No one knows what’s going to happen to our industry in the coming years, but at least we have an inkling of what the built environment will be like in 10 years. Lose yourself in our sci-fi odyssey

Close enough to be on the horizon, far enough away to fire the imagination, 2019 will see the realisation of today’s emerging technologies. The ideas that will shape the built environment and building sites in a decade already exist in a handful of visionary projects, in university and commercial research labs, and the minds of the professional futurologists.

In 2019, construction will still be recognisably the same industry we have today. But it will be more intelligent, more sophisticated, and more tuned to the carbon neutral agenda that will dominate in every sphere.

So what can we look forward to? The generation of buildings designed and built in 2019 will have ‘ambient intelligence’ that will allow them to respond automatically to changes in internal and external environments. Buildings and public spaces will feature embedded information technology that will feed real-time information about the weather and climate conditions, and our own behaviour, to intelligent systems.

As for the sites that deliver them, off-site and modular construction will conquer ever-larger slices of the market, leading to sites that are cleaner, faster and more highly mechanised. ‘The use of off-site technology today could be only the tip of the iceberg – you’ve only got to look at the work Toyota is doing in Japan,’ says Peter Cunningham, director of Constructing Excellence.

By the time we’re one year shy of the government’s 2020 target to reduce carbon emissions by 20% and deliver zero carbon buildings, sustainability will be the most significant driver of change. But by 2019, our ambitions will have overtaken today’s technologies. We’ll be building ‘positive energy’ buildings, incorporating multiple renewable energy technologies to transform them from net consumers of energy into energy-exporting power stations (see overleaf).

There will be new generations of renewable energy technology, including PV cells powered by photosynthesis, fuel cells running on efficiently-produced hydrogen, and facades that can harvest wind energy. The built environment will become greener – literally – with integrated greenhouses insulating buildings in winter and acting as heat exchangers in summer. ‘Buildings will be “restorative”, cleaning their own grey water, squeezing energy out of the air through heat exchangers, and restoring the natural balance,’ says Arup director Chris Luebkeman, who leads the consultancy’s global Foresight and Innovation team.

Also by 2019, we could see the realisation of a long-held dream for many site managers: the use of RFID (radio frequency identification) tagging and scanning technology to track every component and material on a building site, integrating what’s actually being built on site with the designer’s CAD model. ‘It hasn’t been realised in the past because the tags were simply too expensive – now they’re a few pence each,’ says Ranjit Bassi, a senior consultant at BRE. ‘Every tool, component and piece of plant will be tagged, nothing can ever go missing.’

Computer-aided manufacture technology could allow the mass customisation of building components, so that no two houses on a development look the same and designers are freed from the cost-restraints of bespoke systems. New ‘smart’ materials will have different thermal conductivity in summer and winter, reducing the need for techniques such as cavity walls. ‘The difficulty is thinking and designing with these new construction possibilities, and throwing away all the things you thought you knew,’ says Foster & Partners associate partner Xavier de Kestelier.

Every tool, component and piece of plant will be tagged, nothing can ever go missing

Information technology will migrate from wired networks and wireless gadgets into the fabric of the built environment. ‘Now that there’s a computer on everyone’s desk, the IT infrastructure companies – CISCO, Hewlett Packard or Microsoft – want a bigger platform for their technology. So they’re looking at the built environment as the next area,’ says Andrew Williams of BRE Ventures.

Outside, it will be impossible to get lost, when every bus shelter, lamp post and building facade is linked to digital mapping and tag and track technology. Inside, thanks to the concept of ‘ubiquitous computing’, we will have walls that double as interactive touch screens, table tops and surfaces that can become computer keyboards or display screens, and web conferencing as natural as phoning. ‘The technical issues have been solved, what we’re talking about is the economics of getting them to the market,’ says the BRE’s Bassi.

Meanwhile, sensor technology will allow close monitoring and metering of energy and water consumption to support the carbon neutral society.

‘In every home and office, there will be a requirement for energy and water meters. Whenever you log on, you will be told your carbon budget,’ says Arup’s Luebkeman. As sensor technologies become smaller and more accurate, and display technologies become either larger and cheaper, or smaller and embedded, we will all have access to real-time information about buildings’ impact on us, and our impact on buildings.

‘Wall-sized touch screens alone will allow us to link spaces like never before. The very nature of the space we use will change,’ adds Lesley Gavin, a BT Futurologist and former architect. ‘Sensor technology can assimilate the information and process it to other people who are interested. Are the people in the room available to be interrupted? Are they talking about something relevant to me? If it is appropriate, some of the other people can join the meeting by teleconference.’

