What is a House? Posted May 29, 2020 by Daniel Ostroff

When Charles Eames addressed the problem of residential architecture, he approached it from a very practical standpoint. He didn’t focus on style but instead, on the need for affordable housing, with an emphasis on the personal activities that we engage in inside our homes.

Charles felt very keenly that providing the best possible homes at the lowest possible cost was an architect’s primary responsibility, especially in the post-World War II era when demand, pent up during the war years, was due to increase.

Charles outlined his ideas in a chart published in “What is a House?” featured in the July 1944 issue of Arts and Architecture magazine, which included this statement: “It has been estimated that one million five hundred thousand houses each year for a period of ten years will be needed to relieve the urgent housing problem of this country alone. In the world at large, fifty million families will be in need of shelter as the result of [world] war. The enormity of such a need cannot even be partially satisfied by building techniques as we have known and used them in the past. Large scale industry would seem to be the only logical means by which we can achieve an enterprise of such proportion.”

On the top of the chart, he noted that an architect should base the foundation of his work on an understanding of “family behavior” and experience with “materials and techniques.”

Charles’s approach to architecture was based on what was most important to those who would use the space he designed. This chart addresses one element of this idea: that of cost.

In this same article, Charles also provided a cartoon illustrating all the activities one does in a house. It is a diagram of “family behavior” in a home. With this, Charles emphasized that architects should understand people and the multi-faceted lives they lead and support them through their designs.

Ultimately, Charles and Ray were able to demonstrate how to do cost-effective home construction with their own house, which they built as part of the Case Study House program. The Eames approach to “materials and techniques” is manifest.

When they built their home in 1949, industries hadn’t yet taken on the task of building homes or even parts of homes. Still, Charles and Ray found sufficient mass-produced parts to build their house by seeking out various venues, such as factory window companies and boatbuilders catalogs. The “appearance” and style of the home they built for themselves reflects the nature of the materials used to build it. They carefully selected industrially produced parts for their efficiency, durability, and appropriateness to their purpose. This resulted in a home with a lovely appearance. It is estimated that their approach resulted in a home that cost one-tenth of the cost of other homes at the time.

One can only hope that in the future, the Eames approach to homebuilding becomes more and more the standard by which architects approach residential construction. It may even provide an approach to solving the great crisis of homelessness in America, which would surely benefit from more useful structures that cost less to build.