The Thames Barrier, designed to be raised once every five years, is being raised 10 times a year. We will know when we are drowning because there will be a programme about it on television, and it will be repeated three times …
Building presents this week's extracts from CABE/RIBA's look at housing in 20 years' time.
Paper #5 climate change
Roger Levett
This scenario assumes that within the next decade a proliferation of meteorological disasters will finally make the British public take climate change seriously, and accept – indeed, demand – government interventions to cut tenfold the use of fossil fuel. The implications may be as follows:
  • The combination of tighter regulation, more vocal customer preferences and higher energy prices force a drastic cut in the energy consumption of new housing. This is done largely through "passive" technologies such as greater insulation and thermal mass, solar orientation, daylighting, passive ventilation, terraced and tenemental built forms, and careful landscaping and planting to manage the microclimate.

  • A blossoming of technologies to make houses or neighbourhoods zero-energy or even net energy generators through solar cladding, biomass-fuelled combined heat and power plants, heat grids, heat pumps, "green roofs" and so on.

  • More "social democratic" development, including mutual, co-operative and schemes led by social landlords for upmarket as well as "affordable" housing. Commercial developers will suffer a relative decline.

  • Transport policy will finally grasp the nettle of discouraging and restricting car use, not just subsidising additional greener "choices" that few choose. Car-dependent lifestyles will be made unattractively expensive. This will make people actually want to live in the urban, high density housing that planning policy promotes – and this may lead to the perception that urban life is privileged by opportunity, and suburban life is restricted.

  • The typical 1950-1990 suburban estate house is the least adaptable to climate change, and furthest away from the new urban amenities. Consequently, they become the new slums. Pre-1914 urban housing, already good in many ways, and easier to adapt/refit to respond to climate change, will be the most desirable.

Housing aspirations will still be formed from a mixture of practicality, perception and prejudice. But a serious response to climate change could change all three.

Climate change (extract)
Mangos for breakfast

Suppose that the Biblical succession of floods, famines, droughts, hurricanes, mudslides and other climate-related disasters parading across their televisions every night finally makes Joe and Joanna Public feel that there is something radically wrong with the way humankind is living off the planet. Once they realise this, it is not a big step for them to see that putting things right must take top priority, since climate insecurity casts a dangerous and darkening shadow over everything else we may aspire to.

What then, in these circumstances, would housing and people's attitudes to it, be like? Let us peek into the home of a typical young English couple of 2020, Miriam Olowayo-Bull and Chang McPherson-Mohammed. It's a modest brick house in the middle of an inner city terrace of similar homes dating from the 19th century. At first glance, they look much the same as they and millions of similar houses did around the turn of the millennium. At second glance, puzzlingly, they look much more the way they did in 1900. Let's take a closer look and see why.

The clumsy, ill-proportioned replacement windows have all gone and the original elegant and minimal sashes are back. Except they aren't the originals, but modern ones with exactly the original proportions yet with low emissivity triple glazing, fitting snug and draught-free on teflon-coated airtight runners. They are opened and closed by electric motors in the sash boxes under the control of the house's building management system.

Also gone is the hotchpotch of replacement roofs. The roofs are now identical and in perfect repair, just like when they were built. But those aren't slates, they're photovoltaic panels, installed by the community energy agency. Participation was voluntary, but no households declined because the new roof was free and came with a greenhouse-tax rebate that halved an average household's tax bill.

Succession of floods, famines, droughts, hurricanes, mudslides and other climate-related disasters parading across their televisions every night finally makes Joe and Joanna Public feel that there is something radically wrong with the way humankind is liv

The coal plates are back in the path outside every front door. However, they are not for coal, but to give access to the eco-utilities connections. Every house has: drinking water (in a microbore pipe), washing-grade water (in a bigger pipe because it's a tenth of the price), biogas (from the local digester – a premium fuel used only for cooking), hot water (from the local combined heat and power plant, greywater out (to the reed beds), sewerage out (to the digester), and electricity (in or out depending on whether the roof is generating less or more than the household was using.) Traffic is back to the Victorian scatter of bicycles and small service vehicles – the late 20th century car infestation turned out to be a transient anomaly. However the service vehicles are now mostly battery-electric food delivery or recycling collection carts, with the occasional electric taxi or minibus. The road itself has been reduced to a single-track gravel path winding past a succession of lawns, play areas, ponds and the occasional vegetable patch. Now look behind the houses: is that a mango tree holding up one corner of the graceful canvas awning?

