The Meaning of Custom-Made Homes: Home As a Metaphor For Living

ABSTRACT - Custom-made products are products that are co-created by the consumer and the producer and, thus, offer an opportunity to study the construction of product meaning. The focus of this study is on the process of creating meaning in the building of a custom-made home and the subsequent impact of consumption on this meaning. More specifically, this study examines how consumers encode cultural and personal meaning in the specification and building of a custom-made home and how this meaning changes when they live in the home. Evidence from in-depth interviews suggests that both cultural and personal categories of meaning play an important role in the creation of custom-made homes. Consumers encode cultural symbols that have widely shared meaning in the construction of their home. However, symbols that have more personal meaning are also encoded into the homes. The consumer shapes the home in the process of building and living in the home and the home, concomitantly, shapes the consumer's life. In many ways, the home is a metaphor for the consumer's life. This idea of the home as a metaphor for living is developed.


C. B. Claiborne and Julie L. Ozanne (1990) ,"The Meaning of Custom-Made Homes: Home As a Metaphor For Living", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 367-374.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 367-374


C. B. Claiborne, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Julie L. Ozanne, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


Custom-made products are products that are co-created by the consumer and the producer and, thus, offer an opportunity to study the construction of product meaning. The focus of this study is on the process of creating meaning in the building of a custom-made home and the subsequent impact of consumption on this meaning. More specifically, this study examines how consumers encode cultural and personal meaning in the specification and building of a custom-made home and how this meaning changes when they live in the home. Evidence from in-depth interviews suggests that both cultural and personal categories of meaning play an important role in the creation of custom-made homes. Consumers encode cultural symbols that have widely shared meaning in the construction of their home. However, symbols that have more personal meaning are also encoded into the homes. The consumer shapes the home in the process of building and living in the home and the home, concomitantly, shapes the consumer's life. In many ways, the home is a metaphor for the consumer's life. This idea of the home as a metaphor for living is developed.


A place need not be exotic in order to serve as a spring-board for discovery...Perhaps it is best to explore the meaning of place at our doorstep (Meyers 1989).

Throughout our lives we make choices and these choices reveal much about who we are. While the choices of love, family, and career are important opportunities for self creation, so too are our consumption choices. Consumption choices pervade almost every aspect of life and impact on the creation of one's self and life. For example, one's image of oneself as a parent may be shaped by the home that one provides for one's family.

Within the marketplace, there exists a wide variety of consumption alternatives in which consumers may express themselves. Yet, in the marketplace, researchers usually study an individual's selection of products among pre-existing alternatives. In McCracken's (1986) article, he suggests that products in the marketplace are a repository for cultural meaning and consumers unlock personal meaning from the product through consumption. Thus, studying the meaning of products selected in the marketplace is the study of the decoding of meaning by the consumer.

Yet consumers are often active and creative beings who do more than merely decode meaning. For instance, custom-made products allow for the encoding of meaning and, thus, the assertion of subjectivity. Therefore, custom-made products may offer an opportunity to study the active creation of meaning by the consumer and the extent to which cultural or personal meaning is encoded in the product. The interaction between a producer and a consumer in the specification of a custom-made product represents an opportunity to create actively one's self and life.


In consumer research, no work exists that focuses directly on custom-made products or the process of creating these products. Thus, at this stage of research it is necessary to specify the domain of this topic. While services can be custom made, the focus of this study is on products. Custom-made products are defined as products that are co-created by a producer and a consumer. The consumer communicates, either implicitly or explicitly, with the producer prior to the creation of the product and, thus, shapes the end product. Next, each part of this definition is explained in detail.

For a product to be custom-made, both the consumer and producer must participate. Thus, a cabinet built by a woodworker for retail sale would not be a custom-made product, but a cabinet built upon the request of a consumer would be. The consumer and the producer may be either an individual or a group. For instance, the town council might commission a specific work of art from an artist. Or a person might hire a group of people to build a home: a head builder, a carpenter, a stone mason, an electrician, and a plumber.

