Covid Concept Home

by Gina Schouten on October 19, 2021

An opinion piece by Tressie McMillan Cottom describes a new “Covid concept home” that was unveiled this summer. The home—with its four bedrooms and three-and-a-half bathrooms—is clearly intended for upper middle-class buyers, though it has not yet been priced. The “concept” emerged from a collaboration among three businesswomen in light of an online survey of nearly 7,000 U.S. adults (with household incomes of $50,000+/year). The survey’s purpose was to test “consumer sentiment in light of COVID-19 to understand the design changes consumers want in new homes and communities.”

Those survey results reveal an interesting trend in the expectations of a certain social group about work, school, and home life: “many consumers view the pandemic not as a one-off, but as a harbinger: They will need to work from home in the future.” The Covid concept home is built with this in mind.

There’s a lot of creepy consumerism here. Beyond the details that come out in McMillan Cottom’s description, the online tour of the house reveals stylized décor that romanticizes a simpler time when one could easily travel to distant vacation destinations with children. The kids’ room includes a climbing rope so homeowners will be well-prepared to exercise their children the next time public parks close and kids without backyards or indoor climbing equipment are again relegated to streets and sidewalks and parking lots for their outdoor recreation. These houses are clearly marketed to people who have the means (or hope for the means) to get as much of their skin out of the future pandemic game as possible.

There’s also a lot of creepy gender stuff here. McMillan Cottom describes the builders’ and developers’ attempts to frame the home’s design as feminist and empowering. “But when you peel back the women’s [survey] response to see the expectations underlying them,” she writes, “it does not sound empowering.” Rather, the design reflects the extreme pressures women have borne during the pandemic, and that they seem to presume they will continue to bear, at least intermittently.

Among the home’s design features that reflect women’s added burden of care work during the pandemic, McMillan Cottom notes two “flex spaces” in the home, the obvious function of which is for holding Zoom calls. One has an artful brick wall for backdrop; the other has decorative wallpaper and is located just off the kitchen: Although not explicitly gendered, “this design decision is a response to the idea that mothers need to remain tethered to the kitchen, because the kitchen is the control center of the home. The kitchen is open and gives direct sight lines to another innovation: schooling rooms.”

Yes, that’s right: “The Covid concept home has a built-in home schoolroom, with a Dutch door that allows the mother to be able to see into the room and theoretically supervise the children, while also providing separation so that she can continue to work from both the kitchen and her odd, small, highly decorated, kitchen-adjacent Zoom room.”

This home, says McMillan Cottom, is built for an “extremely retrograde” ideal of mothers tethered to the kitchen. “But now, instead of supervising the home life and the children, being tethered to the kitchen also allows her the ‘flexibility’ to participate in the paid labor market from her closed-in Zoom room.”

The piece builds to an important point: “The Covid concept home demonstrates both the exuberant quality of American consumption — that we can buy our way out of everything — and its limits as a solution. Designing for problems that may seem straightforward in a survey may sound really cool, and may provide you with some really cool features… But the problems posed by Covid can’t really be solved at the level of the household. These are structural, collective problems: politically and culturally, economically and spiritually. A concept house for our post-Covid reality probably needs to look more like dense, accessible, affordable housing so that women can untether themselves from the control center of their homes, and instead just enjoy a simple cup of coffee in the kitchen.”

I think she’s right that these are structural problems and that we need dense, accessible housing instead of this Covid concept home. But I was struck by a parallel that goes unnoted.

Given the gendered social norms that explain why women have been so burdened during the pandemic, attempts to idealize housing that brings those burdens closer together in domestic space as a feminist solution is simply crass. That’s in part because consumer choice is a solution only for a privileged few. Another problem with the thought that the Covid concept home is feminist and empowering is that making women’s unjust burden easier to carry doesn’t remove the unfairness. But that description—making women’s unjust burden easier to carry without removing the unfairness—doesn’t apply only to the Covid concept house. Lots of social policy that the left endorses does exactly the same thing. For example, just like the Covid concept house, subsidized childcare makes it easier to be a working parent. But it doesn’t eliminate the costs of parenting—nor should it. And, so long as parenting imposes costs in terms of work and the many other projects adults might like to pursue alongside parenting, and so long as women do more of the parenting, women will be disproportionally set back in those other projects. Arguably, so long as women are disproportionally set back, the unfairness remains.

This is not to say that subsidized childcare and the Covid concept house are analogous in all morally relevant respects. For one thing, there’s a difference in the degree to which the burden is lessened. A more important difference is that subsidized childcare eases the burden even for those who can’t afford gendered home offices and a built-in schoolroom. But the fact that both subsidized childcare and the concept house arguably leave gender unfairness intact suggests that, while McMillan Cottom is surely right that “the problems posed by Covid can’t really be solved at the level of the household,” they can’t be solved absent household changes, either. We ask too much of women caregivers, and part of that problem is that it’s too hard to provide care while also doing all the other things that women need and want to do. But another part of the problem survives the lessening of those burdens. We ask too much of women caregivers because so many—women included—still expect women to do the caregiving when the caregiving imposes costs at work and at play. And that can be solved only if we get everyone—men included—to value and insist on men doing caregiving.

Middle class housing shouldn’t look like this. But it will, for now. Within that context, and if consumers’ predictions about future pandemics are right, the kitchen zoom room isn’t such an abomination. We just need more men zooming from the kitchen and more women zooming from the upstairs quiet. And, even as we desperately need subsidized childcare, we also need more men staying home with the sniffling kid while they wait for that Covid test to come back negative.



