have and those they want, and when the innate need to belong to a group is unmet. According to research on the impacts of COVID-19 on health and wellbeing, conducted by Swinburne University at the end of 2020, one in two Australians reported feeling lonelier since the onset of the pandemic. The social isolation and loneliness widely experienced during the crisis exemplify how vital meaningful social relationships are.
A home’s design plays a significant role in an individual’s ability to survive and thrive. Jenna Mikus is the founder of Eudae Group LLC, a Washington DC-based design consultancy that advises clients about how to enhance the connection between people and the built environment. The business name stems from the ancient Greek word “eudaemonia”, loosely translating to a state of human flourishing and happiness. “We look at understanding how you can design homes, in addition to offices, commercial spaces and more, to enable people to be their best, or ‘eudaemonic’, selves,” says Mikus.
Mikus believes that a sociable home “equates to meaningful connection — to the self, to others and to nature.” The concept drives the work of The Sociable Weaver, an Australian design and building company dedicated to creating sustainable, community-minded and functional homes that foster a sense of belonging for the dwellers. As their website states, “We’re interested in creating homes and streetscapes that open people up to one another, that cultivate meaningful relationships while still allowing residents to find the solitude they need in their daily lives.”
Creating a sociable home that nurtures relationships goes hand in hand with addressing each household member’s needs. It’s a delicate balance but one that’s completely achievable.
Embrace open-plan design
Reece Stubbs, general manager of The Sociable Weaver, believes that an open-plan home is hugely integral to facilitate feelings of togetherness. A central hub that inhabitants often pass through will naturally create more meeting moments. “Everyone enjoys their privacy, which can be achieved by ensuring bedrooms are separated and private, but a central open-plan living space will encourage the day-to-day interaction between inhabitants,” says Stubbs.
Drawing on a concept from urban design, “serendipitous interaction” refers to those fleeting moments of random interactions with people in day-to-day life. When used in an office context, it can relate to catching up with a workmate at the water cooler or passing someone in a breakout space or hallway. Current research has proven that serendipitous interactions are beneficial to productivity, team morale and general wellbeing.
“The same applies to an open-plan home with communal areas,” Mikus offers. “Throughout the day, you casually see the people you live with, but can also retreat to a private area to work, read, play or do hobbies.” Open-plan homes are highly communal, but the ability to compartmentalise the spaces for solitude and time out needs to be present for true house harmony. “The magic lies in striking a balance,” says Mikus.
Allow for personalisation
Personalising a space empowers the inhabitant and strengthens the bond to a place; just think of the pride and satisfaction a child harnesses from choosing the colour of their bedroom walls. Affording this can lead to happier individuals who feel valued and included in the bigger picture of the sociable home.
How do you create a personal retreat within a home filled with other people? Whether you have a bedroom, a spare room or a little nook within a larger space, the key to creating a sanctuary is to adjust the space according to your personal preferences and comfort levels. Control the sensory elements where possible; find your preferred light levels, temperature and sound, and add your favourite fragrance with a scented candle or a vase of your favourite blooms. Display a few decorative or meaningful pieces that feature the colours and patterns you are drawn to and include cosy layers, such as a soft knitted throw or a comfy armchair.
Think about the activities that bring you joy and set up your space to accommodate that — whether it’s a spot to read or a craft corner where the mess of creating can take over. “It’s about designing spaces that allow you to do the things you want to do, enabling you to be the type of person you want to be,” says Mikus.
Arrange for conversation
Furniture pieces that are in “conversation” with each other will create a welcoming atmosphere that facilitates social connections and easy chatter.
A sociable living room, for example, will incorporate comfortable seating that is grouped and positioned to face each other. Pushing furniture to the room’s perimeter will leave the space feeling disconnected and more like a hallway or waiting room than an inviting place to dwell and relax.
“Consider furniture arrangements that keep things visually interesting and encourage people to explore and inhabit the different areas,” says Mikus.
Orient seating away from the distractions of the television and include lightweight pieces that are easy to reposition according to the changing purposes of the room. “Setting up your living area so your back isn’t facing the dining space or kitchen can encourage interaction even when people are sitting in different areas,” says Stubbs. He also suggests positioning furniture to face entryways, to fostering open and easy connection, rather than having your backs to people entering the room.
Keep it clean
“Many studies point to the idea that clutter impedes not only our individual productivity, but also our connection to others,” Mikus says. “If you are feeling a bit flustered, that will inevitably impact your interaction with your partner or your family members.” Keeping your home organised often comes down to regular clean-ups and having ample storage. “Intelligently integrated, generous storage is so important when it comes to the ideas of home maintenance and cleanliness. If everything has a place, then it’s not a distraction and therefore less likely to cause stress,” says Mikus.