In addition, for a product to be custom-made both the consumer and the producer must shape the product, although their respective influences may vary. The producer's influence is clear, since the producer physically creates the product. But the producer's influence can range from directing the process of co-creation to merely carrying out a consumer's well articulated specifications. The consumer can influence the product by specifying the design, the size, the materials, the process, the time, the symbols, and so forth. However, the consumer's influence may range from just selecting the producer and giving the producer a "free rein" to the consumer specifying almost every aspect of the product. Thus, a consumer buying a "tract" home is not an example of a custom-made product because the consumer did not participate in the creation of the home. If, however, a consumer works with an architect to create the house plans and the house is built, then this is an example of a custom-made product.

Finally, some form of explicit or implicit communication between the consumer and producer must occur, although the extent and form of communication may vary. Direct explicit communication regarding the product may occur in personal meetings, phone conversations, sketches, or letters. But implicit communication may arise, for example, when the producer notices the consumer's previous home, how the consumer lives, how the family interacts, and so on.

In summary, a custom-made product involves a consumer and a producer who together create a product. What is unclear, though, is how meaning is created in this process. McCracken's (1986, 1985b) work offers a conceptual framework for understanding the construction of meaning in a product and is discussed next.


McCracken (1986, 1988b) proposes that product symbolism and consumption are related through a "flow of meaning." Here, meaning is what an object signifies. He submits that meaning originates in a culture, is encoded in products through product design and promotion, and is transferred to individuals through the consumption of these products. First, culture acts as a perceptual screen to define the set of relevant symbols. Second, culture provides a history and sets a context that gives particular symbols meaning. Symbol, context, and meaning are all aspects of the same event and cannot be interpreted independently (Peirce 1960). In other words, a symbol and its' meaning depend on the context. Once meaning is encoded in a product, the product symbolizes or comes to stand for that meaning (i.e., BMWs are now synonymous with "Yuppies"). Finally, consumers decode or abstract a personal meaning through the use of products.

Thus, McCracken proposes that meaning is not static but migrates from a culture to the individual by virtue of the acquisition and consumption of consumer goods. He suggests that "ideal" meanings may be displaced from everyday life to products. In other words, goods take on meanings to allow us to bridge the gap between what is "real" and what is "ideal" in social life. For instance, a modem suburban dweller, in longing for a more ideal life style, may choose a "country" interior for her home. Her ideal life style is psychologically related to a past that is perceived as less demanding than the day to day obligations of real life. Her ideal life style is symbolized, and therefore experienced, with each purchase and use of "country" furniture or accessories. This process preserves the ideal self concept through a symbolic displacement of meaning to consumer goods, and the subsequent recovery of that meaning through consumption of those goods. Since the disparity between the real life style and an ideal life style is never resolved, the symbolic displacement of meaning drives a continuous process of consumption.

McCracken offers a theory of a one-way flow of product meaning from the culture to the individual. However, the flow of meaning may be more complex than is depicted in McCracken's model. The flow may be a two-way flow or even a multi-directional flow. For instance, product innovators or opinion leaders often establish and interpret symbolic product values. Meaning is not always a one way flow from the culture to the individual; that is, individuals may encode meaning. Custom-made products may offer a unique opportunity to study the encoding of both personal and cultural meanings by the individual.



The purpose of this study was to understand the meaning of custom-made homes and how this meaning is created from-the perspective of the owners. Therefore, an interpretive approach was used to study the social and personal meaning of these products from the participant's point of view (Hirschman 1986; Hudson and Ozanne 1988; Lincoln and Guba 1985). In interpretive inquiry, meaning is assumed to be context dependent, thus, in-depth interviews with the owners were conducted in their own custom-made homes. To avoid the researcher imposing structure and direction, these interviews were unstructured and the interviewer took the lead from the informants. Finally, the interviews were tape recorded, transcribed, and the transcriptions were analyzed for emergent themes.


Among the products recognized for their symbolic nature (Belk, Bahn, and Mayer 1982), homes are the object of surprisingly few consumer behavior studies. Consumer research using homes as a product focuses primarily on the acquisition and decision making processes (Park 1982; Munsinger, Weber, and Hansen 1975). Little research exists on the symbolic meaning of home.

