What Makes a House a Home? National Building Museum Attempts to Answer

Images from the National Building Museum's House and Home Images (clockwise, from top left): Maynard L. Parker/The Huntington Library/San Marino; Jack E. Boucher/Library of Congress/Historic American Buildings Survey; FlatPak House/Film Still: Ariel Efron; Local Projects; William Henry Jackson/The National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution.

What makes a house a home? The National Building Museum examines that question in its exhibition “House & Home.” Turns out, home truly is where the heart is.

The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., is exploring the essence of home in its new long-term exhibit, “House & Home.”

Through films, models, objects, even “please touch” walls that show construction techniques, the exhibition looks at American history through the lens of housing and examines how the idea of “home” has changed in 200 years.

We recently talked with Sarah A. Leavitt, one of the show’s curators, and explored how Americans have always made themselves at home.

What factors make a house a home?

It’s individual for everybody. The answer changes during the course of your life, from the time you live with your parents, then roommates, then your own family. Your personal stuff and the people you live with make it home.

The exhibition originally was set to open in 2005, during the real estate boom. How did the show change after the recession and rampant foreclosures?

Visitors would have brought a different story to the exhibition when it was originally set to open. For instance, we had planned to look at Summerlin, the Las Vegas master-planned community, before the crash because it was the fastest-growing community in the country, and we were interested in exploring the idea of a master-planned community. Then, when we finally did interviews for the film in 2011, Summerlin was the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis. If we had made the Summerlin film earlier, I’m sure it would have been a different story and the developer would not have been talking about foreclosures.

Do our homes mostly express who we are, who we were, or who we want to be?

Who we are and were, although there are aspirational aspects to how we express ourselves at home. There has always been a difference between the space that only the family sees and the space other people see. Many homes still have rooms where you don’t sit unless you have company.

Do renters and owners have the same relationship with their homes?

It depends on why they’re renting and the point of life they’re in. Maybe they’d like to buy a house and can’t afford it yet. But they still call where they live home. One of the things that may hurt that home feeling for renters is that often property owners don’t let you personalize a rental, like painting it or nailing things to the walls.

Why do houses look the way they do, mostly squares and rectangles?

There have been experiments with different shapes — octagons are popular in some areas. But it basically is determined by physics — how things stand up and how you can move around in a space.

Do you think the Tiny House movement will catch on in a big way?

I can’t imagine it will. People are charmed by tiny houses and think, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to live there?’ It has that lighter footprint. But I could probably live there for a week before I went insane.

Does your home reflect who you are or who you hope to be?