An alternative living environment        designed by Gordon Randall Perry


The form of the contemporary urban living environment has remained essentially unchanged since the advent of the distinct separation of rooms for separation of functions. Some elements, such as walls, have been shifted about. Others, appliances and furniture, have been modernized, and technological conveniences have been added. But little, basic restructuring of the many forms of the environment has taken place.

...the diverse pieces of civilized man's habitat--cities, towns...houses, apartments, dwellings, shelters, call them what you will -- have become obsolete. We believe that any further attempt to design in the conventional way, without a careful fresh look at the problem, and the help of some defensible basic principle, will do little more than add another set of shapes to the growing catalogue of architectural millinery.I

What has happened to the environment however, is that it has become highly standardized, carefully controlled environmentally, and technologically refined, until a universal sameness exists. This development has stripped the living environment of virtually all exciting sensory stimulation especially concerning the primary sense -- vision.

Our urban spaces provide little excitement or visual variation and virtually no opportunity to build a kinesthetic repertoire of spatial experiences.2

The goal of the project is to provide an alternative living environment through the creation of a product system. Paramount is the word alternative. Although the needs of the family will be met, the environment created will be substantially different in relation to the traditional ones that characterize today's urban areas. Thus, the reaction by a great many families to the environment that is proposed may be cautious and perhaps negative at first, if only because the environment is quite unfamiliar. However, with long enough exposure it should eventually be viewed both objectively and positively by some of those for whom the criteria of the project has been established. And it may hold open to them the possibility of a different dwelling life style.

1 Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander, Community and Privacy (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., Anchor Books, 1965), pp. 35, 36.

2 Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., Anchor Books, 1969), p. 62.


Develop a product system to be used in the creation of a living environment for a contemporary urban family; an environment that enhances the living experience by providing for sensory-stimulation as well as the family's psycho-physical needs.

Basically the system replaces many of the functions of walls, fixtures and appliances, and provides for an open environment, allowing for communal and multi-purpose functioning of the family -- eating, socializing, etc. However, it also provides partially secluded and optionally private areas to deal with the personal and/or private needs of the individual -- sleeping, defecating, personal project execution, etc. Sensory-stimulation is achieved through the perception and dynamic interaction between the system and the inhabitants.

The family, as defined, consists of three or four people: A married couple with one or two children, upper middle income, in an urban setting such as New York City with the equivalent space of a large three bedroom apartment, co-op or townhouse.


There are three major parameters for the development of the system:

1) To meet the psycho-physical needs of the family.

2) To meet the majority of those needs in a sensory-stimulating way.

3) To be a viable, producible solution.

Because the parameters center on the family, a capsulation of the family's situation is necessary. Traditional family systems are undergoing structural and functional changes, often in response to changes in the larger social order. As families adjust, behavior patterns are modified, often under the influence of urban life. Some of the changes in family organization commonly associated with urbanization, especially in the West, may be noted:

1. Changes in the family power structure, which usually means the decline of parental authority over children, and of husbands over wives, with increasing independence and freedom of action on the part of children and wives.

2. Changes in the interpersonal relationships between the sexes, resulting in greater freedom of males and females to associate informally outside the home, to choose their own friends, and to select the persons they wish to marry.

3. Changes in social roles of family members, both within the home and outside it. Behavior tends to be individualized and roles often uncoordinated. The separation of work roles of family members outside the home usually means a diversification of their interests, with the result that family solidarity may decline.

4. Changes in the proportion of unmarried persons, or of persons who are divorced or separated. Unmarried or separated persons may suffer no appreciable loss of status, at the same time enjoying certain economic advantages as employed workers without the            responsibility of supporting dependents.

5. Changes in family structure from the "joint" system toward smaller nuclear families exhibiting a variety of structural and functional patterns. Although joint families do exist in cities, their survival necessitates certain changes in the system.

6. Changes in interpersonal contacts outside the home, with the result that informal friendships, or even formal contacts, tend to supplement, and in some instances replace, interfamily association.

7. Changes in the ceremonial basis of family life, commonly toward a decline, and in some instances virtual disappearance, of family ceremonies, notably in families on lower class levels.1

l Noel P. Gist and Sylvia F. Fava, Urban Society, 5th ed. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowel Co., 1955).

New forms of organizations have arisen which now perform functions which were historically carried out by the family, for example, the role of government in social welfare, housing, medicine, recreation and education. Economic expansion has affected urban family life with the establishment and use of laundries, bakeries, canneries, and cold storage plants. The family unit is now less productive as an economic institution, but is paradoxically more important as a consumer of goods and as a recreational unit. The urban person is served by a vast array of organizations that supplement or replace former "self-service" functions.

