I have a distinct memory of pushing a faucet handle upward and downward as a toddler, watching the water surge, and then come to a sudden halt. Naturally, whichever adult was in range told me to stop, and that I was wasting water. I watched it pool at the bottom of the basin, and a realization dawned upon me: there was something behind that faucet, and the water it brought, though seemingly boundless, was actually finite.
In college, I studied architecture, where I learned about designing homes, but found myself intrigued by the systems that supplied them. I remember my astonishment when I learned that the water that supplied my childhood home connected to a huge, gravity-driven network of aqueducts that were built, incredibly, with a slope of an eighth inch over a mile. I came to learn that there’s an intricate web of piping, ducts, and wiring plastered behind our walls. I was fascinated by these systems, but they extended so far beyond what we typically call a house.
So, the question remains: what is a home, and what does it have to do with my childhood faucet? I believe we all have a version of my childhood naivete: we tend to think of our homes as no more than what’s in front of us, a small extension of our individual, private lives. And yet, my mundane, kitchen faucet is the culmination of an extremely complex, designed water system, beginning from a water source a hundred miles away.
Every component of our homes - from the mortgage loan to the finishing paint - represents a small node in a larger system. We use our walls to enclose us from the rest of the world, and yet they connect us globally: wall sheathing is typically sourced from the Philippines. Where we reside is dictated by zoning laws, which are deeply political but not necessarily democratic. And in the face of an increasingly volatile climate, our building codes may determine whether our homes will stand or fall. Our homes are much bigger than us: they are global and local systems cast and nailed into physical form, and claimed as our own.
While I marvel at the successes of these systems (not every child stares open-mouthed at a faucet) I am called to action by their failures, because these, too, are designed. For example, the faucets in Flint, Michigan pump out foul, lead-poisoned water, and have been since 2014. This is not the result of a mistakenly mis-engineered water system. Shouldering a $25 million deficit (with roots in the city’s automobile industry collapse after the rising oil prices and auto imports of the 70’s), the city rerouted its water to be supplied by the Flint River, a longtime cesspool for the city’s industries.
And for what reason? To cut costs.
To answer the original question, a home should be a refuge, an asset, and a safety net, but what we build is only as strong as its foundations. What a home really is depends on the systems that it stands upon. A squalid home is a burden and a danger, but most importantly, it is a symptom, not the disease. By extension, those whom these systems leave unhoused or improperly housed stand exposed not only to the elements, but also to our greatest political, racial, environmental, and health injustices. Our homes can be a powerful tool in overcoming these crises, but only through collective and integrated action. There isn’t much use, after all, in fixing the leaky faucet if it still draws lead.
Leah Karmaker is an architectural designer supporting Green New Deal Housing through the Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. Her background focuses on sustainable design and construction, and she brings a passion for housing, building, and spatial justice to her work.