A New Old Pattern Language

From The Yak Collective's New Old Home project.

Note: This is a post written alongside The Yak Collective’s The New Old Home project.

Many of you are likely already familiar with Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, a holistic design system adapted to life before Covid-19.

For those of you who aren’t, Christopher Alexander is an architect, mathematician, and design thinker whose work has revolutionized not only traditional architecture, but also software engineering and UX design. I was first introduced to his work through writer Sarah Perry, whose work I deeply admire and frequently reference.

A Pattern Language has allowed people of various disciplines to apply design heuristics that are carefully built around the ways in which people actually live, move through space, or interact with the world. It was written pre-Covid, and as such, there is an emphasis on the socially-intimate village of, at times, 7000 people. This was appropriate then but serious foundational changes have to be considered now; for example, a newfound cultural memory of pandemic-mayhem and impulses for/against social-distancing are rapidly transforming how people live.

By adapting Alexander’s existing scheme to the new challenges of a post-Covid world, we can build A New Old Pattern Language. Utilizing a first-principles-driven, uniform language will allow multiple agents and coalitions to rapidly scale their rebuilds in self-consistent ways.

What considerations have to be taken?

Much of the success of A Pattern Language can be attributed to how adaptable it is. Its patterns don’t describe floor-plans written in stone. There is no recommended sequence to the patterns, or even in the manner in which the book is read. Instead, readers can peruse the book at will and pick-and-choose which patterns are most suitable to their projects.

And I wouldn’t say that A Pattern Language provides a modular philosophy of construction. Because there are no hard-coded plans or instructions, implementation is really at the hands of the reader. A Pattern Language provides some guidelines but mostly illuminates what human needs motivate which interactions in space (and gives a sense of how patterns interact and borrow from one another to create a holistic system of living.)

But things are different now. A Pattern Language presumes that work takes place in a traditional office. It argues the case against the nuclear family, indicating a near ideological suggestion against atomization and instead towards communal living. Even though patterns of living from the past, such as living with extended family and generations, may be better adapted for human needs than the current ways of the world, perhaps not all of them fit the rapidly evolving needs of people now.

Here are just a few considerations I think must be accounted for:

  1. Radical uncertainty in the real estate market and in geographic distribution of people.

    Let’s face it. We know housing is going to change as a result of Covid-19. It won’t only happen to people suffering from economic hardship. The primary benefits of city-living are getting squashed by the day.

  2. Remote-first work: merging of office & domestic spaces.

    Popular home-office furnishings are selling out on Amazon by the minute. Knowledge workers and their habits are, for the first time, visible to their families and children. Millions of people are faced with realizing that their jobs could have been performed from the comforts of their homes, all along. The occupational hazards of remote work have even greater implications, as parents manage childcare and work calls side-by-side, or struggle to sleep in the same room that they take meetings in.

  3. Greater domestic social exposure among cohabitants vs. Deprivation of social nutrients typically transmitted through public interaction.

    At the same time that there is an increased demand for privacy, there is a mass-malnourishment from social nutrients, creating an enormous tension away from the people most immediately available to us and towards fantasies of escapism, wishing to be seen in public or to interact with even strangers, memories of going to concerts, weddings, or trips with friends. People are going to crazy lengths to create individual spaces in their homes (such as repurposing previously ignored basement space for home offices) while also finding new ways to telemeet with others (people are “meeting” in video-games for office meetings.)

  4. Decreased trust in existing structures → Increased impulse for self-sufficiency 

    Covid-19 has made preppers of even the most suburban families. Home gardening has newfound meaning, tracing back to the Great Depression days of Victory Gardens. I, for example, have drastically cut-down on take-out and delivery and am learning the most I have ever about cooking, meal-prep, and extracting maximum utility from a single grocery run.

The New Old Home

All the aforementioned considerations motivate the development of The New Old Home.

“… as work returns to the home in the form of remote work opportunities (a trend now dramatically accelerated by pandemic circumstances), we can turn to historical modes of integrated living, reconsidered in light of newer technology, to guide our attempts at co-located life and work.” (The New Old Home.)

Covid-19 has shifted our collective reliance on Big Food, gym studios, childcare, and other services. It is safer and more effective to provide for these services ourselves. We are relocating many of these functions back home.

The New Old Home now serves as some combination of home, office, gym, cafe, school, farm, warehouse and workshop alike.

This itself is not unprecedented in history. For instance, homes used to be the primary place for childcare. Only when more women entered the workforce did daycare really take off.

The diagram above (by Pamela Hobart) relates The New Old Home to The Farm Home, ther old way to be productive in the same physical space for dwelling. The differences largely pertain to the nature of our work; we are now largely remote workers, “knowledge workers,” using tools like laptops, phones, Zoom calls, ring lights, TikTok, and VR. Even when gardening, perhaps we use apps and gadgets for help.

Attempts to solve these challenges are already popping up!

People are of course already reacting to these unprecedented circumstances. The Zen Pod and HAVEN are two responses to novel housing demands. Whether these solutions are comprehensive remains to be seen.

The Zen Work Pod by Autonomous

The Zen Work Pod is an addendum to one’s single-family home. Autonomous markets it as a great fit for creatives, perhaps in line with its transparent design allowing an uninterrupted view of one’s external surroundings. It comes outfitted with office furniture and Autonomous offers to install it all for you, including hooking it up to electricity or other utilities (A/C or heating). Its price currently ranges from $5,400 to $13,400 USD, taking after a Kickstarter “early adopter” model. Every Zen Work Pod looks the same as a modular add-on.

