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My Space is Everywhere

In : Renonciat Annie (ed.). Proceedings from the international conference The child’s room as a cultural microcosm. Space, Pedagogy and Consumption  at the National museum of Education–CNDP/CANOPÉ, Rouen, 7–10 apr. 2013.
Lieselotte van Leeuwen et Matthew Margetts


Needs and motivations of children are complex and dynamic in long and short term, as are the needs of families in shared living spaces. Designing home environments which enable flexible use calls for better understanding of long-term and short-term needs. We explored the mapping of the psychological concepts of affordances and motivation to inform the design of spaces that might satisfy children's needs in a family home context. The paper is the result of a cooperation between architects and psychologists. Using a research by design method, a number of design ideas were developed which explored the use of space and objects to encourage transient ownership and interactions. Resulting ideas for the design of interior spaces were explored and discussed with the aim to provide a directly applicable framework for idea development in the context of spaces for children in a domestic setting.

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1“My space is everywhere” was the confident answer of an 8-year-old boy in India to the question if he had his own space to play. This answer contrasts sharply to those of children in the UK who have both places and objects dedicated to their play away from adult activity. While many cultural, economical and ecological aspects play a role in this difference, one could ask if Western societies have moved too far in the direction of what Gillis (2008) calls ‘the islanding of children’. This paper explores how psychological concepts could inform and inspire change in architecture and design of family homes in order to facilitate greater sharing of space and time and ultimately more family interaction. The hypotheses presented below are not finished solutions but initial steps exploring interdisciplinary territory using the currently widely debated lack of shared family time as a starting point.

2Livingstone (2007) described within the UK the move of family life from a sitting room culture to a bedroom culture as the consequence of increasingly individualized digital technology. This is reducing everyday family shared time and interaction in the home. Nairn (2011) conducted a study exploring reasons for relatively low wellbeing in children in the UK compared to other rich western countries (UNICEF report, 2007). When talking to and observing families it was discovered that children in the UK, compared to Spain and Sweden, experienced a greater lack of shared family time and their parents felt locked in a cycle of material competition as criterion for the quality of their parenting.

3These findings ask for a wide re-thinking of conditions for family life at many levels in current society. The described shift from the communal living room culture to an individualized bedroom culture (Livingstone, 2007) can be seen as an interplay between the needs and motivations of family members, changing technology (from one TV to many computers in the house) and the structure and use of home space. While this move does meet certain needs of both children and adults in the home, it seems to fail others. Current concerns about Internet security are also beginning to see a desire for children’s computers to be brought out of the bedrooms and back into the living rooms where they can be better monitored. Our aim is to explore, using a research by design method, if the structure of the home could contribute to the reconciliation of current family needs, particularly those of individualisation on one side and sharing on the other.

4In the following we will argue for two directions of change that together could provide a basis for greater integration of the life spheres of family members in the home. For each direction the psychological concept used and examples of its application in idea development for architecture and design are given.

Design for activities rather than for territories

5Temporal design strategies have been applied at street level, when activists’ art or sport events re-claimed street space temporarily for alternative activities which turn the street into a big meeting place, train carriages into shops and roofs of containers into swimming pools (see e.g. Zeiger, 2011). These alternative uses of the territory of the motorists and commuters invite people and activities to the street, which question the routine of everyday life and the ownership of public space for one sole activity. Making those events happen requires significant negotiation and cooperation between event organisers and city councils. The reward for these efforts is a heightened feeling of identity for the communities involved, and the temporal transformation of street anonymity into individuals actively sharing the extraordinary. The initiative of few does re-engage many and opens up the possibility to co-own public space. The authors consider if this strategy of transient use could be applied to the design of family homes, which particularly in the UK apply essentially static assumptions of use. Figure 1 gives an overview of assumed individual vs. shared use of the most common structure of family homes in the UK with a kitchen and dining area as well as a living room at the ground floor and bedrooms of the top floor.

1. Typical UK home configuration (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)

6Bedrooms are used individually while ground floor rooms are assumed shared. Nairn (2011) in her ethnographic study with UK families from a range of socio-economic backgrounds found that while both parents and children wish to share more time, “…members of a family may well all be in the home at the same time but they co-exist rather than share time and space.” (p. 34). To a degree this might be facilitated by the spatial structure of homes. Exploring this and informing design requires a more differentiated approach to the use of home space than the earlier mentioned division in shared and individual space. Figure 2 gives in the top row an example for the typical use of individualized vs. shared space during the course of a day. The question is if it would be possible through small changes to the spatial layout of the home to increase times of shared space – as illustrated in figure 2 bottom row.

