Nostalgia has already set in for the nuclear family. The semi-detached suburban utopia of 2.4 children, plus dog – not to mention the gas-guzzling car in the driveway – now only exists in the sweetly sentimental works of the poet John Betjeman. Today's image of the typical family appears dystopic by comparison: the parents have gone through a messy divorce, they share parenting of their one child, mum has a new partner and lives in a townhouse with no car parking – and the dog had to be put down because the garden is too small. Within several decades, the norm will have moved on again, probably to a single, childless fortysomething, living in an urban microflat, with a bicycle for transport and a computer for company.

The decline of the religious construct of marriage is having a dramatic impact on societal structure. In 2001 the single population of the UK exceeded the number of traditional families for the first time ever. Yet for many industries and marketeers this shift was marked by little or no change in business approach. Supermarkets continue to target their products at families with jumbo-sized packs and three-for-the-price-of-two offers, and package holiday providers still illustrate their brochures with photos of happy families at leisure.

Housebuilding has changed, under pressure from a government that is seeking both to satisfy the rising demand for homes generated by the increase in household formation and population and to safeguard our finite resource of greenfield land. Government planning policy has dictated that 60% of homes be built on brownfield land, pushing development into urban centres, and that more apartments and townhouses should be built and fewer of the four-bedroom suburban executive homes that have been the popular homeowning aspiration. In the first quarter of this year, 27% of UK housebuilding output was detached housing, whereas 36% was apartments.

At the same time, the UK's production of new homes has slowed to less than 150,000 units a year – more than 50,000 less than are needed to keep pace with demand. Housebuilding levels are predicted to increase at a rate of 5.7% a year, but that is from a lamentably low base; undersupply, and accompanying high property prices, are set to dominate the future. As government policies continue to apply, more of the our urban centres look set to become ever more densely developed with small apartments and terraced housing, with greatest intensification focused on the area of greatest demand, London and the South-east, where only the very wealthy will be able to afford to buy a home.

In housebuilding terms, we could be considered to be entering a new medieval age, where the emphasis is on designing homes vertically and densely, and using frame technology to build them. The medieval parallel could extend to society too, as our impoverished urban infrastructure raises fears about security, and the polarisation between rich and poor stokes tensions. Medieval cities were dangerous, dirty and thoroughly unruly places to live. The precise extent to which the medieval city becomes the paradigm for our future depends upon what kind of living environments we create and where we build our homes.

The medieval analogy demonstrates that high density living is not new, but it fell out of favour in the UK when Victorian industrialisation increased the smoke and squalor of the urban environment and mechanised public transport provided an escape route to healthy, rural locations. At the turn of the 20th century, Ebenezer Howard's garden city concept promoted the separation of home and work and greener living environments, and led to the development of new, leafy settlements such as Welwyn Garden City.

Today's private and affordable housebuilding sectors really have their roots in the interwar years. Government grant aid helped councils to provide high quality homes, such as the London council, whose design standards included a density level of 12 units per acre. The private marketplace was founded on the growth of building societies to fund development and the expansion of a white-collar workforce to buy the product.

Land outside urban centres was cheap and ripe for development, but by the 1930s a fear of concreting over the Countryside led to the creation of the green belt, and the flaws in estate style development were becoming apparent. George Orwell wrote of the blandness of new housing development in The Road to Wigan Pier: "As for pubs, they are banished from the housing estates almost completely, and the few that remain are dismal sham-Tudor places fitted out by the big brewery companies and very expensive." Through the latter half of the 20th century, housebuilder efficiency in developing standard housetypes, government promotion of greenfield development and new towns, and car-dominated planning policy all meant the new housing estate was pared down to the architectural equivalent of a Trabant: functional but stultifyingly dull. The word "estate" became a byword for monotony. In private, housebuilders described the details on their houses, such as porches, as "gob-ons". Good design was reduced to kerb appeal. Ebenezer Howard's ideals had become diluted into a set of standard housetypes repeated in row after row after row of straight streets.

But the housebuying public loved them. Territory became the prime concern of the insular British homeowner, and the possibility that homes might go hand in hand with a certain lifestyle did not become understood until the late 20th century, when loft apartment developers marketed sparse industrial spaces on the dynamism of their locations. But, given space, the UK homebuyer goes on wanting more.

Today's homebuyer aspires not only to own their own home, but also wants it to be detached, have its own front and rear gardens, two secure parking spaces and enough gates, fences and locks to keep their space private, safe and secure. Meeting such aspirations could be difficult in the future, considering the anticipated population growth.

Whereas many other countries are anticipating population decline, the UK's is set to continue its upward incline, thanks to continuing high birth rates and rising immigration. Government actuaries forecast that the present population of 59 million will rise to 63 million in 2026 and peak at 64 million in 2040 – and some experts reckon those forecasts are underestimates. Immigration brings with it an instant demand for housing, all of which has to be affordable and generally suitable for young singles and couples. The increasing popularity of divorce and more flexible relationship arrangements are likely to continue to keep household formation levels high, and the addition of longer lifespans to the equation means high numbers of single-person households. Today's average home is occupied by 2.4 people; by 2025 that figure will have fallen to 2.1, with the smallest households likely to be in the capital. Immigration and economic activity are likely to focus most of the population growth on the South-east and London, whereas the populations of Scotland and the North-east are going to fall.