But whatever the new technologies, innovations in the 2019 built environment will be closely linked to wider social and policy issues – cutting down on food-related carbon footprints, reducing the carbon emissions clocked up by travelling to meetings, and creating a carbon-neutral economy. IT integrated into the built environment will be used to create socially cohesive networked communities, or to deliver NHS healthcare in people’s homes through web consultations and the monitoring of chronic conditions.

Ironically, because of the recession, 2019 might prove more revolutionary and visionary than it might otherwise have been. Recessions accelerate change by creating a breathing space where new ideas can flourish, and older ones get the attention they deserve. As our examples on these pages show, 2009 has already supplied fertile areas for investors, materials manufacturers and contractors with R&D budgets to prepare for our sci-fi future. cm

Freeform construction

We’d like to take a bit of a detour into sci-fi territory, via a laboratory at the University of Loughborough. Here, you’ll find one of the first examples of a technology that could dramatically change how we create building components, and our thinking about the way they’re put together.

A team of researchers and industry partners have developed a 3D printer, a larger relative of commercially available rapid prototyping systems that create architectural models by depositing layers of material incorporating hardening agents. But the scaled up version, based on a gantry system with a moveable print head, deposits concrete or cementitious materials to create components for life-sized buildings.

It’s called ‘freeform construction’ and it has a range of potential applications. First, it could be used to realise the intricately complex designs of architects such as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, whose curves and angles push conventional fabrication technologies to their limits.

Alternatively, it could be used to fabricate wall panels that incorporate inter-layers of insulation or conductive material, or precast channels for pipes and cables. Or how about walls with the ‘intelligence’ to respond to different solar or wind conditions?

‘The importance of freeform construction is that it will increase the level of functionality we’ll require from our structures in the future,’ says project leader Rupert Soar, who is now setting up his own consultancy, Freeform Engineering, to promote the technology.

‘We’re already “printing” test pieces in concrete and cementitious material, and working up to panel systems,’ adds Soar. ‘There won’t be one all-encompassing process – there will be myriad different machines for different applications.’

The project has also involved architects from Foster & Partners, structural engineers from Buro Happold, and technical input from Saint-Gobain subsidiary Weber Building Solutions, which is interested in developing new materials for the process.

Xavier de Kestelier, associate partner at Foster & Partners, is excited by the technology’s potential. ‘I think it could work in construction because I see it happening in other industries. Formula 1 cars now have “printed” parts and Boeing is interested in printing titanium parts for the aerospace industry. If other industries are taking it seriously, I think we should too. Today, it’s early days. By 2019... maybe.’

A further twist has come from a study of how termite mounds in Namibia are ventilated. Researchers in a linked project at the State University of New York have discovered that CO2 is exchanged for fresh air via a mesh of tiny water-filled tubes.

‘Nature has given us a brand new ventilation system that does away with bulk air movement,’ explains Soar. ‘But it relies on a very complicated membrane structure, so large-scale printing techniques would be perfect for this.’

Elsewhere, other researchers are also investigating freeform technology. A group at the University of Southern California is experimenting with extruded reinforced cement, and the University of Pisa in Italy is using reconstituted marble in cementitious slurry. ‘If a few institutions are doing it, there is probably something in it,’ says de Kestelier.

Urban agriculture

In 2009, the idea that every foodstuff has a carbon footprint – comprising the nutrients that went into it and the fuel needed to transport it – is just beginning to register. But by 2019, the need to shrink that footprint in the face of a growing population and stricter limits on carbon emissions will start to have a significant impact on the built environment.

‘Food will become an integral part of our thinking in our cities, as we now think about roads and infrastructure,’ comments Eike Sindlinger, a senior architect at Arup.

‘In urban areas, there are a lot of untapped synergies – waste heat from buildings can be used in hot-houses, hydroponic systems can help to cool buildings, and compost could be used as a biofuel, or to replace oil-based fertilisers.’

Food production will be commercially led with the emergence of urban hot-houses growing short-life crops under super-efficient lighting and hydroponic systems, and community-led with salads and vegetables grown in small city plots.

But urban agriculture can also be taken in other directions: vertically up the facades of buildings, or on roofs for example. In New York, a company called Bright Farm Systems has prototyped the Vertically Integrated Greenhouse. Waste heat from the building can be recaptured and diverted directly into the greenhouse, providing heat to grow crops in the winter.

Meanwhile, integrated solar panels provide a power source, and rainwater captured from the roof is used for the hydroponic systems. Last but not least, office workers benefit from a more calming scene of greenery outside their windows.