2. Shared time space mapping – existing and desired (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)

7In order to gain more insight in the complex fabric of everyday needs that make families use living space as they do, Apter’s (2001) psychological concept of motivational reversals was applied. Reversal Theory assumes four metamotivational dimensions which each describe alternative tendencies to act : goal directed vs. playful ; conformist vs. rebellious ; mastery vs. empathy, and self-oriented vs. other-oriented. Over the course of a day we normally switch between the alternative states of each dimension (called reversals) ; switches can be caused by changing external situations and/or internal states. The co-existence of needs with changing, often contradictory spatial requirements is a hallmark of family life. Mapping the seemingly chaotic sets of needs for family life onto Apter’s metamotivational dimensions could reveal a more transparent set of conditions to be met by spatial and object design for transient use and a better accommodation of diverse needs. Figures 3 and 4 give one simple example of how the use of just one dimension (self vs. other oriented) can help to change design from working with a static territory-oriented set of requirements to a more dynamic and fine-grained mapping of changing needs. The diagrams illustrate a simplified mapping technique to illustrate a contour gradient of perceived interactivity levels – the tones getting lighter as opportunities to interact diminish. Figure 3 shows the traditional assumption of bedrooms as individual space and the living room as shared space without any further specification.

3. Current design assumption of shared and individual space (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)

8Figure 4 provides a more detailed mapping of the possible use of the living room space for a family with young children using the self vs. other dimension, indicating the motivation to act in accordance with and directed towards others vs. the motivation to act more solitary and self directed. Interaction (highlighted in purple) takes mainly place in the centre of the room while nearer to edges, screened by furniture more solitary, self-oriented action is possible (highlighted in white).

4. Metamotivational mapping of shared space (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)

9Small children often occupy the floor space in the centre of the room playing with each other and possibly communicating with their parents who sometimes are involved in the play as well and sometimes are busy in parallel. For small children living rooms can also provide so much more – e.g. hiding places in corners, under or behind furniture and sofas and arm chairs can be climbed and turned into dens, etc. At other times the living room provides the possibility to be quietly near to a parent without necessarily interacting. Tension arises when family members are in different motivational states – the need to rest and relax by adults does not fit well with children’s needs to interact and be boisterous. While at times the needs clash and might only be resolvable by moving to different rooms, design which accommodates the diversity of motivations of, in our example small children and their parents, could increase the possibility for co-existence.

5. Metamotivational mapping – modified (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)

10Figure 5 demonstrates how only slight adjustments to the structure of the living room derived from this type of thinking increase the potential for co-existence of different motivational states and resulting needs for action. For example, moving the sofa into the room creates more space accommodating self-directed action and a sofa with a higher back could shield noise to a degree. For children, this increases the action possibilities of the room and it might allow more co-existence of self vs. other directed needs of children and adults. The increase of action possibilities also increases the room for negotiation between family members with respect to the attunement of their actions. By providing an environment that takes into account the diversity and possible incompatibilities of needs and motivations, more sharing of space and with it more potential for mutual awareness and interaction could result. Design can change the potential for interaction, it of course can’t make it happen without the willingness and initiative of the inhabitants to respectfully co-own their family territory.

11Current thinking in the UK around flexible home design, exemplified by the government’s ‘Lifetime Homes’ initiative, is primarily concerned with the ability for the layout to be physically changed over time as the occupiers needs change. This is similar to the writings of Till and Schneider (2005) who refer to indeterminate ‘soft’ spaces – but again this considers long term changes to layouts. Proposals for a more dynamic and temporal strategy for appropriation in e.g. the course of a day are less well documented for the domestic environment. A systematic account of all four motivational dimensions in relation to everyday living could help to better understand the dynamics of changing needs of families in their living space in short and long term. This in turn could inform design for shared and sustained living.

