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How animals helped shape our homes

Two-day course set to look at development of living spaces – and when oxen came indoors

05 July, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Yvonne Dean’s research has looked back over 500 years of our living spaces

THE evolution of the English home – and how houses today still carry evidence of days when our ancestors would bring their livestock in at night – is at the heart of a two-day course that starts this week in Highgate.

Architect, lecturer and author Yvonne Dean is hosting the event at the Highgate Scientific and Literary Institute in South Grove. Her research reveals how living habits 500 years ago still shape our environment today.

“I get people to think about their own spaces and their experiences of living in them,” said Ms Dean. “I started by looking at our houses’ dimensions. The fact is, our homes are still built with rooms that have their origins in size to the fact they were once used to house oxen. It dates from when people would live above where they kept their animals below and these oxen would also heat the homes as well as plough the fields. Four oxen can generate around five kilowatts of energy. You’d be ultra-cosy with them in a mud hut and thatched roof.”

The course starts today (Thursday) and then reconvenes in September. Drawing on her work as an architect and her research as a lecturer in architecture, Ms Dean offers a wide taste of how to look at the built environment around and interpret the hidden histories behind them. “I go through patterns in house building, including terraces and the semi-detached homes, and you can see how dimensions have not really changed for basically 500 years,” she said.

The course also discusses the Japanese system of house-building, where dimensions are based on the traditional sleeping mats used in homes.

“They historically measure 900 x 1,800mm, and this dictates how living spaces are built,” said Ms Dean. “They have patterns of housing where the home owner would say, ‘we need something that is three, four, five and more of mats’, and then the carpenter would know the dimensions needed to make up the timber.”

How we live today and how we shape our homes to suit that is also part of the course.

“One room living has really evolved,” she adds. “There was a period when we divided our homes into little spaces that has been changed into larger, open-plan living.

But at the same time, people want to escape, they want to be able to go to their bedrooms as they cannot get away from one another in the kitchen or main living area.

It means that having different, separate spaces is returning as a concept.” As well as the story of our individual homes, Ms Dean will touch on the wider issues behind the politics of housing.

She added: “When we had a housing shortage in 1946, they decided you could not build homes that were more than 1,000 square feet or cost more than £1,200. This rule was overturned in 1956 but over that period we saw the biggest period of house-building we have ever had. We built 500,000 homes. Mowadays we are seeing four to five-bed homes built, big homes, saturating the market for that type because developers believe there is more profit in them – but people cannot afford them and there is a lack of the type of homes we need being built.”

The economics of development is also touched on.

“Developers expect a return of 20 per cent,” said Ms Dean. “If they don’t think they will get that, they will say it isn’t viable to build. And if they don’t think they’ll hit that figure, they will look at reducing the social housing element. I ask, why should they profit to that degree? Why should the profit be assumed to be at that level? Why not 5 per cent?”

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