Britain’s housing stock is structurally sexist: is it time for a radical rethink?

For a moment in the early 20th century, the world thrilled to new and utopian modes of domestic life. In 1930s Manhattan, apartment blocks were built with dumb waiters to ferry food to individual units from centralised kitchens (many of these Art Deco monoliths still visible if you’re strolling around Midtown); in Vienna, apartments were designed around communal nurseries and laundries; and in Israel’s agricultural kibbutzim, childcare, laundries and food preparation were socialised, redistributing the domestic work that usually fell to individual wives amongst specialists (if these specialists were, typically, other women). This, of course, was a moment before the communist dream had been soured by Mao’s Tse Tung’s man-made famines and decades of Soviet oppression. Yet it’s an era that open up possibilities for alternative ways of living that, I argue, it’s time to reappraise.

In my book The Home Stretch, I look at the extent to which much of Britain’s housing stock entrenches a sexist division of labour: the ranks of semis designed to be managed by a stay-at-home wife occupying her post at the kitchen sink as she keeps an eye on the kids playing in the garden (French doors allowing ready access to the nippers when they wrap a hosepipe around their necks); serving hatches so mum can pass the spag bol through to the sitting room as she simultaneously chides a shirking teen; a garage to house dad’s car and a shed to sequester his snifters of whisky. This was the home I grew up in in suburban Birmingham and it’s little different in its demands upon feminised labour to the Victorian terraced cottage I now live in with my partner and three-year-old son in East Greenwich (which in 1861 was home to a family of seven children, kept clean and fed by a housewife and a maid-of-all-work, the lowliest category of female servitude).

So what, you might say, if extended families and sundry sharers now squeeze into these nuclear family homes with their tough-to-vacuum nooks and crannies? Is it not, after all, quintessentially British to sacrifice comfort for a certain idiosyncratic charm?

Trouble is, our world can no longer afford these discrete and woefully inefficient nuclear family dwellings, on environmental as well as social justice grounds. In a 2019 report: UK housing: Fit for the Future? independent statutory body the Committee on Climate change warned that the UK’s legally binding climate change targets would not be met without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from UK buildings and that that emissions reductions from the UK’s 29 million homes have stalled, while energy use in homes — which accounts for 14% of total UK emissions — had increased between 2016 and 2017. Like a bald man without a hat, our drafty old housing stock leeches heat as it drains a national grid that, as of January this year, was 43 percent supplied by fossil fuels. Meanwhile, despite the fact that it’s been four decades since second-wave feminists called out the injustices of ‘women’s work’ (the unpaid labour that falls to women on the basis of a quirk of our genitalia at birth), the domestic labour gap is widening. British women put in 36 hours to British men’s 16 hours of weekly contribution to scrubbing, food prep and mucky sock washing that keeps Britain’s households running smoothly (not to mention the unlogged emotional and mental labour that also most often falls to women, in heterosexual unions). We’re also turning to paid female labour to plug this effort gap, as the number of Britons with household cleaners soars.

These asymmetries of effort, although it’s rarely acknowledged, play into women’s equality in the public sphere. The woman who puts in a second shift sees her partner’s career soar, the arrival of a child representing a Fatherhood Bonus in terms of pay and prestige for many married males, as hers falters on the ‘mummy track’. We have little hope of narrowing the gender pay gap and equalising women’s representation in parliament until we tackle the myriad injustices behind our front doors; as one feminist wit puts it, ‘it’s not the glass ceiling, it’s the sticky floor, stupid’.

In a piece for architecture website Dezeen, Phineas Harper, chief curator of the Oslo Triennale, talks of architects’ responsibility to take a stand against the ‘stifling’ and ‘deterministic’ hegemony of the nuclear family home: “[which] is designed to enforce a particular social structure, [and] hardwires divisions in labour, gender and class into the built fabric of our cities.” Our homes, argues Harper, are isolating and inefficient as well as being an ecological horrorshow. “Equipping every house with its own domestic infrastructure, from washing machines to power drills, is a boon for consumerism but requires vast resources,” she says, asking the candid question: “Is it time for domestic nuclear [family] deproliferation?”

The utopian thinkers of the past have much to offer us by way of inspiration. In 1915, a self-taught woman architect Alice Constance Austin designed a radical socialist community Llano del Rio called in southern California. Austin’s designs for Llano de Rio featured a radial layout of ‘kitchenless houses’, connected by a system of underground tunnels used for commuting, laundry and hot meal collection and delivery (from a large centralised city kitchen and laundry), as well as the transportation of supplies and goods. Railway cars shuttled cooked food and laundered clothing via these tunnels from the centre of the city to ‘hubs’, from which small electric cars were dispatched to the basement of each house. Radically for the time, Austin’s homes had built-in furniture, roll-away beds, heated tile floors and windows freed from dust-gathering curtains: all innovations intended to reduce the labour of floor-cleaning, laundering and setting fires. Austin said, of her design, that she hoped women would be relieved ‘of the thankless and unending drudgery of an inconceivably stupid and inefficient system, by which her labors are confiscated’. (For more on what became of Llano de Rio, refer to my book.)

