Virtually all the sustainability-related literature focuses on environmental concerns. And rightly so. However, the #1 reason people bought one of our net zero sustainable homes was aesthetics, not saving money on utility bills or being eco-friendly. What I now see as “Sustainable Living” means living 100% with what Earth provides – which really isn’t all that difficult to do – and enjoying as great a quality-of-life experience as possible, of which aesthetics is a key. Here’s an enlightening research report that looks at the impact aesthetics is having. Comments afterwards.
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HGTV is making our homes boring
and us sad, one study says
A pair of professors found that home renovation media leads
homeowners to decorate for the masses, not for their own happiness
July 7, 2023
If you’ve ever watched a home makeover show on HGTV, you know the key “before” sequence. It’s when the camera critically pans over the house and the host points out everything that needs to be fixed. The decor? Cluttered. The paint? Cringe. The overall takeaway is that the home is an utter embarrassment and needs a total overhaul before anyone of taste would consider putting a doormat out front.
But what happens when people consider how
their own homes might fare under this kind of scrutiny?
It can lead to an overwhelming sameness in aesthetics, according to Annetta Grant, an assistant professor of markets, innovation and design at Bucknell University, who researched how home renovation media such as HGTV and magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens influenced homeowners.
Grant calls the idea that anyone could be scrutinizing or judging your decorating choices the “market-reflected gaze” in a research paper with Jay M. Handelman, an associate professor of marketing at Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Their findings came in large part from interviews with 17 homeowners doing renovations. Grant says …
“They’re seeing everything that’s wrong with
their home and imagining when people
come into their home [that] they’re also
criticizing and scrutinizing and judging
their home. It really makes people feel
quite uneasy about the decisions that they
make in their home, and so they’re always
kind of fearful about getting it wrong.”
(HGTV did not respond to multiple requests
for comment from The Washington Post.)
“Wrong,” in this case, has become defined as a decision that will make your home less appealing to buyers, even if you have no plans to put it on the market.
Homeowners are “torn between two ideas of what the home should be,” says Grant. The common wisdom is that buying a home ideally has two main benefits: You can build wealth and modify your space to your unique tastes. Grant’s framework shows these two benefits in conflict with one another.
The gaze is creating a “shift towards standardization,” she says. And it’s not just happening in rooms of the house where people expect guests to come, she found. That gaze extends to bedrooms and primary bathrooms, too.
Among the 17 people who participated in the research, most expressed the desire to be “that smart homeowner who has invested in my home and now, on paper, my home is worth so much more,” Grant says. So in order to be savvy, they might skip out on bolder choices in renovation and decor.
Instead, neutrals reign supreme, and the goal is to create a place that is inoffensive and could appeal to many. One interviewee for the study, Gabrielle, told the researchers about feedback she received on her renovated bathroom:
“I think people really are complimentary
on the bathroom because it’s a bit more
like a hotel room kind of cleanliness, looking
very streamlined, and everything coordinates.”
You can’t blame homeowners for trying to protect what is probably their largest asset. And they’re constantly bombarded with data that attributes a dollar amount to relatively minor decisions. Zillow, for example, does an analysis of paint colors. Its latest analysis said that
a white kitchen, long de rigueur, could now
hurt a house’s home price to the tune of $612,
whereas a charcoal-gray kitchen allegedly
increases the cost by an average of $2,512.
(To get these very specific numbers, Zillow showed study participants homes and asked how much they’d offer for each. Then, the company’s behavioral scientists used statistical modeling to figure out how the relationship between list and offer price changed depending on the room color.)
In a news release about the paint analysis, Zillow quoted Mehnaz Khan, a color psychology specialist and interior designer in Albany, N.Y.:
“Buyers have been exposed to dark
gray spaces through home improve-
ment TV shows and their social me-
dia feeds, but they’re likely drawn to
charcoal on a psychological level.”
Khan specializes in determining how colors and the built environment impact people’s moods and well-being. Yet when she and her husband built their first house, she tells The Washington Post, they fell into the same trap of prioritizing other people’s opinions over their own. She says …
“I’m always attracted to these uncon-
ventional things or unusual things,”
but her real estate agent “would constantly remind me, ‘Resale, resale, resale, resale.’
“It was so stuck in my head. We then
moved into the house. I was so scared
to do anything. I never painted anything.
I lived in those white walls and I was al-
ways thinking about the next homeowner.
Everything was for the next homeowner.”
She says she wishes she had decided to personalize the home and make it feel more like hers.
Ruth DeSantis, a climate scientist in Calgary, Alberta, found Grant’s research on Facebook and says it immediately resonated. She describes the HGTV aesthetic as “trying to get to this perfection, even though that’s totally impossible and unrealistic and I don’t like it anyway.”
The research struck a chord with her because “I have friends who will come to my house and say they like my kitchen except the white appliances,” she says. But the research inspired her to keep her white ones “because I like them,” rather than switch to a stainless-steel version she finds less appealing and more difficult to clean. DeSantis says …
“People are ripping out perfectly good
kitchens and replacing them because
they have the wrong color for the season.
I think that message needs to change be-
cause the environmental impact is so huge.”
Interior decorator Bona Gjoni, who works in Washington, says …
“I get asked the question a lot,
‘Is this trendy?’ and I always ad-
vise [clients] not to go down that
route. It is a trend and it will go
out of style. If you go for gold fin-
ishes everywhere, five years down
the road it’s not trendy anymore.
Then you’re going to have to reinvest.”
That’s exactly what Grant found. She says:
“Even if a homeowner renovates
their home to the latest standards,
because those standards are con-
stantly changing, they’ll look around
at the end of the renovation and start
thinking about their next renovation.”
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If a key part of Sustainable Living is maximizing our quality-of-life experience, then at some point we do need to say, “This aesthetic makes me feel great. I’m not going to compromise my joyfulness in my own home because of what some undefined future homebuyer may or may not prefer. It’s my money and my life.” Rather than wondering what’s the “least offensive,” perhaps we can ask “What make me feel most joyful?” Adding D’s comments …
“One’s home is a sanctuary. One’s home needs to reflect the individuals living there. It is painful for us to hear of people designing their homes for others, rather than themselves. We wish that individuals would choose colors, fabrics, furniture design, carpets, finishes and accessories that speak of their loves, their life experiences, and of all the people who live in their home.
“Life needs to be lived as you choose, and not to please others.
“Times are too stressful to live in a sterile and impersonal space. Such a space leaves most people uneasy and edgy. It’s unhealthy.
“There is a term that Stuart uses that he received from a mentor, that is called ‘inner-directed versus other-directed.’ As we move towards living more sustainably, individuals need to become more inner-directed, meaning: doing what one chooses; living as one chooses; and designing your home as one chooses … versus being other-directed, meaning worried about what others will think, what others would choose, or what others believe is ‘correct.’
“Remember, just like clothing fashion, there is fashion, or trends, in interior design. But good design does not have to follow those trends, as trends get outdated very quickly.
“Of all the spaces in which you spend your life, your home as a sanctuary is necessary for you to thrive; enjoy it and make it yours.”
As a sort of “preview of coming attractions,” the tenth of our Sustainable Living Tips Videos provides 60 seconds of wonderful and practical examples of ways to jump the aesthetics in your indoor and outdoor environments.