Adding more storage, however, is not always the solution. Extra storage begets more stuff, and mindful consumption is the key to keeping on top of endless accumulation. “More often than not, we have ‘stuff’ that we never use, so we ask our clients to consider what they actually need within their home,” Stubbs explains. “Designing for what you really need is a good place to start.”
If you’re designing a renovation or new home, Stubbs suggests making the most of the available space using custom joinery. The awkwardly shaped area under the stairs can be given a new purpose with shelving, and a nook can be transformed into a compact home office. When a sociable home is functioning to its capacity, everyone who lives there reaps the benefits, and the days run more smoothly.
Mikus notes that while tidying up is often a sore point, it also offers the opportunity for household members to collaborate and work toward the shared goal of a sparkling space. She suggests a fair and considered allocation of the chores, rather than a random assignment, to avoid rifts. “You might find that a job you hate is actually something the other person prefers to do. Encouraging people to do the things they find the most enjoyable will likely lead to them owning that particular job and contribute to a healthier and happier atmosphere,” she says.
Famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose legacy shapes building design today, suggested that beauty is not unnecessary or impractical. “Beauty dissolves conflicts, quiets us within, inspires us, creates a sense of happiness and serenity, refreshes us, and consoles us in times of depression.”
This concept informs The Sociable Weaver’s ethos: “We believe beauty and the aesthetic world play a powerful role in igniting the human spirit and inspiring us to action. When created well, spaces should captivate and move us, maybe even change our heartbeat.” The decorative gesture doesn’t have to be mammoth, or expensive, but putting a bit of effort into beautifying a space can return positive feeling tenfold.
If you are looking for inspiration on beautifying your home, take cues from nature and include soothing shades of blue and green and the earthy, organic tones and textures of timber, stone, linen and leather. Mikus says the design elements that mimic the natural environment have a therapeutic, stress-reducing effect, which in turn creates a soothing and welcoming atmosphere.
Connect to nature
Introducing colours and textures that reference nature will enhance a space, but a direct connection to nature and the outdoors keeps us grounded and calm. “We often think of ourselves as separate to nature, but really we are nature and are a part of nature,” says Stubbs. “Homes that encourage natural light, flow easily from indoors to outdoors, and have windows that face nature, and not a brick wall or fence, can improve how we feel and ultimately improve our mood and quality of life.”
Seeing green is good for us, but it doesn’t have to come via a soaring view, as Mikus explains: “If you don’t have a garden or balcony, or a green outlook, incorporating a few plants in the home can provide some of the benefits of the outdoors.” She admits she has over 90 plants thriving in her city apartment, and their care and upkeep is an activity she shares with her partner. “Looking after plants provides me, my husband and our visitors with a feeling of serenity, and it affords us with shared responsibility. Many weekends are spent together doing things to enhance the ‘garden’, and trips are planned around fostering the plants we have and procuring more,” Mikus says.
Nurture the heart of the home
While shared activities like nurturing plants or a household-wide cleaning session can give everyone a purpose and role within the social structure of the home, relaxing and unwinding together produces meaningful bonding moments and happy memories. The kitchen is arguably the most social area of a sociable home, a place to enjoy domestic comforts and the company of others, akin to the fires that early communities gathered around.
“The idea of the hearth as the centre or heart of the home has evolved in the form of the kitchen. It is no longer merely defined as a source of warmth (from the stove’s heat) or nourishment (from the food itself). It now offers visual, olfactory, acoustic and tactile environmental delight, in addition to social connection via collaborative cooking, enjoyment and discussion,” Mikus explains.
Increasing the functionality and decreasing the kitchen’s clutter will help create an inviting, comfortable space. Get rid of the unnecessary items and position the often-used appliances in an easy to reach spot. A layout that includes seating or opens onto a dining area will feel instantly sociable. “I believe that kitchen benches or islands with stools are a really great way for people to spend time together while cooking,” Stubbs says.
It’s not just the food preparation that can bring people together — making a habit of sitting down and sharing a meal will also strengthen ties. Even if it’s just once a week or month, the ritual can provide a support network and sense of stability, a clearer insight into others or just a lovely reprieve from the daily grind. You don’t need a complicated menu, a restaurant-grade kitchen or a stylishly set table; the value lies in the time spent together, casually chatting, munching and planning for the future.
“The more we come together and spend time in these spaces, the more we communicate and the deeper our relationships become,” Stubbs concludes.