The same company is in the process of building four roof-top greenhouses in New York this year, including one on a public school. Up to 0.5kg of CO2 emissions can be mitigated for each kg of vegetables produced in a rooftop greenhouse.

And the concept should work well even under cloudier British skies. ‘Roof gardens have been with us for centuries – there used to be one on the Royal Festival Hall until 20 years ago. In many ways, it’s about reviving well-established skills and crafts,’ says Paul Lincoln, spokesman at the Landscape Institute, pointing out that London mayor Boris Johnson is talking about growing foodstuffs on roofs.

However, growing anything more intensive than a light sprinkling of herbs and salads would require structural strengthening to the roof and the development of irrigation systems.

The first integrated projects are on their way. At Fusionopolis in Singapore, eco-architect Ken Yeang has designed a planted facade, rooftop garden and sky-lit atriums, while Dutch architect MVRDV will cover hill-like buildings with rings of planting at the Gwanggyo, in South Korea (see picture).

Closer to home, Northstowe New Town in Cambridge, masterplanned by Arup for the Homes and Communities Agency and developer Gallagher Estates and recently submitted for planning, integrates food with the rest of the infrastructure. The design positions green corridors along existing hedgerows and allotments close to the centre – so food has a tangible relationship to urban life.

Positive energy buildings

By 2019, buildings will have gone beyond today’s goal of net zero CO2 emissions to become net exporters of energy, by harnessing current and emerging renewable energy technologies. Apart from ground source heating and biofuel CHP, think emulsion-applied photovoltaics or harnessing kinetic energy from the activities inside.

‘If you can put technologies together in the right way, you can create a positive energy building. The technologies are coming into the marketplace, but the critical thing will be for the industry to install and retro-fit them,’ says Peter Cunningham, director of Constructing Excellence.

‘Harvesting’ energy from vibration or pedestrians could help buildings or public spaces generate power. People stepping on piezoelectronic sensors embedded into flooring surfaces, bridges or concourses would create an electrical charge to power lights nearby. BRE is also working on a project to install miniature sensors on railway sleepers, road surfaces, or on marine defences that will pick up energy from passing trains, cars or waves, and convert it into an electrical charge.

Architecture practice The Facility is working with researchers from Hull University to develop prototype harvesting ‘cassettes’ to be fitted to the treads of a staircase in the student union building. ‘In terms of efficiencies and methods of capture, we’ll be strides ahead by 2019,’ says the practice’s Steve Fitzwilliam. ‘I expect there will be specific projects that can self-feed their own energy requirement.’

But once you’ve built a positive energy building, how is energy fed back into the grid? A possibility being researched by a team Liverpool
John Moore’s University is storing excess wind, wave or solar power in the form of hydrogen. ‘The fuel cell community is very keen to work with us, and they have venture capitalists behind them,’ comments Professor Marjan Sarshar.

A trailblazer is Gazeley’s new Blue Planet distribution shed in Stoke-on-Trent, which features solar panel walls and pads that capture energy from vehicle movements. ‘The whole fabric of the building becomes a business, a money generator. People will look at it from a business perspective,’ says BRE’s Ranjit Bassi.

House building

If you’re looking for the future of housebuilding, it might be found on sites in Swindon and Milton Keynes. There, innovations in self-build housing and mass customised housing could help fill the post credit crunch housebuilding vacuum – and also allow a wider range of contractors and project managers to enter the sector.

Swindon is the scene of an experiment in large-scale self-build. The local council will develop a site in partnership with a private company, Buildstore. It will install services, draw up a masterplan and design code, then sell the plots to self-builders who will appoint a contractor or project manager. ‘We’re also talking to a couple of councils in the north east,’ said a Buildstore spokesperson.

The project manifests the idea of an ‘enabling developer’, whether that is a private landowner, local authority or regional agency. They could take responsibility for common site elements – such as the CHP and sustainable drainage systems needed to reach Code Level 6 – but foster far more diversity in design and construction.

‘Will Travis Perkins or Tesco come into the market? Supermarkets already own lots of land and have a consumer base,’ says Michael Kohn of architect Slider Studio, which has completed a research project on the viability of this form of procurement. ‘By 2019, an enabling developer could sell plots to sell plots to consumers who could choose different forms of construction management,’ adds Kohn.

Tattenhoe Park in Milton Keynes will be the site of 400 ‘super-flexible’ homes, built with foundations and lintels that can accommodate change. Homeowners will be able to add rear or side extensions, or split three-storey townhouses into a flat and maisonette.

‘It’s called mass-customisation. Japanese housebuilders have understood this for years,’ says Arup’s Chris Luebkeman.