A Proposed Collaboration: The Wearable Home

I have written several times about the idea of a ‘wearable home’ — a self-contained environment that would allow the ‘wearer/resident’ to live comfortably ‘outdoors’ anywhere on Earth. The standard human solution to the problem of inhospitable climate is an extravagant invention called the ‘single family home’, which contains as many as a dozen different single-purpose unconfigurable ‘rooms’, must be abandoned in favour of another model when the occupant’s lifestyle changes, and consumes huge amounts of fossil fuels to keep the entire structure at a comfortable temperature, even when the occupant is away from it.

There are several more economical solutions in widespread use. The most enduring of these is the deer-and-harehide suit of the aboriginal peoples of the Arctic, which allows the hunter-gatherer tribes to travel long distances comfortably, and requires the construction of only a simple, inexpensive and temporary dwelling for the few activities that cannot be carried out comfortably out-of-doors. These natural suits are, for the Ihalmiut, the perfect house.

In areas more hospitable to us naked humans (the tropics), the few gatherer-hunter peoples that have not been exterminated by Agricultural Man build only temporary structures and abandon them as their communities migrate across their hunting and gathering range. They lead the most leisurely lives of any humans on the planet, spending most of their lives ‘outside’ and hoarding nothing.

We have all seen the wearable homes devised of necessity by the (mostly) urban homeless. Despite the lack of cultural knowledge of how to construct such portable housing, some of the examples I have seen are quite ingenious. One man I spoke to said it had taken him years to perfect the layers he uses to protect himself from cold, wind, rain and heat, yet allowed the heat from the subway grates he slept on to penetrate on cold winter nights.

In that spirit, a number of designers and artists have created wearable homes suitable for homeless or transient life, or for life after the collapse of civilization. Some of these have been serious efforts, others ironic. The photo above shows a wearable home designed by Mary Mattingly, who has even provided some specifications for it.

It seems to me that, whatever you think the future will bring, with all the recent research on ‘smart textiles‘ we now have the technology to design and create a wearable home. And the possibilities if we can do so — doing away with the need for the single-family dwelling and all its accoutrements (lights, furnaces, air-conditioners, furniture, and the need to ‘commute’) would almost entirely solve the problems of the End of Oil and Global Warming — seem too good to pass up.

So I’d like to propose a collaboration: Let’s create, together, the Wearable Home. The three steps in doing so are:

  1. Develop a complete specification for the Wearable Home — what it would have to be able to do.
  2. Research current and evolving technologies that meet these specifications.
  3. Design it.

Here’s a very incomplete start to the specification:

  • It would have to be comfortable and allow full freedom of movement in any weather conditions
  • It would have to be, if not fashionable, at least not ridiculous-looking
  • It would have to incorporate the portable communication, information and entertainment technologies that we now take for granted, built-in, without having to carry around bulky or heavy ‘peripherals’
  • It would have to allow us to see and function in the dark, using either built-in lighting or some other optical technology
  • It would have to be either easy to clean or keep clean, or self-cleaning
  • It would have to be comfortable enough to sleep in, ideally without the need for bedding
  • It would have to be customizable both stylistically (we don’t all want to look the same) and functionally (e.g. temperature could be regulated to personal preferences)
  • It would not replace the need for a place to store and cook food, but would obviate the need for every other room in the modern ‘single family home’ except the kitchen and (probably) the bathroom

What am I missing?

And would our culture accept this innovation? We have recently invented a set of technologies that have essentially eliminated the need for offices, yet we remain anchored to an obsolete mindset that says everyone has to have their own personal office or cubicle. We are still building new office space, of which 90% is space designed for principal occupancy by one person, at a record pace. Are we just culturally unable to abandon the idea that, even though we can carry our entire ‘office’ under our arm and ‘open’ it anywhere, we still need a personal office ‘space’? And if so, does this suggest that even if the personal wearable home became a reality, we would still insist on wearing it in a redundant ‘family home’? And even though technologypromises/threatens the end of privacy, will we still want walls and doors so that government, business, and community snoops can’t always see what we’re doing?

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14 Responses to A Proposed Collaboration: The Wearable Home

  1. Brilliant. I blogged on something a little like this here: http://intofuture.blogspot.com/2005/10/sleeping-box.htmlYour idea takes shelter redesign one great step farther. One idea that people will be concerned about is security. You’re vulnerable when you’re asleep and it’s nice to have some way (at least a symbolic way) to let people know that you are not to be disturbed.

  2. This raises a few interesting questions. If I didn’t pay for a roof or a bed how much would this space be worth to the next hightest bidder? How would I spend the newly freed cash? And where would I sleep? If the suit was cheap enough cleaning wouldn’t be as much of an issue. Also, none of the apparently enlightened cultures you cite developed the internet, internal combustion engine, game theory, Ricky Martin, etc. But I will be meditating on how my life would be different if I were a turtle.

  3. Paul Hunt says:

    Compelling!I am making a research campus dedicated to designing more natural and efficient buildings.We don’t change our habits easily, but this turtle concept just can’t be ingnored. It deserves more attention.