As a product, a houses represents the single largest purchase a person is likely to make. Similarly, to consumers, the home not only represents the motive for subsequent accompanying purchases (e.g., furniture), but it is also a continuing consumption relationship with the product itself (i.e., living in the home.) Consumption of a home is a daily process that may span decades. Thus, the home is important to the consumer and is an ideal product for examining personal meaning. The dwelling as a product has a functional, tangible part-the house--and an affective, meaningful part--the home. It is the meaning of home that is culturally bound. For example, comfort and privacy, which were 17th century European discoveries (Rybczynski 1986), are not part of the concept of "home" for 20th century Kechi Mayan farmers (Wilk 1986). To the degree that comfort and privacy determine meaning, then home has a different meaning for European and Mayan cultures. Therefore, the home as a research setting provides rich possibilities for exploring cultural symbolism.

From the literature, five categories were identified, which summarize some of the current meanings of home in our culture. These categories draw heavily on the work of Rybczynski (1986) and Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981). The purpose of presenting these concepts was not to operationalize the concepts, as is traditional in a positivist study, but to lay out the researcher's prior beliefs upon entering the study. A goal of the present study is to suggest the relevance and meaning of these concepts for the informants. In other words, the goal was to discover if and how these cultural categories are encoded into the home. The a priors cultural categories used were comfort--a state of well-being, privacy--freedom from unauthorized intrusion, functionality--efficiency as an overriding rule, density--the amount placed in a room, and domesticity--the home as a place for the family. While a priori categories were used, the definition, the boundaries, and the meaning of these concepts were not fixed and were allowed to evolve in the study.

Selection of the Informants and the Research Setting

The informants were ten upper middle to upper class families in a small college town. All of the informants had built custom- made homes within the last one to five years. This time span was important because the process needed to be recent enough so that the informants could recall the specification process and, at the same time, long enough so that patterns of living in the house were established. Informants were identified by recommendations from architects. In addition, families were identified from interviewed families and newspaper articles. The family's willingness to participate and their involvement, in the case of uninformed recommendations, was assessed in an initial phone call.

Consistent with the definition of custom-made products, consumers were identified who had shaped their homes. Informants were considered to be involved if the home design and building was important to them and they had contributed to the creation of the home in terms of time, energy, and ideas. The family dyad, the husband and the wife, was interviewed. While the creation process may be dominated by one member of the dyad, it was assumed that the process of building a custom-made home was usually a joint process and, thus, the dyad was the appropriate unit of analysis. However, in two cases, one member of the dyad played a very dominant role and served as the sole informant. Interviews were conducted until redundancy arose (Hirschman 1986; Lincoln and Guba 1985). Given the fairly homogeneous nature of the informants, redundancy in most areas of questioning arose by the tenth interview.

The Interview Process

Since meaning is assumed to be context dependent, the interviews were conducted in the informants' home; also, the researcher could see the home and use it to stimulate discussion. The interview process was divided into two stages. Stage one involved rapport building. Informants were told the purpose of the study, how the data would be used, how confidentiality would be maintained, and a general overview of the interview. Two broad questions, which were easy to answer, were first asked to put the informants at ease. Question one asked participants to describe the initial part of the process of building the home. Question two asked participants to describe this home relative to their "dream home?" In the second stage of the interview informants were encouraged to take the lead and discuss their home, how they built it, and any issues that were important to them. At some point during stage two. the informants gave the researcher a tour of the house.

The researcher entered the study with the intent of probing three main issues, if these issues were not raised by the informants. First, in order to understand the process of constructing meaning, informants were asked how they communicated the meaning of their home to the architect? Second, current meanings were probed by asking what does the home mean to the informants now? Third, in order to understand how the current consumption behaviors influence the meaning of home, the informants were asked about what consumption behaviors are centered around the concept of home? The five categories of home meaning, which were discussed earlier, were specifically probed: comfort, domesticity, privacy, density, and functionality. It should be noted that most of these issues and concepts were brought up by the informants during the interviews.