Designing for ecological and emotional sustainability

12The study by Nairn (2011) concluded that parents in the UK, compared to Sweden and Spain, felt locked in a cycle of material competition as criterion for the quality of their parenting. In addition UK children had comparatively a higher amount of but often little cared for toys. In ecological terms long lasting and fewer objects are desirable. In psychological terms intimate and sustained relationships with objects can contribute to individual and family identities as expressed in personal narratives. Combining sustainable design and psychological aspects, Chapman (2005) argued that there is little point in designing durability without the desire to keep and cherish an object. He is referring to e.g. the mountains of disposed, but still functioning appliances which their owners had no desire to keep. In his analysis of object characteristics which create that desire he concluded :

“Design needs space for the inclusion of a user’s psyche…The resulting ambiguity increases likelihood and chance discoveries, randomness and intimacy which nurture subject-object empathy” (p. 27)

13The call for more sustainable design needs to address both – the physical durability in combination with the desire to care for and keep objects. We explored the ecology driven tendency to constrain the amount of objects and increase their life cycle in its consequences for family interaction and shared ownership of objects in the home. The notion of ambiguity or multi-use became crucial. Take the following example :

6. Thoughtfully designed crate

14Two thoughtfully designed wooden crates (fig. 6) have been owned by one young person from age 4 to 24. They are cherished objects which show little sign of being worn or broken despite a large number of functions they have had at different times – from bedside table, bed for the teddy, prison, post box, nest for the cat, table, book shelf to stereo cabinet etc. (fig. 7).

7. Crate uses through time (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)

15What makes them cherished seems to be the combination of quality, ambiguity and personal history. They are transitional objects in Winnicott’s (1973) sense that are associated with childhood memories. However, they are also serving current functional needs and fit the taste of their owner. This type of special bond with an object can only develop over time, so longevity of the object is a necessary condition for the creation of the individual bond as well as its expression (see also van Leeuwen, Westwood & Gielen, 2010). The ambiguity of the object that allows its multi-functionality has been instrumental for the creation of a multi-facetted and unique narrative. It seems unlikely that just one of the functions it served would have been sufficient to create this special bond. Lower quality of its material and design would have constrained durability as well as the diversity of functions. In Chapman’s (2005) sense, the ambiguity provided the space for individualization. The crates also fulfil the criteria for ‘ensouled’ objects with which an individual has an intimate relationship that goes beyond the physical characteristics but is also carried by the actions they afford as described by Jung (2011). It is almost certain that the designers of this box aimed at not more or less than the longevity of its storage function and could not have envisaged the range of activities they facilitated. One could conclude from this that design for emotional sustainability is more chance than strategy.

16However, the need to design for diverse needs does point at ambiguity, but not an ambiguity that is synonym to blandness. What is needed is an ambiguity with respect to action possibilities an object affords. This chimes with what Leatherbarrow (2009) describes as the ‘device paradigm’ in an architectural framework (p. 55). A psychological theory which does allow a systematic approach to this type of ambiguity is James Gibson’s concept of organism-environment mutuality. Affordances (Gibson, 1979) describe action possibilities an actor with specific capacities perceives in a specific environment. For example a chair might afford sitting for an adult but sheltering under a roof for a 3-years old. In a different situation or mood that same chair can invite different actions for both the child and the adult, like hanging a coat over it or climbing on it to reach a toy. An object or space serving a family could intentionally be made to afford a range of action possibilities in order to be both versatile and sustainable.

17We explored this idea using the example of a dining table. For a family with children the dining table often fulfils many more functions than being merely a place for eating. Depending on the time of day and the family rules it might be a place for doing homework, writing letters, using a computer, playing board games, building a tent, a hiding place, etc.

18Incorporating transient use of a table in a family home creates a different possibility space for design than the assumption of eating alone. Awareness of different affordances of the table structure for young children could e.g. lead to the idea of painting the underside of the table with blackboard paint. This takes into account the possibility of young children using the table top as a roof – being able to paint its ceiling does acknowledge and enhance this type of use without suggesting an exact meaning of children’s activities under the table or in any way compromising its use for eating. Thinking of adults, a second layer of the table to store books or computers while eating would embrace their varying needs for action. Both examples focus on ambiguity in terms of varying affordances and with it take transient use into account. Design strategies that can help to discover new opportunities for ambiguous design should include the analysis of transient object use in everyday contexts by individuals with differing action capacities and needs. Figure 8 shows how the analysis of use of a typical dining table can aid the creation of design space embracing ambiguity.