  4. James Samuel says:

    Fun to consider Dave, but perhaps a bigger jump than necessary and larger than will be taken up voluntarily by more than a brave few. How about a movable shelter that takes less than a day to break down, transport and put back up again. I relocated my yurt on Saturday and it fitted easily on the back of a friend’s very small truck (could have been a trailer and a horse). My 5 metre (15 foot) diam yurt will provide me all my shelter needs and more, and yet the resource use would probably be more than accounted for by planting a single tree. That being said, I will follow this one with interest – being the minimalist I am, I am always keen to see how far this philosophy can be pushed.

  5. Last year my sister-in-law (a geniologist) discovered that I and my son are descendants of William Brewster, one of the Pilgrims of Plymouth. So off we went to Plymouth, Massachusetts to see the replica of the colony. We spent a long and fascinating day observing the Pilgrim and Wampanoag ways of living. And it dawned on me, to my horror I must say, that the main issue of incompatability between European and Native was our bombastic need to discover and transcend by way of controlled environments. The natives believed (generally) in letting, accepting, and conforming to the nature of all things and ways. The Europeans were about conquest, control, and discovery. Discovery being the element or paradigm of thought that the Natives had minimal interest in as it conflicted with their culture of environmental (or natural) compatability and acceptance. The colonists’ conquest and control strategies were ignorant and brutal and of course eventually genocidal. But as I stood listening to the actor portaying Patrick Brewster (William’s son) I heard the “discovery” ring in his banter. He spoke passionately (requesting that we keep his words in confidence) about his life’s desire to find and formulate the “Elixir of Life!” He told us that one day he would sneak off into the forest to finally concoct his great formula derived from the scientific conceptions of his keenly observant and deeply logical mind. To create The Elixir, he said, would be an act of blasphemy against his way of life, his religion and the King of England. So, emmersed in his culture of strict environmental control, and ignorant incompatability with nature, he vainly yearned and mentally strived for freedom to explore, discover, and transcend the limitations of life and mortality. We remain thus. This is the “long story” way of saying that we occupy controlled spaces and waste them in order to set perameters for discovery. And it is the promise of discovery that gives us a sense of individual transcendance that outweighs our natural inclinations to let and belong. We are a culture that often secretly and ambivolently worships this deeply defiant will to discover.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Mary Mattingly chimes in:I love this call to design a wearable home. Without getting that specific right now

  7. Wow, fabulous and inspiring. It could be modular, inter-connectable, open source. It breaks down into some different areas of functionality, which there could be many different implementations of, and maybe some agreements on how these things connect, so one can mix and match. Like, clothes with built-in heating and cooling would be one place to start. If that were standardized, I might buy a different jacket and it still fits with the tubes in my pants. And what about blow-up components. A little package might inflate to a tent to sleep in. Could it possibly be made of kevlar or carbon nano-tubes, to be secure as well? In which case it could be my personal airbag security device, hiding me inside a cocoon when necessary.

  8. Daniel G. says:

    This is truly brilliant– it’s been so long since I’ve been really inspired by an idea, or able to genuinely call something ‘visionary’. The very notion will strike most people as patently ridiculous, which is all the more reason that it needs to be done.Ivan Illich wrote a lot about institutions and how… less than a certain amount of “consumption” of their product is useless. ie, going up to 11th grade, or 3 years of college, etc. The same is definitely true of modern urban living– though exceptions abound, the “easiest” route to live is to have a job which pays enough to pay for transportation and housing of a certain order, in order to maintain one’s standing (and appearances) to continue to work within the system. This is a critical threshold of time, energy, and committment. But what if you could lower that threshold tenfold, giving people more and more options to only have to participate in such routines and requirements to their preferred level of comfort?Well, that was all a bit oblique, but you are truly on to something here! What you are proposing is nothing less than encouraging a tremendous expansion of CHOICE.

  9. Pearl says:

    Interesting topic. Especially the poor need this. I saw a lecture by LA urban planner Edward Soja this week and he put the figure of homeless in LA at 3/4 million, including about 360, 000 living as squatters in garages or hotbedding hotels. It’s the access not only to heat and shade but toiletry facilities, hot water, cooking centres, perhaps like local laundrymats that would have to be available in conjunction with extremely portable shelters that are recognized as possessions that can’t be taken away by authorities, seized for tresspassing.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    …and check out 10 more comments on this from Flemming Funch’s readers.

  11. theresa says:

    Here is a link for a wearable home. It might not fit the bill for being fashionable but maybe it would save getting out of bed in the morning.www.tranism.com/weblog/archives/2006/02/selkbag.html

  12. Merlin Mann at 43 Folders cited an article in the Washington Post asking why we carry so much stuff around all the time.”The increased quantity of carry-on items for our flight through life, he [Cultural historian Thomas Hine] says, reflects “the tendency of our society to dispense with sources of shared stability — the long-term job, neighborhoods, unions, family dinners — and transform us into autonomous free agents.”One potential drawback of the wearable home is that it could exacerbate the placelessness of modern life. As such, it might inadvertently increase the human footprint. I tend to think that, on the whole, a society’s sense of roots in a place (made into material form by a house) decreases its ecological footprint, even though houses use a lot of resources.I still like the idea: I just think we ought to be aware of its potential downsides.

  13. mark says:

    Nice article, Mr. Pollard :)

  14. david says:

    It is interesting when noting “mobile homes” were at one time open to search without warrants, while fixed homes were considered “castles” and a search warrant was required.. Of course now-a-daze Police etc require merely a mood swing to kick a door in….

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