The interviews were conducted by one interviewer. One interview lasting from about 90 minutes to three hours was conducted with each couple or single informant. This interview was preceded by one or more telephone conversations to set the background for the study, assess suitability of informants, and schedule the interview. A total of eleven interviews were conducted and ten transcripts-analyzed (one tape was discarded because of mechanical problems).


A two-stage, hermeneutical analysis was employed based on the methods of McCracken (1988a) and Spradley (1979). As opposed to the fixed categories used in content analysis, hermeneutical analysis allows categories to evolve as the data is iteratively analyzed. The first stage was an analysis within each interview. The five a priori categories of meaning of the home were used to structure the analysis. For each of these categories, the transcribed text of each interview was analyzed for any taxonomic terms--words that the informant used to describe these categories, incident statements--comments that relate to the categories, and, finally, relationships. As well, categories of meaning evolved from the interviews that were not previously identified. The same analysis of taxonomical terms, incident statements, and relationships was performed for all new categories.

In the second stage, the analysis was between interviews and themes--relationships that occur across interviews--were identified. Two researchers analyzed the text separately. The researchers then discussed the analysis. While the two interpretations were similar, in some cases, the researchers differed in the omission and inclusion of taxonomic terms and incident statements. Any differences were discussed and preserved in an integration of the themes. Interpretive research assumes that because of researchers' different perspectives, interpretations may diverge and these divergences should be preserved (Hirschman 1986; Hudson and Ozanne 1988: Lincoln and Guba 1985).


Themes are relationships across the informants. Two themes occurred, which related to and expanded the a priori cultural categories. In fact, the a priori categories proved not to be very useful by themselves for discussing the meaning of home. Rather, the themes are more appropriately discussed in terms of two dichotomies among some of the a priori categories and new categories that emerged: the contrasting needs of privacy verses openness and the tradeoffs among functionality, aesthetics, value, and cost. A third theme that evolved is the home as a process. The results are Presented according to these three topics.

The Contrast between Openness and Privacy

Openness and privacy have been issues in the western home since around 1600 A.D. when the great hall ceased to be the single space in which eating, sleeping, entertaining, and work all took place (Rybczynski 1986). In this study, openness and privacy existed simultaneously in homes because these categories have several levels of meaning. Openness and privacy have meaning relative to personal space, separation within the family, separating the family from others, and separating the inside environment from the outside environment. Also, openness and privacy refer to a cultural meaning of "psychological openness." Each informant expressed usually two or more of these levels of openness and privacy.

Openness and Privacy: Personal Space. Commonly, participants articulated the need for personal space. The need for personal space spoke of a need to have dominion and control over the space. But personal space also defined a special relationship to that space; that is, this space is mine. For example, one informant's personal space was a locked room over the barn to which he had the only key. Women often saw the kitchen as their personal space. Yet as houses open, new relationships must be defined to the spaces that we view as personal. Open designs mean that personal spaces are not necessarily closed off from the rest of the house. One female informant articulates best this balance between openness and personal space: "I like to think of myself as a warm individual, so I like to have small intimate spaces and open spaces for entertaining [in the same room]. That's [for example] my place for eating bon bons."

Openness and Privacy: The Family. The concept of privacy changes with the family life cycle from separating young children from the rest of the house (e.g., "needing a space for the children") to separating the parents from the rest of the house (e.g., "wanting a space for us"). The space for family togetherness is designed into the house and driven by the functions around which the family coalesces. One family divided the space between the dining room and the living room with furniture that could be removed to accommodate large gatherings. Because the family needed space for large celebrations, the two rooms were designed without a separating wall and the space became a great room."

Family spaces have changed from the den, previously the repository of the radio and then the T.V., to the family room, which opened up to become the great room. In this study, the great room heralds a new openness within the family as the wall between the kitchen and family room is removed. For example, mother in the kitchen and the kids playing in the family room are all within sight of one another. This side of the house, which is open and unstructured, tends to be reserved for the family. Some participants retained more formal rooms for "entertaining." These formal rooms were more structured and closed. Thus, the house serves to structure openness and privacy within the family and between the family and outsiders.