Urban families are subject to both disruptive and integrative forces. The separation of the work place from the residence, the liberalization of divorce laws, the decline of family centralized authority and the pursuit of leisure time activities away from the home, all may tend to separate members from one another and weaken the bonds of the family. On the other hand, the idealization of husband and wife, parent-child companionship, families traveling and sharing experiences together and holding common interests in a spirit of equality are forces that bring the family together. Domestic duties are shared and roles are no longer effectively differentiated. Cooking, dishwashing, cleaning, baby tending and rearing, have begun to be viewed as family responsibilities which can be performed by any member of the group. Many such structural and functional adaptations must be made if the family is to survive as a unit. When considering how to meet the needs of the family certain physical areas may be identified as being desirable in a living environment:

outdoor areas - for contact with nature

private areas - for rest, love and solitude

communal areas - for family interaction

spacious areas - for increased family companionship while sharing domestic duties

display areas - as symbols of status and success

buffer zones - to insulate one primary area from another

Specific behavior patterns and functions have a direct relationship to living environment design. Individual family members engage in independent activities and functions besides participating in the multi-role or joint domestic functioning. There is a desire, especially in higher income brackets, to collect property and create an environment insulated against the outside world.

The home is the primary agent of socialization of the child and the primary basis of security for the normal adult. "...its furnishings, equipment and the rest, constitute the 'logistic' base for the performance of this dual set of primary functions.” l

The basic family activities that take place in the dwelling also have a direct relationship on design. These activities include: sleeping or resting, dressing and undressing, washing, bodily elimination, grooming, personal needs (contemplation, socializing, sex, individual pursuits) communal socializing and interaction, experiencing electronic media, telephoning, food preparation and related activity, dining, pet care, laundering, child care, general circulation, dwelling maintenance.

To meet the psycho-physical needs of the family in a sensory enhancing way, the environment must use effectively the elements that stimulate the senses.

l Arlene S. Skolnick and Jerome T. Skolnick, Family in Transition (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & Co., 1971), p. 402.

The interplay of form, space, colors and texture, as well as certain non-controlled elements such as outside light and weather, help to create a visually exciting environment. Sound, smell, and touch are stimulated through contrasts and variations.

There are a number of pragmatic constraints to be dealt with, the origins of which are the urban setting as well as the needs and limitations of the family. The environment is set in a noisy, congested, potentially hazardous area. There is limited outside access, perhaps none at all, to the ground. Requirements change from family to family and consequently the system must be capable of being adapted to variations in criteria. Limitations on materials and construction techniques are necessary, if the system is to be mass producible.


The development of the project took place in response to the performance criteria, and as part of an ongoing synergistic process. The input was derived from several sources including faculty discussion, directed research, and personal experience. The finished project is a result of the interaction of all these elements. The criteria includes certain physical areas which are especially desirable in a living environment. These areas have been incorporated into the subject environment. They are:

Outdoor area: It extends the entire length of the outside wall, provides contact with the outdoors and helps to extend the visual space of the living area.

Communal area: The living, food preparation and dining areas have been combined creating a spacious communal area. However, this is a somewhat controversial combination of functions. According to studies conducted by the Pierce Foundation, women interviewed were somewhat skeptical of this multi-function mix because of the possibility of various situations arising, for example, the kitchen’s appearance spoiling the appearance of the living room and the anticipated difficulty of keeping all areas adequately clean. 1 Nevertheless, the layout was created because it provides for more assets than liabilities, a beautiful deep and varied space, and a large area for the family. By maintaining spacing of 7 to 12 feet apart, the members of the family can function, and see and communicate with each other, and yet will not be cramped or feel compelled to talk to one another. They can share each other's company while still retaining personal spatial privacy. 2

Display area: The communal area serves another purpose in providing a large space to show off a variety of possible possessions, from the practical, such as food preparation utensils, to the purely artistic, such as sculpture, etc.

Private area: There are two optionally, totally private areas - the toilets, and the parents' sleeping/resting area. The latter is designated in response to personal needs, including the usually private sexual activity. The children's sleeping area is semi-private.

Buffer zones: When a specific domain, such as a private sleeping/resting area, is set up, its integrity is best preserved through the use of buffer zones or "locks" which insulate it from other areas.

l Milton Blum and Beatrice Candee, Family Behavior, Attitudes and Possessions, Family Living as the Basis for Dwelling Design, Vol. 4 (New York: The John B. Pierce Foundation, 1944), pp. 184, 185.