I would venture to say that The Zen Work Pod is a rather atomized solution to the decentralized office problem; it requires you to already own your own property and outfits an office only fit for one person in a rather insulated yet antisocial way. (I’m pretty sure the assumption is you live in the hills of Montana or New Hampshire, where the view outside your windows is vast and open, not of your neighbor’s backyard BBQ party.) It doesn’t seem to integrate with much else, but does afford a physical boundary between work and home spaces. On the other hand, one could argue that work is more celebrated as analogous to living as ever; by having two physically separate structures parallel to one another, one for living and one for work, work takes on a magnitude of value akin to living itself.

HAVEN by The Jetters

HAVEN takes on a radically different approach, albeit more ambitious. A project by The Jetters, Haven promises to “evacuate” people to a collective village safe from Covid-19 and its consequences. Haven markets itself as a “sanctuary” and a place “where the past is the future.” This itself mirrors the philosophy behinds The New Old Home. While there isn’t extensive information on Haven found on their website, they pride themselves on hosting a ER Physician:

"Social distancing and sheltering in place are essential tools now to fight the coronavirus pandemic, but take a toll on our psyche and will be difficult to sustain for months on end. But if a community of individuals take precautions to be lower risk of coronavirus shelters at a remote location together, while sealing themselves off from exposure to the pandemic, they may find themselves healthier both emotionally and physically."

- Allon Amitai, ER Physician & Telemedecine Medical Director at Haven

Haven is a condensed solution, not an atomized one. It borrows from the resources and collaboration of its inhabitants to provide an environment whose sum is greater than its parts. Though Haven describes its projects as “villages,” details on their governance are yet to be disclosed, though it would seem that their villages are already a testament to global movement towards decentralization. Food and medical supplies are managed and supplied internally. Could Haven, whose model is supposed to be “capital efficient,” help pioneer a new, profitable direction for real estate?

Christopher Alexander’s works advocate for similar structures to Haven, typically small villages of families including both immediate and distant relatives. What’s interesting is that Haven illuminates a possibility that notions of family, the OG “ingroup,” may be changing. Instead of cohabitting in a village with people biologically related to you, you cohabitate with those people who share similar economic, ideological, and subcultural identifiers. Communication through the internet has made it easier than ever to replace traditional social structures with subcultural ones.

A New Old Pattern Language

These examples above are among the first attempts to help fill the new demands of homes. It remains to be seen whether everyone can adapt to village style living or if people will prefer patterns of atomization. A New Old Pattern Language can help accelerate the development and experimentation of and with such solutions by developing an interactive taxonomy of up-to-date patterns that can be applicable across scales. A New Old Pattern Language could look something like this:

  • Pattern 16: Farcaster Mansion (Venkatesh Rao, Slides 7-9)

    Have four distinct spaces in your house: one each for domestic production, waste stream, supply chain, and public appearances.

    See Pattern 146, Portals, for connecting these worlds. See patterns 52 to 83 on structuring each of these worlds.

  • Pattern 79: Harvey’s Photo Studio 

    Inspired by Harvey’s photo studio in the 2020 video game, Animal Crossing, a house which characters can visit and temporarily decorate as they like for taking selfies, model your Public Appearances World as a flexible studio space with several nooks, corners, alcoves, rooms, and spaces. Provide different, easily portable furniture pieces and accessories.

    See pattern 81 on seamlessly incorporating cameras, monitors, projectors, and lighting in this world. See pattern 82 on fitting your Public Appearances World as one that multiple people can inhabit at the same time, including tips on curating auditory and visual privacy.

  • Pattern 146: Portals

    Incorporate portals wherever possible between worlds. Since daily commutes are no longer available, people are no longer able to transition or decompress to/from work. Utilize elongated hallways, staircases, dropped ceilings, and lighting to this end.

    See Pattern 106, Passenger Boarding Bridge, on creating hallways and connections that mimic the experience of leaving an airport and departing for a journey to a new world.

    See Pattern 107 for dropped ceilings if working with limited square footage. Reduced ceiling height at the door of a room can help mimic a sense of “entering” a self-enclosed space.

  • Pattern 147: Astronaut’s Airlock

    Astronauts are now ready to get out of their spacecraft. They leave the spacecraft through a special door called an airlock. The airlock has two doors. When astronauts are inside the spacecraft, the airlock is airtight so no air can get out. When astronauts get ready to go on a spacewalk, they go through the first door and lock it tight behind them. They can then open the second door without any air getting out of the spacecraft. After a spacewalk, astronauts go back inside through the airlock. (What is a Spacewalk? NASA)

    Homes with backyard pools often have a separate space between the back door and the rest of the house. This space, similar to an airlock, is enclosed by doors on two sides. Implement a similar feature at the entrancee of one’s home: provide a sink and place laundry appliances by house entrance to help disinfect entrants. Caddies for people to place or wipe off groceries, a receptacle for accepting mail, packages, and delivery orders can be placed here too. The Astronaut’s Airlock is a robust processing zone for any materials of the external universe and helps ensure seamless re-integration of the “astronaut'“ with his/her self-sufficient home.

These sample patterns are only a first-pass attempt at what A New Old Pattern Language may look like, largely inspired by the work of The New Old Home project. Though the value and impact of “high-tech” powered devices like smartphones and tablets is still very-much contested today, one thing is for sure: the tech is here to stay. Covid-19 has locked down a cultural embrace for remote-first work, schooling, grocery shopping and all the tools that have made this possible.

It’s time to find and embrace harmonious patterns of living that let us thrive not only alongside, but integrated with, technology.