The role of the home and the way it might be managed in the future have been debated by international experts from the fields of architecture, interior design, business studies and home-making. Delegates from more than a dozen countries gathered at London's QEII centre to answer the question: what makes a house a home?

Organised by the Home Renaissance Foundation and opened by Sir Bryan Sanderson, contributors included a Swedish mother-of-four who has made home-making into a multi-million pound business and a Spanish professor who asks whether running a home should be recognised as a profession.

Home base

Launching the conference Sir Bryan said the looming recession could actually provide a boost for the home. "It's counter-cyclical, like chocolate or biscuits, they become more important to people during hard times."
The author, broadcaster and writer Charles Handy, agreed: "Recession will force us back to the essentials of life. It will accelerate the process of working from home. People will be thrust into the bosom of the family. Fathers will be there more often. We will go back to having one parent there as jobs are cut."

The conference is also hearing criticism of British housing policy from some of the UK's best-known architects. "Housing by numbers is all too often the approach in the UK," said Prof Lawrence Barth. He argued for more flexibility in housing policy with greater emphasis placed on twenty or thirty-somethings who do not want to live alone, or in a traditional family home converted into a house for multiple occupation. Prof Barth added: "The role of the home is to cultivate autonomy in the next generation. We always want to fiddle with the home. There is a constant search for excellence within it."

Excellence in the home

Achieving excellence in the home was the subject of some debate. Monica Lindstedt founded a Swedish company twelve years ago to outsource housekeeping services. The firm, called Hemfrid – meaning 'peace at home' – employs 800 people. Mrs Lindstedt, a working mother, saw a gap in the market created by ignorance of even basic domestic skills among Swedish parents. "The knowledge of how you run a home is dying out," she said. "Our employees say there are now three kinds of Swedish family; the 'internal exhibition', the normal, and the catastrophic."

Maria Julia Prats, a professor at Barcelona's business school, offered an alternative to buying in help: training people in home-making. She said homemaking had much in common with conventional professions. Like a doctor homemakers have a duty to put others before themselves. She said professionals needed a common basis of knowledge in addition to practical – and certifiable – skills, as well as some form of association and social recognition.

Social capital

Oxford University's Janine Nahapiet said homes were where children learned how to co-operate, in doing something as simple as solving a jigsaw puzzle together. "The home provides the foundation for relationships," she said. "Families which are high in social capital have better educational, career and health outcomes."
Architects were encouraged to think ahead and consider how the ageing population will alter design.

Charles Handy said: "Increasingly, more old people will live at home. Doors will need to be wide enough for wheelchairs. More homes will ensure someone with limited mobility can get to the toilet – that's the key thing. It will by driven, sadly, by economics not morality."

Mr Handy said the importance of the home could not be overestimated. "The most important school is the home, where you learn consideration for others. You learn about self-discipline much more than at school. "You learn about risks. You learn about money in the family, about deferred gratification. You learn about love."

* For more on this conference: http://www.homerenaissancefoundation.org/

Colin Brazier

Colin Brazier is a journalist with Sky News in the UK.