2 Hall, pp.122, 123

The locks serve as transitions from one domain to another 1 -- from private to communal, from outside to inside. The first lock, at the entrance to the environment, is achieved by the partial wall in front of the door. The other two locks, which surround the parents' sleeping/resting area, function as a studio area and as a dressing area.

The interrelationships between the various areas is important. The Pierce Foundation study indicates that dressing, bodily elimination/washing, sleeping and child care are all closely related and should be kept in close proximity. 2 This idea has been incorporated in the design (for floor plan see page 18). The physical separation of the areas for the functions of bodily elimination and washing allows for their possible simultaneous use by different members of the family without impinging on privacy.

Various essential functions identified in the criteria must be provided for. They are listed below with their corresponding physical provisions.

Sleeping or resting - optionally enclosed parents' area, semi-enclosed children's area

Dressing and undressing - enclosed parents' dressing area children's dressing area

Washing - shower/tub combination sin

Bodily elimination - two enclosed toilets with sinks and exhaust fans

Grooming- dressing areas, sink area

Personal needs - parents: studio area, optionally enclosed sleeping area,  outdoor area

Communal socializing - living, food preparation and dining combination area

Experiencing electronic media - localized or everywhere

Food preparation & dining- combined with living area into one large area

Pet care- food preparation area

Laundering- pantry area

Child care- children's sleeping area

General circulation - ample space for movement without impinging on privacy

Dwelling maintenance - floors: essentially bare, easiest for high activity and allergic people.

Storage- entire rear wall (30' x 10' x 2' deep) 65% active (easily reachable) 35% inactive

1 Chermayeff and Alexander, pp. 213-220.

2 Blum and Candee, pp. 189-206.

The need for some privacy in a family dwelling is essential to the family's psychological well-being and must be carefully preserved. l Increased stresses from urban living tend to reinforce this need. The environment provides privacy through the use of acoustic and visual barriers. Acoustic privacy becomes a unique problem compared to traditional dwellings because of the lack of floor-to-ceiling walls and resulting sealed rooms. This problem is dealt with by the use of an acoustical ceiling, acoustically textured surfaces on the interior walls of the forms, acoustic sections on the walls, carpeted areas, and physical barriers. Visual privacy is accomplished through visual barriers, and lit and unlit areas.

The size and shape of the environment was chosen to accomplish certain objectives: keep it functionally and economically viable, maximize and visually enhance space. It is an enclosed area of 1600 sq. feet with a 200 sq. ft. outdoor area (such as a loft space or similar environment), physically adequate and within a reasonable cost for the family described. It is long and narrow (30 ft. x 60 ft.) to maximize distance and allow for the absence of columns. The height (10 ft.) is sufficient to create contrasts of low and high space while still being efficient for heating.

The environment is shaped by forms which divide the space and provide for the functioning of the family. These forms are in stark visual contrast to the walls, floor and ceiling. The forms are curvilinear and organic in character, while the floor, ceiling and walls are static. The static elements function as the base to the setting. The forms create organic space which is visually in harmony with the human inhabitants and is unique and exciting. There are substantial contrasts in this space, from the vertically soaring living area with 10-foot high windows opening to the outside, to the covered food preparation and studio areas, and opening again to the sleeping, dressing and bath areas. The combination of living, food preparation and dining areas create a sense of horizontal openness and depth of space contrasting with the more enclosed areas-- all of which provides an ever-changing perception of space as the inhabitants move about.

Chermayeff and Alexander, p. 37.

The environment is dominated by the 3 major forms which visually expand into all 3 dimensions of space. It is punctuated by the use of varying hue, value and texture to emphasize its three-dimensionally. This interplay of elements tends to stimulate the visual sense (for these considerations refer to slides). The sense of smell comes into play through the lack of sealed rooms. Dinner is anticipated throughout the dwelling or, if desired, the air may be wiped clean by the exhaust fan. Hearing is also stimulated through contrasts. The large open spaces allow sound to travel. Conversely, in other acoustically insulated areas, sound is muffled. The senses are all brought to bear, eliciting responses, enhancing living.