Openness and Privacy: Bringing the Outside In. This juxtaposition of openness and privacy extends also to nature. In one sense, the house is the protection against nature. Nevertheless, people spoke of a desire to experience nature. "I really can see the seasons and nature. In years of being interested in those things, I feel now as if I really live with them in this house." One informant found that the openness of the house had changed him, "Now I see the birds and all the other wildlife... [I] watch the sun come up. I never knew when the sun came up. I'm a city boy. Now I've found the seasonsI've never appreciated all these before."

Therefore, bringing the outside in means that the boundaries between open and private space are extended to include the surrounding environment. The house and the environment fuse:

In this house there are no curtains. The overwhelming presence in the room is that view. The view is gray and tan, and green and blue, and that's what is repeated in here to draw [the room and the outside] together. That's intentional.

Thus, home extends beyond the walls to include nature. Because the surrounding natural environment is now included in the boundaries of home, building sites are chosen that allow for privacy.

Openness and Privacy: Psychological Openness. Houses also represent a new way of being open. The following quote captures this idea of "psychological openness":

The first real entertaining we did... we hired a caterer to have a stand up buffet dinner. The caterer put food everywhere. She put smoked fish on the top of the hot tub. She had desserts in the bedroom,...There were eighty people here. It didn't seem crowded.

Thus, even spaces that are traditionally viewed as personal are opened up to guests. Houses represent a new way of contrasting the needs for openness and privacy. These new relationships are evident in how personal space, family space, formal and informal space, and environmental space are approached. These relationships are synthesized in an emergent theme of psychological openness, which stresses the breakdown of formal boundaries.

This first theme suggests that the cultural category of privacy and the competing category of openness were encoded into the informants' homes. Moreover, these cultural categories were encoded with personal meanings (e.g., "my place for eating bon bons"). Therefore, both cultural and personal meanings are intertwined in the construction of open and private spaces.

The informants in this study who sought "openness" may be compared with a group in another study who sought "homeyness" in their houses (McCracken 1987a). Homeyness, in McCracken's words, "seeks to make the occupant fully occupying of homey space and so to claim his or her full attention and affect" (p. 26). This statement is similar to the kind of openness that allows the entire house to become the "set" for a party. The group in McCracken's study, however, equated openness with coldness, formality, and unrealness. It appears that opposite terms, homeyness and openness, are used by the two groups to describe the same desirable state. Again, in McCracken's terms the house is "real," engaging," and "informal," which makes it "riskless." Psychological openness is also a kind of riskless involvement with others, the environment, and, ultimately, with oneself.

The Trade-Off Among Costs, Functionality, Aesthetics, and Values

Homes represent the balancing of costs, functionality, value, and aesthetics. Aesthetics is recognized to be dependent on more subjective inferences, however, participants used costs and functionality in a similar subjective manner to explain why a choice was made. Trade-offs among functionality, costs, and aesthetics hinge on a concept of what is of value; that is, value is what returns the greatest benefit for a given investment. One participant summarized these ideas:

Lots of people make a mistake when they exceed their budget. They start chopping off the house. It doesn't save you anything. Also, it often destroys the concept, the way spaces are related particularly. Even if we didn't finish, if we had run out of money, we would have built [on] this scale. We would have finished it as we had the resources.

If longevity and versatility are expected, then greater "functionality" expresses greater value and justifies the greater costs. Here, costs represent an opportunity rather than a limit. Implicit in this kind of thinking is a symbolic reference to quality Metaphors to quality abound in these homes: "hand made," "custom made," and "plumb and square and level." The metaphors relate higher cost with greater value and functionality. However, at times the lowest cost is of value and is considered more functional. Here, cost is viewed as a constraint. Thus, lower costs yield greater functionality and value.

Guiding this trade off among cost, value, functionality, and aesthetics were individuals' values. The home is a symbolic expression of what the individual valued. Styles of homes often speak to such a symbolic orientation:

I wanted colonial. I didn't want a contemporary at all. I wanted something more traditional. We lived close to Williamsburg. You just don't see true Williamsburg colonial...the true, real thing.

