"Be it ever so humble, there's no place like . . . home sweet home." Such aphorisms attest to the special nature of real estate that people inhabit and call home.

But the meaning of "home" and its synonyms can vary. "Home" sounds domestic, friendly, intimate. It describes an idea as well as a place. "House" clearly refers to a place, yet it seems more architectural, describing an object, a built artifact. "Housing," being collective and generic, brings to mind unit types, densities, economics, statistics, government policy and mortgages.

No matter who you are, what you do or where you live, your personal dwelling has a significance unmatched by your workplace or by civic places that constitute the public focal points of cities and suburbs.

However modest or temporary, whether owned or leased, your home is undeniably your "castle" -- a quasi-sacred, inviolable space that uniquely shelters your household. It satisfies profound needs for space, privacy, utility, security and comfort. To guests or the public, it can display your tastes, your economic and social status, your life-style preferences, your activities and your fantasies.

The neighborhood, district or building complex in which you live may be equally revealing of life styles and status. As collections of dwelling units, they are social and cultural communities created and maintained by the people who occupy them. A neighborhood's amenities, its history and its physical character are, by association, public extensions of each private dwelling and dweller within. Thus, consideration of any dwelling, whether apartment, town house or mansion, necessarily must include the dwelling's context.

For many, a home and its neighborhood symbolize permanence, stability, continuity; they form a tangible and enduring link to both past and future. Even in today's mobile society, places you once inhabited never completely lose that special quality of remembrance, of having been yours for some part of your life.

All of this suggests that those who design and build houses and housing, or who set housing policy, face great challenges and responsibilities. Fundamental, powerful human drives and aspirations must be addressed in creating innovative and inspiring dwelling environments. At the same time, equally powerful limits are imposed by economic realities, technology, public services, site, climate and cultural traditions particular to a region, a city, a neighborhood and a people.

With every adult citizen desiring a place in which to live, a market exists on a mass scale. But it's a highly fragmented, locally variable market.

Fulfilling this market's needs always has created opportunities for entrepreneurial homebuilders, craftsmen, materials manufacturers, engineers and architects who actually produce the dwelling product.To many architects, the practice of residential design -- for which this complex tissue of private and public concerns may be only a backdrop -- occurs in two categories. The first category, "multiple housing," involves the design of residential aggregations -- subdivisions, urban or suburban complexes and individual apartment buildings. Housing clients are either nonprofit sponsors (governmental or institutional) or profit-motivated developers.

In the second category is the single-family custom house (either a principal or vacation residence) designed for a private client seeking to fulfill personal goals rather than business or economic ones.

When architect and client collaborate to create the client's own home, their dreams emerge and, with luck, can be synthesized. If the architect is talented, the contractor is competent and the client's intentions and resources are well-matched, a "dream" home can result. The owner acquires his or her mythic, though usually functional, personal territory, while the architect adds to the list of "works by . . . ," presumably suitable for photographing.

Custom houses represent a minuscule portion of the housing market but greatly influence the style market. In fact, architectural journals tend to publish more "custom" houses than "housing." Accordingly, many architects prefer to experiment when designing an elegant home for a client, especially one with a generous budget, than to struggle with the problems that accompany the majority of multi-family or speculatively built tract housing projects.

When designing "market" housing, the architect is deprived of client/user idiosyncracies that so often help shape a custom house, not to mention the design flexibility frequently afforded by a private client's economic resources. Instead, the architect must design a generalized, receptive environment for occupants whom he or she may never meet, but who nevertheless have no fewer dreams or idiosyncracies than the affluent. Their market characteristics -- ranges of income, age, family size, tastes and life styles -- will be assumed, but their feelings about eight-foot ceilings probably will be disregarded.

Market housing must be affordable for the developer and the targeted consumer. It must respond to legislated zoning relating to density, height, bulk, yards, open space, sidewalks, streets and parking. Unlike the single home, denser multiunit housing must be more resistant to fire and more sensitively designed for light, ventilation and privacy. Most important, the designer of housing, as opposed to a house, must stitch together dwellings, buildings and exterior spaces to make some greater whole that celebrates unity and diversity, community and privacy.

If you examine dwelling environments built in many cultures over many centuries, you begin to realize how clever and ingenious people have been, with or without architects, in fashioning appropriate houses and housing settlements. Likewise, in the United States, particular housing patterns and types of dwellings have evolved in response to diverse circumstances and desires, producing a rich housing history that helps explain American culture -- how we live and what we consider important.

Subsequent columns will explore this history and its attendant housing forms, trying to relate the shaping of dwelling types, neighborhoods and cities. The discussion will be catalyzed by the interactive chemistry between aesthetics, technology, economics, policies, law and culture. Nevertheless, through it all, you should feel right at home.

NEXT: The basic dwelling.