We might also learn from Melusina Fay Peirce, a housewife in Massachusetts who in the 1880s took on the never-ending drudgery of women’s unpaid housework by setting up a Cooperative Housekeeping Society: a system through which women undertook domestic chores together in specialised units (given over to discrete skills such as cooking, baking and laundering) and profited from their labour by requesting payment from the community’s males. The project presaged the demands of feminist activists Wages for Housework by a century, depite being routinely mocked by the contemporary press, continued for a decade.

More recently we’ve seen utopian visions of a new domesticity in the 1970s land-dykes’ radical lesbian communities in the rural US (many of which establised low-maintanace sleeping units for members, with other tasks communally arranged), Transition Towns co-housing projects in the UK (with their shared laundry and dining spaces, the latter recalling Tudor Great Halls), and millennial communes such as the House of Nobodies in La Paz, which pays members for their housework contributions from a central pot. Each of these experiments in living question our accepted wisdoms about the way that we perform the functions that keep all humans alive and well.

But our architectural imagination, as yet, has some way to go, with few architects ‘taking a stand’, as Harper enjoins, against the ‘stifling’ and ‘deterministic’ hegemony of the nuclear family home. Thre are promising attempts, when it comes to new builds, to tackle energy consumption, in ‘district heating schemes’ such as Manchester Beetham Tower district heating scheme and the Olympic Park’s District Heating and Cooling Network and in the example of Cranbrook in Devon: a small town adapted to run on a single biomass boiler. Yet in many cities the principal onus is upon space. In London and New York, homes divided into rooms, as we’ve known them for five centuries, are disappearing as we squeeze our human functions into smaller and smaller open-plan spaces in a gesture towards flexi-living modernity. But who occupies the toddler when dad’s patching into his virtual office in a cardboard box in the corner because his business can no longer afford a bricks-and-mortar office space? And won’t, I ask in the book, turning a bedroom into a playroom by pissing about with adaptable modular furniture become just another new category of feminized work? Technological innovation, held hroughout history to be the answer to the ceaseless press of domestic labour — see most recently the Moley robotic kitchen and the many innovations promised by the Internet of Things — is a red herring. Apart from the ‘big bangs’ of mains water and electrification, technological innovations have done little, historically, but raised standards and ushered in new categories of domestic labour: the expectation of a shirt laundered daily; the realisation that’s it’s mum who has to sort out the self-ordering IoT fridge going potty and ordering 200 tubs of Lurpak.

If architecture and tech isn’t, as yet, rising to the challenge of a socially just post-carbon future, there is new thinking from which we should take heart. Across the world, bartering and sharing networks are blooming: from the UK’s Local Exchange Trading Systems, through which members barter tools and skills such as the use of tumble dryers or clothes-mending, to projects that share the capacity of municipal kitchen facilities in the US; and efforts towards ‘collaborative consumption’, such as Australia’s MamaBake and BakeSw@p, which promote the communal cooking and sharing of meals between families. The communalist architecture of the 1930s is also being rediscovered. Residents of Ruskin Park House in south London, for example, enjoy the live-in caretakers and communal laundry and gardens the property had when it was built in the mid-1930s, with the housing estate’s residents’ committee recently adding composting areas and a new communal heating system: “Many of these 30s blocks were desecrated,” says resident and social housing expert Claire Bennie, “so this is one of the few good examples we have, with all most of its services still intact”. And how scarily radical, after all, is domestic communalism if apartment-block laundry rooms, the 1930s insight Americans clung to, and are so ubiquitous they served as a plot device in Friends? (The One With The East German Laundry Detergent). Perhaps a new domestic communalism might kindle friendships, and romances, too?

In her book No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein wonders if transformative change can only occur in unique points in human history, when crises, such as the Great Crash of 1929 or the wreckage of the Second World War, unfold alongside explosions of utopian imagination — ‘times when people dared to dream big, out loud, in public’. Are we at such a moment? Maybe not yet, but we should take comfort in the fact that we are once more finding space to dream.

The Home Stretch, Why It’s Time to Talk About Who Does The Dishes is out now, published by Atlantic Books (£9.99, paperback).

Journalist for British broadsheets, Radio 4 and The British Medical Journal @wanderingsal

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