Here, the meaning Of "traditional" is cultural, but it is also personal: that is, the informant's experience of living near Williamsburg creates a personal meaning of traditional that is combined with the cultural meaning. Other examples of the expression of the role of values was more explicit and were also reflective of this joining of cultural and personal meaning

I think people that build solar houses were hippies in the 60's. They joined the peace corps or they were professors,...there were a lot of Californians...I would bet you its people's philosophy whether they build a solar house or not.

Another informant said, "Protecting the environment land] living in harmony with nature, that influenced our choice to build a solar house." Others expressed values of not being conspicuous consumers:

Some friends of ours recently purchased a big expensive house. Every aspect of it was built to impress people...We try to think who would live in this house, what kind of people.

In summary, informants sought to balance functionality, costs, value, and aesthetics, although the meaning of these concepts changed across and within the interviews. This balance was based on individuals' values, which were a combination of cultural and personal meaning.

Home As A Process

The home represented a process as well as an entity. This process lasted years for some of the informants. It starts with the anticipation of building, moves to learning and preparation for building, enters a period of negotiation as the house is financed, designed, and built, climaxes in the building experience, and finally extends into the living experience.

Anticipation and Learning. An important part of the process of the home is the anticipation and learning that takes place as the house is planned. "This house has been my hobby. Reading building magazines, that's where I got my ideas...I've been working on things for years and years." Sometimes learning is a cumulative process: "Actually, we built a house fifteen years ago. The things in this house are things we wanted in that house." Anticipation moves next into the process of negotiation.

Negotiation. Negotiations take place with a variety of people: financiers, architects, builders, and spouses. The basis of the relationship was important for defining the negotiations. For example, one informant describes the relationship with her builder that is based on their similar view of craftsmanship:

He wasn't in a hurry. We didn't have a deadline... Good quality [takes time]. We'd come up here and think about an hour on how to do something. He's real patient and I'm patient. I want it done right.

Thus, similarities between the negotiators led to a better relationship. Negotiation also arose between spouses. One couple resolved their differences in an innovative manner:

There were certain things she wanted and we made them mix.. This is what a friend suggested, its a great idea for building a house. You can have ten "might as wells" and you've got ten of them and that's all. That window was a "might as well"...The Jacuzzi was a "might as well"...It sounds stupid but it works. We would say we will go ahead and do it for a few more bucks.

Spouses learned ways of negotiating during the process of building, which extended into the living process.

The Building and Living Process. The metaphor of the house as a process extends to the building process and, ultimately, to the living process. The house is how we live our lives. For example, in negotiating, some couples cooperatively made decisions, other couples partioned off areas of responsibility, while still others reported the power struggle that took place over each decision. Examples of the house being a metaphor for how we live arose in the building process, as well. The building process was approached by "experientials" by rolling up their sleeves and being at the site every day. "Managers" approached the building process by acting as their own general contractor. "Planners" approached the process by focusing on details and getting them right.

The building process as a living process is exemplified by the owner-builder. For the owner-builder, the major living ritual is building the house, which spans years. Since the house is continually under construction, building and living become intertwined. As one owner-builder termed it, the house is "organic" architecturally, and in the sense that the house also "lives" and responds to the people that inhabit and build it. The house changes continually as they change and as their needs change:

This house has so much of our love of labor in it. We are building this thing every weekend...[Building yourself] takes incredible dedication, energy, and an incredible level of cooperation in a marriage or relationship. To make it work you are under such stress. It's really stressful, [but] it's fun. It really pulls you together. But its also stressful. Just making decisions all the time...If you contract with a builder, the house just gets build. Literally everything in this house we decided on...For us, a house is a whole lot more than a structure.

The building process is a metaphor for living. This couple was literally building their relationship and their lives each weekend. The house exerts an influence on its inhabitants, just as they create the house, the house creates them. As the house develops and solidifies, the life style that the house represents develops and solidifies. One couple said that only when the living room was completed could they move out of the social tunnel imposed by living in two unfinished rooms. The structure of the house influenced the informants' life style.