Kai Jones 10.19.21 at 5:09 pm

The most absurd thing is that it claims to be for middle-class families. Who could afford it? UMC families and up only. Even if you consider middle class to be up to twice the median family income, that would range from around $46,000 to around $150,000/year.


nobody 10.19.21 at 8:59 pm

Design choices not withstanding, the idea of remaking housing with the expectation of permanent Indian-variant COVID-19 is entirely necessary.

Indian-variant COVID-19 is not a temporary problem; the disease will never be eradicated. Permanent lifestyle changes are inevitable in the face of a disease so transmissible and virulent that those who attempt to return to what used to be the western way of life will find their life expectancies cut short by decades.

Vaccines specific to the Indian variant may reduce the civilizational burden of this disease but it is highly unclear if better vaccines are even possible.

People with the means to afford living spaces large enough to support working from home will absolutely demand housing designed to accommodate WFH. Having that degree of isolation from other people will be the only way to live long enough to reach retirement.

It is unlikely that the transition into a permanently physically-atomized culture will pass without completely unwinding the past century of expanding rights for women. Prior solutions to enhance autonomy of women, like funded childcare, are not effective in the face of Indian-variant COVID-19 because sending a child to any kind of communal environment will cause the child to repeatedly bring home a disease that will reinfect its parents until they die of it.

Indian-variant COVID-19 will result in worse lives for everyone, but much worse lives for those who are already disadvantaged.

Expect to see many more concepts like this one as more people internalize that Indian-variant COVID-19 has permanently ended our way of life.


Kiwanda 10.19.21 at 9:25 pm

It’s odd to see a home design specifically taking covid into consideration, and yet that has nothing at all about ventilation; it’s not a “Reduce Aerosol Spread of Contagion” house, but a “Work from Home (with the Kids)” house. There are people who can afford and make use of a WFH house, but really, not a thought about an RASC house?


Rapier 10.19.21 at 10:32 pm

It is becoming increasingly costly, troublesome and eventually dangerous to travel. Cocoons aren’t going to work but it just goes to show you. Everybody knows.


Cranky Observer 10.20.21 at 11:48 am

= = = The most absurd thing is that it claims to be for middle-class families. Who could afford it? UMC families and up only. = = =

That’s a pretty typical size for a middle class suburban home here in Midwest Medium City – there have probably been 500k such built around here over the last 20 years. The yard on the model is smaller than the American Dream yard (good) and spacing is much tighter than is typical in the suburban Midwest (I say good). There are some high-end exterior finishes that would raise the price but those would be deleted on most of the instances built by a developer/sales firm.

As to how they are afforded, a few trade ups and then a 40-year mortgage seems to be the norm. I’ve personally been questioned by peers about why I buy houses in areas below what my income level “could support” if I incautiously stretched (answer is partly financial conservatism, partly that the more interesting places to live in Midwest city regions are not the new exurbs and are generally less expensive as well), but the norm seems to be that middle class families across the entire range of what is considered middle class [1] pay what it takes to get the long-term family house.

[1] excluding special cases such as the more expensive areas of NYC, SF, and Chicago


J, not that one 10.20.21 at 1:40 pm

I didn’t realizing advertising directed at women was “feminist” now. What’s “girl power”? Treating women like human beings who should have a space in the house they like? Recognizing that mothers can have jobs? What is the alternative being proposed here?

As Kiwanda points out, what is needed is a spare bedroom with its own attached bathroom so the infected can be isolated.

The California-centrism that assumes every day is sunny (so providing indoor play spaces is frivolous) is also a serious annoyance.

A double room that allows private space for an adult and for breakable or spillable items, and a door that can be closed fully, while preserving sight lines for children and pets sounds like something we always should have had. I don’t see how that’s worse than having no wall between the family room and kitchen and no room in the house that’s intended for private use instead of public display, which is what is understood to be “normal” now.


Glen Tomkins 10.20.21 at 5:49 pm

The Cottom article is behind a paywall, so I didn’t read it, but the video tour was free, and I was mildly surprised the home design didn’t have a huge storage area for all the prepper supplies a family will need to survive the total breakdown of society. Maybe that’s in a basement they didn’t tour. That is our current plan for dealing with the breakdown of society — don’t do anything to halt the breakdown of society, and instead have individual families do things that will notionally allow them to survive the breakdown of society.


John Quiggin 10.21.21 at 7:15 pm

Underlying the gender problems is the problem of excessive working hours, particularly but not only in the US. At least some of the Great Resignation seems to reflect people deciding to work less and lower their aspirations for consumption. That’s easier on higher incomes of course.


Joe B 10.23.21 at 6:34 pm

I ran this by my partner who does residential house design and he thinks your critiques are off base given his interactions with clients. Your assumption that the kitchen is ‘women’s space’ is outdated particularly for the demographic that this house is aimed at. The biggest request he gets is for a bigger kitchen because both partners are using the kitchen. This started way before COVID. COVID has accelerated the trend of men doing much more of the child rearing. I think that indicates that the structural/economic barriers are more important as cultural. Given the economic choice men are the ones zooming from the kitchen. (And often not given the choice because it was the man who lost his job – common in this demographic but clearly different for working class men and women) A word about the demographics. The Washington Post article on this mentioned a price range of 650,000 – 700,000. He thinks that’sunrealistic. In the suburbs of a major metro area like Denver it would probably be around 950,000 with the high end finishes shown. Thats still below what 2 income doctor/lawyer families are spending (low interest rates and all) so maybe lower UMC is the target. Otherwise the house has fairly standard amenities. The kitchen office has been standard for quite a while though he did admit that it would usually have faced the other way.. so one concession to Zoom. He also pointed out that there is a big disconnect between architects interior designers real estate agents and home buyers on these. A lot of what you see is just marketing. At any rate I found the NY Times author and her confidantes projecting rather sexist (and urban) prejudices onto the house design.

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