The future of housing
The future of housing
In 2004, with the architect Ian Abley, I published a book titled Why is construction so backward?. We castigated the construction industry for its weak technique and non-existent R&D, and architects for their arrogant prejudice that every new building, houses included, had to be different from the last. We foretold a major housing crisis in Britain, lampooned New Labour’s ‘sustainable communities’ housing project, the Thames Gateway, and argued that manufactured homes, given Type Approvals through public debate, could be guaranteed a mass market and therefore economies of scale if Britain’s land was deregulated – if the state gave up its monopoly of development rights, enshrined in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Last, we wrote Homes 2016, a Blueprint pamphlet detailing the design features we wanted to see in houses, and surveying what we discovered to be the slowing of prefabrication in Japan and the US.
Well, as Cassandra found out, it’s one thing to be right about the future; it’s another to be believed. So when, in October, Britain’s prime minister, the hapless Theresa May, announced yet more limp, mostly financial measures to boost faltering house production (houses for rich first-time buyers here, 5000 new homes there), this forecaster’s feelings of vindication were more than overwhelmed by sadness.
The housing crisis is truly with us, and will be with us for a long time to come. Indeed UN statistics show that, beyond Britain, and even with falling rates of fertility, the world needs to build about 3000 homes an hour, or more, between now and 2050 – just to keep up with population growth and end, if not poor housing, at least developing-country slums:
Of course, drones will help housebuilding supply chains in future: they’ve already filmed progress in house construction in Britain’s Lake District. The Internet of Things will track construction equipment. Bricklaying robots, aided by masons who smooth concrete for the next round of bricks, will boast upwards of six times the productivity of human brickies. We may see more concrete that heals its own cracks with the help of microbes, and we may see, too, radiators made of graphene, allowing them to be just a few millimetres thick. As this column reported in March, the design process for buildings will be accelerated through a mix of Microsoft holography and Virtual Reality. Last, there will be more house manufacturing. It’s recovered in Japan, where it now supplies one in every six new homes; and in Malaysia, the authorities have mandated that no less than 70 per cent of all future building must be made off-site.
Yet for every step forward there’ll be one step back. Toyota has pulled out of factory-made homes in Japan, just as Ikea, though still selling its BoKlok homes in Scandinavia, ended sales in Britain in 2008. There, manufacturers of prefabricated homes will be small, and will make tiny ones, often for merely ‘infill’ roles – the polite name for squeezing young people into the spaces between buildings on brownfield land. Legal & General, which has gained a reputation for backing mass-manufactured housing? A prototype is all it offers for the foreseeable future.
There’ll be more bad news. While 3D-printed homes have had some successes in experiments, those cheered on in China will often be fake (yep, I was too credulous, too). In America, prefabricated homes, lauded after hurricanes in Texas, have proved to be dearer than normal ones. Britain will remain the most regulated landmass among the 35 nations in the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (‘the greater the population growth’ in a UK region, the OECD notes, ‘the smaller the growth rate of developed land there’). London’s Green Belt will remain sacrosanct, as panics mount about mere proposals (‘threats’) for new houses there. Meanwhile, Labour councils, led by London’s Haringey, will become freeholders, decanting oldies and other undesirables from their homes and getting them new accommodation at the same snail’s pace as Kensington and Chelsea has rehoused fugitives from the great fire at Grenfell Tower.
Prefabrication will be only part of the answer: worldwide, it suffers from the low productivity and capital investment that general manufacturing endures. In Britain deregulation of the land will anyway be more important even than prefabrication. Clearly the future of housing will be chock full of technological potential. But designers and architects will have to decide where the homes they dream up will go, how big they will be, how they will be made – and, above all, whose side they are on.
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Robert Furchgott – discovered that nitric oxide transmits signals within the human body
Barry Marshall – showed that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori is the cause of most peptic ulcers, reversing decades of medical doctrine holding that ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid
N Joseph Woodland – co-inventor of the barcode
Jocelyn Bell Burnell – she discovered the first radio pulsars
John Tyndall – the man who worked out why the sky was blue
Rosalind Franklin co-discovered the structure of DNA, with Crick and Watson
Rosalyn Sussman Yallow – development of radioimmunoassay (RIA), a method of quantifying minute amounts of biological substances in the body
Jonas Salk – discovery and development of the first successful polio vaccine
John Waterlow – discovered that lack of body potassium causes altitude sickness. First experiment: on himself
Werner Forssmann – the first man to insert a catheter into a human heart: his own
Bruce Bayer – scientist with Kodak whose invention of a colour filter array enabled digital imaging sensors to capture colour
Yuri Gagarin – first man in space. My piece of fandom: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/10421
Sir Godfrey Hounsfield – inventor, with Robert Ledley, of the CAT scanner
Martin Cooper – inventor of the mobile phone
Thomas Tuohy – Windscale manager who doused the flames of the 1957 fire
Eugene Polley – TV remote controls
George Devol – 'father of robotics’ who helped to revolutionise carmaking