The specific grouping of forms in this environment functions in one particular way (as described previously) in order to fulfill certain needs. The structural system that the forms are constructed of can be used to create different forms for other sets of criteria (i.e. more people, different privacy needs, etc.). To do this the system must be flexible, and yet still be subject to certain production techniques. The cost should remain within competitive guidelines (i.e. contemporary building practices), and construction within known material handling techniques. The forms themselves should be strong enough to withstand the use and abuse of a family, be easily maintained and provide access to the structure and utilities inside.

The components of the system consist of .187” thick, high-impact styrene (or suitable equivalent) sheets, cut, bent to shape, held in place by internal structural members, and anchored to the floor. The structural members are made up of segmented pieces which overlap each other and can be locked together with set screws after the appropriate shape is created. The pieces are extruded aluminum and bonded to the plastic using adhesive with rubber strips between to accommodate the curved surfaces. The forms are anchored to the floor using simple brackets affixed to the structure and screwed into the floor. where the structure does not run toward the floor additional single structural pieces must be bonded to the sheets to provide anchor points for the floor brackets. An interior sheet is then put into place covering the exposed structure and a sandwich is created. An extrusion with a soft vinyl outside is slipped between the edges of the sheets and pinned, which locks them together and creates a finished, comfortable edge. The assembly is not permanent however, and can be disassembled to gain access to the wiring, plumbing, etc. inside. Where the forms run generally horizontally an interior sheet is not used and the extrusion is bonded to the single edge. Joining of forms is achieved through pinned and bonded semi-rigid extrusions. Through this system infinite variations of forms can be created.

Cabinets, work surfaces, sinks, etc. which are adjuncts to the system, are custom built of high-pressure laminate finished flake board components, with real wood, marble, etc. set into or substituted where desired. Corrugated sliding doors are used to complement the forms and eliminate the need for door swing clearances. Utility connections including air conditioning ducts, exhaust ducts, gas pipes, electric wires, phone wires, and plumbing elements run along the ceiling and are dropped where needed. Ideally, utilities should be grouped together for economy of installation and maintenance. The guideline of the system is viability through mass production techniques. Although it must be carefully planned and created by a designer or architect who is sensitive to form, color and the needs of the inhabitants, the system retains its versatility through the fabrication of its components and the mode of its construction.


An alternative living environment, designed with specific objectives, provides the opportunity for critical evaluation, and groundwork for future research and development. Most of the experimental environments to date, usually converted lofts, barns, etc., have been designed as outgrowths of personal needs and goals and are relevant only within that context. However, this project because of its specific objectives, may help to stimulate further exploration in, for example:

variation of design solutions to similar problems with the same or different criteria;

structural, manufacturing and/or cost analysis and refinement of the system;

directed research to elicit a family's responses to living in such an environment.

Through the development of an alternative living environment it is hoped that another choice can be offered, one where sensory stimulation is reintroduced into the environment, carefully and with a sense of harmony and beauty.

Some pictures of environment:


Alexander, Christopher; Hirshen, Sanford; Ishikawa, Sara; Coffin, Christie and Angel, Shlomo. Houses Generated by Patterns. Berkeley: Center for Environmental Structure, n.d.

American Public Health Association, Committee on the Hygiene of Housing. Planning the Home for Occupancy. Chicago: Public Administration Service, 1950.

Blum, Milton and Candee, Beatrice. Family Behavior, Attitudes and Possessions. Family Living as the Basis for Dwelling Design, Vol. 1. New York: The John B. Pierce Foundation, 1944.

Callender, John H. Introduction to Studies of Family Living. Family Living as the Basis for Dwelling Design, Vol. 1. New York: The John B. Pierce Foundation, 1943.

Chermayeff, Serge and Alexander, Christopher. Community and Privacy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., Anchor Books,

Cist, Noel P. and Fava, Sylvia F. Urban Society. 5th ed. New York: Thomas Y. Crowel Co., 1955.

Goode, William J. World Revolution and Family Patterns. London: Collier-McMillan Ltd., 1963.

Hall, Edward T. The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., Anchor Books, 1969.

Kennedy, Robert W. The House and the Art of its Design. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corp., 1953.

Mumford, Lewis. The Culture of Cities. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., Harvest Books, 1938.

Ogburn, William F. and Numkoff, Meyer F. Technology and the Changing Family. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1955.

Seeley, John R.; Sim, R. Alexander and Loosley, Elizabeth W. Crestwood Heights. Introduction by David Riesman. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1956.

Skolnick, Arlene S. and Skolnick, Jerome T. Family in Transition. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1971.

Sommer, Robert. Personal Space, the Behavioral Basis of Design. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.- Prentice-Hall, Inc.; Spectrum Books, 1969.