Roger Levett is partner at sustainability consultant Levett-Therivel

Paper #6 technology
Andie Gillespie and Jon Rutherford

Technological change offers increasing flexibility in lifestyles and urban forms. This paper presents three scenarios – the home as cocoon, the home as live–work space and the home as a touchdown for the ultramobile. In each of these cases, albeit in widely varying ways, technological advances associated with the widespread availability of bandwidth and wireless access are providing the means for changing the ways the home is used and integrated into daily life. The scenarios are thus about how technologies are being used to underpin lifestyle choices, and this in turn may have significant implications for the nature and location of housing and for urban sustainability.

To take opposed examples, wireless technologies could support the revitalisation of public space, or the process of retreat into the electronically gated home; they could contribute to bringing life back into rundown urban neighbourhoods, or the decentralisation of activities into remote rural areas. Which of these opposing scenarios prevails will depend on the aggregation of individual choices, within the constraints and opportunities set by housing developers, planners, telecoms companies and governments.

The increasing importance of technology in underpinning daily life means that a technological dimension needs to be integrated into broader strategies to bring about desired societal outcomes. To take two examples, strategies to revitalise our cities should be attempting to encourage the proliferation of wi-fi hotspots in city centres, transport terminuses and public parks; strategies to diversify the economy of rural areas need to ensure that market towns and smaller communities have access to broadband.

Technologies (extract)
Technology, politics, space

The problems with attempting to suggest a single technological outcome for the future of housing are the fast moving nature of technology, and the opposing groups of stakeholders involved. Supply and demand changes virtually on a daily basis, dictated by technological developments, economic market forecasts and government regulation. While we feel safe enough in predicting that mobile, wireless technologies are likely to become an increasingly important element in satisfying the communications needs of people (both at home and on the move), we cannot say for certain that these technologies will completely displace fixed, wire-based communications networks in coming years. The chances are that both will co-exist to provide faster, more seamless connections from the home and more convenient and flexible connections while people are on the move .

Some housing will be left out because it will not be deemed profitable by private companies operating in a liberalised market

If we were to highlight one crucial preferred outcome of our technological scenario on the future of housing, it would be more public intervention to try to reduce territorial disparities in access and take-up of the infrastructures and services of the near future, particularly of broadband. A policy of expansion or renewal of housing provision should include an expanded technological element, whereby the construction or redevelopment foresees connection of homes to a broadband backbone infrastructure, preferably fibre, running along major roads, from which coaxial cable or ADSL-enabled copper wires serve each individual house.

Developers should follow closely technological changes in the IT sector, and be flexible enough to adapt plans to include upgraded infrastructure. Housing developers need to be encouraged to work more closely with telecommunications providers. This type of technologically aware and sustainable strategy should take place in all cases, and not just for developments in more prosperous or urban areas.

An undesired outcome of this scenario would be a continuing and reinforced form of socio-spatial polarisation. Some housing areas would be left without technological access because they would not be deemed profitable enough by the networks and services of private companies operating in a liberalised market. Government policy needs to provide at least a context of territorial regulation, in which less favoured groups stand a chance of seeing future housing developments equipped with some of the latest technology, rather than being bypassed by it. However, given the complexity of the sector, the number of stakeholders involved, and the wide range of external factors bound up in telecoms infrastructure provision, any policy intervention should be open and flexible, rather than encouraging top-down masterplans.

Housing Futures 2024

Housing Futures 2024 is part of the Building Futures programme, a joint CABE/RIBA initiative. It’s aim is to inspire, stimulate and facilitate discussion on the future of housing. The project incorporates a provocative series of papers written by academics, built environment professionals and construction industry representatives.

Join the debate What do you think are the key issues affecting housing in this country? Do you agree with our authors? Log on to to give your view and to read the full-length versions of each paper.

Building Futures was established in April 2002 to create space for discussion about what our society needs from its built environment, and consequently the built environment professions, from 2024 and beyond.