8. Table mapping of intensity of use (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)

9. Table – modified with possible uses (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)

19Observing the use of a table surface over the course of a day shows that the middle section stands out as being least used (the lighter the colour the less the area is used). Therefore the centre of the table surface could be used to provide additional action possibilities. Adding slots as shown in far right figure 8 opens up, but does not dictate, new opportunities for use without compromising the existing ones. While ways of using those slots might be limited for adults, children can appropriate them in many ways and by doing so create their meaning based on but beyond the imagination of the designer. E.g. young children might use it as a cooker, a light source under the table, a stage (fig. 9). In the longer term this can just like in the case of the storage box give the table a unique meaning that in turn might contribute to family identity. Again, multi use will require negotiation about time and space of usage and shared ownership.


20The presented exploration of first ideas for design embracing transient use of home environments gave examples of how temporal ownership of shared spaces can be supported by understanding the synchrony and rhythm of needs for action in a family. Meeting multiple and changing needs through ambiguity in design can promote sustainability and the feeling of intimacy and shared ownership.

21Architecturally designing for ambiguity in use goes deeply against the grain of current thinking. Traditionally the architect has designed for an intended use. Designing for unintended use requires architects to fundamentally rethink their approach. Our hypothesis and method as described in this paper, suggests a series of very small adjustments to everyday objects and settings, so as to afford a finer grain of motivational landscapes. Taking into account the dynamic of family needs in short and long term can enrich the design space for family homes. In turn, some incompatibilities between children’s and parents’ everyday needs could be reconciled.

22The two psychological theories used provided a useful framework for idea development in design. These first steps in exploring cooperation between psychology and architecture/design were fruitful for both, design ideas as well as for the creation of conditions for potential behavioural change. Addressing the fabric of life in a more holistic and interdisciplinary way might allow better to address problems of society such as limitations of children’s wellbeing in the UK.

23Rather than definite answers, this small investigation created many questions which will provide the basis for a more formalised framework directed at design for a shared and sustainable domestic life.

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Apter, M. J. (ed.), 2001. Motivational styles in everyday life. A guide to reversal theory. Washington, DC : American psychological association.

Chapman, J., 2005. Emotionally durable design. Objects, experiences and empathy. London : Earthscan.

Gibson, J. J., 1979/1986. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdaile, New York : Erlbaum.

Gillis, J.R., 2008. Epilogue : The islanding of children-reshaping the mythical landscape of childhood. In : M. Gutman & N. de Coninck-Smith. Designing modern childhoods. History, space and the material culture of children. New Brunswick : Rutgers University press, p. 306-330.

Jung, H., Bardzell, S., Blevis, E., Pierce, J., & Stolterman, E., 2011. How deep is your love : Deep narratives of ensoulment and heirloom status. International Journal of Design, n.5 (1), p. 59-71.

Leatherbarrow, D., 2009. Architecture Orientated Otherwise. New York : Princeton Architectural Press, p. 54.

Livingstone, S., 2007. From family television to bedroom culture : young people’s media at home. In : Devereux, Eoin (ed.) Media studies : key issues and debates. London : Sage, p. 302-321.

Nairn, A., 2011. Children’s wellbeing in UK, Sweden and Spain : The role of inequality and materialism. Ipsos MORI Social research insitute. accessed July 8 2013.

Till, J. and Schneider, T., 2005. Flexible Housing : The Means to the End. Architectual research quarterly, n. 9 (3/4), p. 289-296.

UNICEF, 2007. Child well-being in rich countries. A comparative overview. . Accessed July 5 2013.

Van Leeuwen,L., Westwood, D, & Gielen, M., 2010. If Winnicott could have made toys. International journal of arts and technology, n. 3 (1), p. 57-64.

Winnicott, D.W., 1971. Playing and reality. London : Routledge.

Zeiger, M. (2011). The Interventionist Tool kit. accessed July 8 2013.

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Table des illustrations

Légende 1. Typical UK home configuration (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)
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Légende 2. Shared time space mapping – existing and desired (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)
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Légende 3. Current design assumption of shared and individual space (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)
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Légende 4. Metamotivational mapping of shared space (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)
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Légende 5. Metamotivational mapping – modified (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)
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Légende 6. Thoughtfully designed crate
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Légende 7. Crate uses through time (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)
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Légende 8. Table mapping of intensity of use (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)
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Légende 9. Table – modified with possible uses (design by Matthew Margetts and Michael Simpson)
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Référence électronique

Lieselotte van Leeuwen et Matthew Margetts, « My Space is Everywhere », Strenæ [En ligne], 7 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/strenae.1176

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Lieselotte van Leeuwen

Dept. of Psychology, University of Sunderland, UK.

Matthew Margetts

Dept. of Architecture, University of Newcastle, UK.

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