The word ‘home’ is derived from the Old Norse word heima which, revealingly, refers not just to a place, but also a state of being and its associated connotations – belonging, safety, love.
Over the past year, the word home has come to mean a lot more than it did before the pandemic. The places in which we once sought refuge from the world have now become our offices, schools and gyms. However, although our homes might look or feel very different, we all share an understanding that home is more than shelter, more than a place, more than a building.
For children in children’s homes, the state of being and belonging that we all expect from being at home can be elusive. It’s not surprising, given that these children are only ever in one place for a few months, and sometimes merely weeks before being moved somewhere else, potentially hundreds of miles away to a place that they can barely point to on a map. Many children have to leave their children’s home at the age of 16 and move into semi-independent accommodation by themselves with less support.
We regularly discuss the concept of ‘home’ at Lighthouse, primarily because we are trying to do away with so much of what makes too many children’s homes institutional. The things that stand in the way of belonging. Despite many children’s homes being in typical residential environments, once you step through the front door, the locks on living room doors and the corporate signage familiar to anyone who has worked in an office, give away the fact that you are not in a typical home. Therefore, we’ve decided to do away with the things that are suggestive of an institution. Whenever we’re deciding on something to go in the home, we start with the question: is this something that we would expect to see in a typical family home? If the answer is no and isn’t 100% necessary, we don’t have it.
This isn’t always an easy task. We have spent the last two years working closely with our architects to rethink every element of children’s home design to ensure that we create a place where children are safe but can feel proud to call home. Everything we are doing in the building is done to the highest possible standards and once complete will set a new standard for children’s home design. When people walk through our front door, they should realise that they’re in a lovely home, not a lovely ‘children’s home’.
We’ve also done the things that many parents would. We’ve set our home up in a location that ensures our children have access to good schools and visited them to make sure that they have the support and provision that our children will need. We chose a building with plenty of outdoor space for children to play in. We have separate flats on site that children can stay in when they’re too old to be in the home itself, meaning that they have the option to stay on after their 16th birthday. Meeting rooms are separate from the main living spaces to avoid the regular incursions of strangers, another hallmark of life in a children’s home.
Our philosophy extends to other aspects of the project. We’ve tried to preserve as much of the derelict 1920’s building as possible and reused and recycled where we could. Electricity will be supplied by solar panels, and we have a building management system that only delivers heat to occupied rooms to ensure the building is environmentally friendly.
Most importantly, in our ‘heima’, it’s not just the physical building that makes something institutional. It’s also the relationships between the people that are there. We strongly believe in the importance of family. Like homes, families come in all shapes and sizes. We know we can’t be a replacement for a child’s family, but that doesn’t mean that the child should not have a sense of family when they are in our home. For this reason, we will prioritise things like eating meals and going away on holiday together.
When people ask me about outcomes for the children that we will look after, the things that come to mind are not the grades they will get in school, or even the jobs that they will do as adults. It’s supporting children in a way that gives them a sense of belonging and family and a place where they can feel at home. In doing so it gives these children the best chance of building a sense of home when they one day become adults and have their own families.