The future of housing

First published by Blueprint, in a special issue on housing, December 2017
Associated Categories Construction, Property and Cities,Featured Tags: ,
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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:

Cities: to deal with rising populations and to end slums in developing countries, how many homes will the world need to make an hour, 2017-2050?

World urban population, 2014, 3.9bn
Estimated world urban population, 2050 6.3bn
Additional world urban population 2014–2050, 2.4bn
Population living in slums in developing countries only, 2014, minimum of 0.9bn
World population in need of homes and de-slumming by 2050 (excludes those in dilapidated homes), minimum of 3.3bn
Additional households by 2050, taking average world family size over the period as 4, minimum of 0.825bn
New homes needed each year, 2017-50, minimum of 25m
New homes needed each day, minimum of 68,500
New housing units needed per hour from now to 2050, minimum: 2850


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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