Sunday, October 9, 2011

Another type of shared housing: the houses of the reality TV show Big Brother

Though only a small percent of Americans live in co-ops and other shared housing, the idea of lots of unrelated people living together is actually quite well known, for it is the basic premise of reality television.  These differ from typical co-ops and intentional communities in such that residents are selected not by each other, but by the TV production company*.  Also, while co-ops generally aim for some degree of community longevity, reality show communities are intended to be temporary from the start, with lifespans of just a few months.  However, if we put aside economic and sociological differences aside and look purely from an architectural point of view, the locales of  reality TV have quite a bit in common with co-ops and ecovillages: big dining tables, hot tubs, large open common spaces, etc.

*There is a third way, the unintentional community method used at the Berkeley student co-ops, where residents are assigned mechanically, more on that later

The best known and longest running of these shows is MTV's The Real World, which will be the topic of a future post.  For today's post, the focus will be on Big Brother.  In this show, which started in 1999, a group of residents - typically 14 - live in a house for 2-3 months.  During this time they are confined to the house and have no contact with the outside world.  Like many a co-op, there is no TV.  Once a week, one resident is voted out of the house by either the audience, the residents, or a combination of the two.  When it's down to a handful of residents, a winner is chosen to win the grand prize, usually a few hundred thousand dollars.  Residents are taped at all times.

Big Brother houses
Type: Reality TV Show Set
Built in: 2000s 
Building type: One or two story stage set
Occupants: 10-19
Room mix: 1-4 bedrooms shared by all residents
Restrooms: Mix of shared and private, typically 1-3 bathrooms
Parking: N/A

The nature of this isolation requires special construction: Big Brother houses are actually a series of rooms inside a TV studio, as shown in the diagram below.  Backstage areas are where the camera crew works.  Though there is an open-air yard, it is open only to the sky and provides no visual access to neighbors.

Here are some floorplans from the US, British, and Pilipino versions of the show.

Looking at some floorplans, a few patterns can be seen:
- The common spaces tend to be big and open.  This facilitates interaction and also permits good camera angles
- The bedroom to common space ratio is slightly lower than that of co-op houses.  This is because instead of giving each person their own bedroom, or at most doubles, triples, and quads, in Big Brother, bedrooms are usually shared by 5 or more people.  In some cases, everyone shares a bedroom.  The upside is that very little circulation space is needed.  The downside is that outside of the bathroom residents have no privacy, but that is an intended design feature for the purpose of the show.
- The number of residents per bathroom is similar to that of student co-ops.  Both reality show houses and student co-ops benefit from residents having no fixed 9-5 schedule, thus avoiding bathroom rush hour.
- Starting with 14 residents means that for a typical 3-month season, one resident can be voted out each week to end up with a handful at the end.  It also means the house is somewhat overcrowded at the beginning of the season.

Further reading:

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