The relationship between a house and its inhabitants extends well beyond the building process. Houses are designed for a particular type of life style. In a sense, the house initially structures how a family envisions living at a particular point in time. In terms of process, houses are snapshots made during the learning and negotiation stages. These snapshots may emphasize the past, such as a childhood home

As a child I always had my own room, since a very young age I had a drawing board...that general feeling for a place for my books or whatever, I've had ever since I was quite small. My study is just a big version of my room since l was a kid.

Or the snapshots may emphasize the future, such as a place to retire. Nevertheless, the house does not usually accommodate the flexibility to structure both the present life style and the changes necessary to actualize future images: "[Renovations and additions] usually occur when people are older and the kids are gone. They don't need the space, but they want a dramatic rearrangement 80 it will be new." Thus, change is stimulated when the house no longer fits the inhabitants' lifestyle.

In summary, the house is a process of anticipation, learning, negotiation, building, and living. As the consumer moves deeper into this process, the consumer creates the house and the house shapes the consumer. This influence of the house on the life of the consumer is most evident in the owner-builder. When the life of the consumer does not match the house, renovations can be made or the family can move.

Limitations and Extensions

As with all studies, a number of limitations exist. For example, greater depth of information might have been gained by having additional follow-up interviews with the informants. Since the goal of this study was to understand this process of the co-creation of meanings, insight might be gained by interviewing the architects and builders. In other words, an area of future inquiry might be to study the dyad of the producer and the consumer. In this study, only the consumer side of the dyad was explored. Also, the process of building was recreated based on the informant's memories. An interesting study would be to examine an ongoing process of creating custom-made products.


The meaning of home is more clearly understood by examining the creation and consumption processes. Custom-made products offer a unique opportunity to focus on the co-creation of meaning between a producer and consumer. What is significant about the customizing process is the opportunity for meaning to be encoded into the product. Consumers are not forced to accept cultural symbols encoded by a product designer. Instead, more personal meanings--meanings that come from direct or imagined personal experiences--can replace or expand cultural meanings. Custom-made products speak for us and to us. The product speaks for us in the personal and cultural meanings that we encode. But the custom-made product may also speak to us and shape our lives, as in the case of the custom-made home.

Several participants emphasized the unexpected changes in their lives that had taken place because of their new home. The shaping process represents the development of meaning in the consumption of the home. This type of meaning is personal, experiential, and symbolic. Evidence of this influence was provided by custom-homes in which houses were envisioned with changes of life in mind. These changes represent symbolic or "displaced" meanings that feedback to shape life experience. One home builder, for example, spoke of the desire for a life with fewer responsibilities and less emphasis on work. She describe her dream home as one that would be "light" and "playful." Living in such a house would "cultivate" those meanings in the words of Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981). Living in such a house would shape the life of this home builder so that it was light and playful.

The home is a metaphor for living because we structure our homes as we wish to structure our lives. This idea is more evident in the custom-made home where fewer constraints exist on the form the home will take. Nevertheless, the idea of structuring our home environment to reflect the way we would like to live may be applicable to home purchasers, condominium owners, and apartment dwellers. These groups are faced with more constraints in the symbols available and the encoding of these symbols. Therefore, shaping one's life in these contexts may focus more on those aspects of the home that can be changed: interior color, the carpet, the furnishings, and so on.

The idea that consumers actually shape their consumption experiences through the specification and encoding of product symbols is an extension of the culture and consumption model (McCracken 1988). In the case of custom-made products, McCracken's theory of the one way flow of meaning from culture to individuals is extended, in that the individual can create meaning by creating a product. Also, the product can shape the consumer. This relationship is a reciprocal co-creation process in which the consumer creates the product in response to symbolic needs and the product creates the individual through the structuring of experiences. Reciprocal co-creation is most apparent in custom made products but may also operate when innovators or opinion leaders extend or interpret cultural meanings. The study of these types of consumption experiences using custom-made products may yield important insights into how we use consumption to aid our life satisfaction and ultimately insights into the role of consumption in our society.


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C. B. Claiborne, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Julie L. Ozanne, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17 | 1990

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