Apr 21, 2020

How the epidemics of modern history shaped the current design of our houses

With almost everyone spending more time at home, it’s normal for you to have started noticing things you didn’t notice before. It is also normal that you have asked yourself, at some point, if there is anything to do, other than cleaning, to get rid of viruses. But what you may not know is that much of the design of our contemporary residences arose as a result of other major epidemics, such as the 1918 flu pandemic, tuberculosis and dysentery, for example.


The history of furniture over the last two hundred years is closely related to health measures. The professor Architecture History, Juliana Suzuki, explains that this starts with sanitary measures in Europe, at the end of the 19th century. It was at that time that the great discoveries about the transmission of diseases were happening.


“People believed that the great disease vector was the air itself. That is why those who were sick were sent away from the city to receive ‘fresh air’. It is with the cholera epidemic in England, which decimated the urban populations, that the debate about the origin of the diseases begins to gain more strength.”, explains Juliana.


At that time, very basic tasks, such as washing hands and cleaning the house, were not usual. It was only with advances in science and the discovery of ”bacteria” that the understanding of hygiene became widespread. “These sanitary practices begin as government measures. Today, it seems strange, but laws were needed for people to sweep their homes and wash their hands. And they were outraged! Because they didn’t quite understand the reason for that.”


After some time, these health practices proved to be very effective and became routine. “At a certain point, this moves from the sphere of urbanism to the domestic space and is incorporated into architecture and decoration. See, for example, the alcoves, rooms without any windows; they were very common. But then it became clear that non-ventilation contributes to the spread of diseases, so they are no longer authorised.”, points out the teacher.


See examples of the design of which has been linked to attempts to contain infectious diseases:


1. Closets

If you’ve ever been to an older apartment or house (or even live in one), chances are that lack of closet space is a problem. The reason for this is that, until the beginning of the 20th century, it was common for clothes to be stored in various independent furniture.

The change to concentrate everything on one big closet itself happened to make it easier to clean the rooms. Wardrobes and cabinets were heavy and collected a lot of dust and dirt. In the mid-1920s, Le Corbusier consolidated this idea by writing about the importance of hygiene and cleanliness in the design of homes and defending minimalism.


2. Kitchen Tiles

Do you know the famous white hospital tiles? They became popular in homes from the 19th century, because they were associated with cleaning and germ-free environments. It was at this time that people began to understand how much of the infectious diseases spread, so clear, smooth and easy to clean walls were a way to ensure that dirt would appear and could be cleaned easily.


3. Guest Bathrooms

The idea behind a guest toilet was not to have to share the bathroom that you and your family use with strangers. Considering that it was a period that people visit constantly and daily deliveries at home were common (bread, milk, coal, even ice), a bathroom right at the entrance to the house was convenient if any visitor wanted to use it.

In addition, having a sink near the main room and the entrance encouraged hand hygiene, a crucial measure in preventing diseases.


What’s next?

It is still a little early to know what is will be the impact of the Coronavirus on home furnishings, however, it is safe to say that sanitary measures will return to the agenda. Perhaps in the future, houses will have sinks next to the main doors, as well as spaces for leaving shoes and clothes (although coat hanging is common in England, is not at some other places) and even, perhaps, separate entrances that go straight to the toilets, so that sanitisation happens before entering.