The normal family is a single, childless fortysomething living in an urban microflat, with a bicycle for transport and a computer for company

In common with many other countries, we will have an older population, with the proportion of over-60s rising from the current level of 21% of the population to 38% by 2050. Although we will not have to go to the same lengths as Japan – which has such a burgeoning elderly population that it has investigated sending them overseas – by 2026, the population of state E E pensionable age will surpass the number of children by nearly 2 million.

For those in work, average salaries are expected to rise sharply, with economic forecaster the Centre for Economics and Business Research predicting that wages will be 57% higher in real terms by the mid 2020s. Those salaries still won't allow people to keep pace with property prices, as worsening undersupply in housing could keep prices rising every year by about 2% more than average earnings.

Today's £100,000 average house price is likely to treble by 2020.

Given the increases in demand and price, you might expect people to be opting for smaller homes or sharing them. In fact, single homebuyers with the money to do so are buying townhouses rather than bedsits, and the same territorial instinct that has rendered the detached house the ultimate des res militates against downsizing or sharing. A home is one of our signs of status: traditionally, sharing is associated with lower status and less control.

The singles in their city apartments and townhouses do not, however, face a future of IT isolation. The more virtual communication we have, the more physical communication we have; this means that it is vital that we provide pedestrian-friendly places in our cities. The main problem is that there is a lack of political will to take that forward, as the government has contradictory aims – it wants to boost jobs and promote commerciality and also to be sustainable. At some point economic growth has to be controlled, and humane cities built that are pedestrian friendly, mixed use and where people feel safe. This requires its own controls and regulations, such as public space requirement on all commercial developments, and effective laws and law enforcement [Meades160].

UK city dwellers may accept greater regulation, but they are unlikely to accept the additional costs that might have to be made in order to improve infrastructure and make cities safer and more sustainable places to live. Mayor Ken Livingstone's congestion charge has been well accepted by Londoners, but the possibility of paying for regeneration and development in Stratford, east London, if the country succeeds in its bid to host the Olympic Games, has been received with hostility by many residents of the capital.

With government and the general public unable or unwilling to contribute to regeneration and development, our future living environment will depend largely upon housebuilders themselves. The government is already looking to developers to help fund infrastructure for its South-east housing growth areas and other development is going to rely just as heavily on what government can coax or force out of the development community.

But how will developers find the money to pay for such infrastructure? As with affordable housing requirements, developers will be forced to subtract money from the price they pay landowners for a site, and in future they may find more ways of leveraging money from their customer base. This does not mean that they could increase the price of a new home yet further, but that they could be looking to derive financial benefit from giving companies, such as internet service providers, access to their customer base.

Although we may not resemble Japan in demographics, the UK housebuilding industry will inevitably be taking on many of the characteristics of the Japanese industry. In some respects, this is very different to our own. It has an output of 1.5 million units a year, about half of which are detached houses. Its market is based around homebuyers retaining a plot and replacing the home on it every 25 years or so, and consequently the UK estate agents' adage of "location, location, location" is irrelevant, and housebuilders are differentiated on product, service and customer choice.

Sekisui, Japan's largest housing provider, has an output of 70,000 units a year, and like its rivals markets its products through show villages and its own high-tech sales centre. The show villages, which contain competing housebuilders' homes on permanent display, is more like a theme park, and a visit to the sales centres resembles a tour around an interactive museum. Sales centres contain such visual treats as cut-away sections of a house, to demonstrate how a home is constructed, displays of extras such as photovoltaic panels, and mock-ups of rooms where visitors can experience being disabled, elderly, or even a child. Visitors include schoolchildren gaining an insight into the housebuilding process, potential and actual buyers, and the 30,000 people passing through Sekisui's doors every year also serve as guinea pigs on which the housing provider can try out new ideas and products.

We will become much more ruthless about demolishing poor quality housing in low demand areas

A buyer is able to choose housetype and layout, cladding and external features, and internal fixtures and fittings. Sounds a time-consuming business? It is: the typical Japanese buyer has an average of four meetings with the provider and the homebuying process can take five months. But the buyer's requirements can be fed electronically directly from the sales centre through to the factory where the steel or timber-framed home will be produced.

Japanese housebuilders have gone through a shift to off-site manufacture over the past three decades, whereas the UK is still in an uneasy phase of transition, applying traditional build methods and off-site manufacturing in combination.

The finishing of a factory-made modular or framed structure with traditional external finishes such as bricklaying and roof tiling limits the time-saving benefit that can be derived from using off-site manufactured methods. Prefabricated brick systems are available, but are not yet widely used because of housebuilders' fear of buyer resistance and planner reluctance.

Thirty years on, a new generation of homebuyers raised on steel and glass-clad urban apartments will be more accepting of more modern finishes, like prefabricated brick, aluminium, timber or whatever architectural fashion of the day dictates. But it will depend upon whether the planners open the doors to such materials.

The biggest challenge in housebuilding is a rethink of that symbol of the traditional British house, the pitched roof. "It is where we need to focus effort," says an industry expert. "Barrel and monopitched roofs are far more cost effective, unless you are actually going to use the roofspace." A shift to a new material at roof level could render brick elevations incongruous and force a complete rethink of the home aesthetic. But any shift away from traditional materials and the vernacular will depend on the planners. "Planning is still the biggest hurdle," the expert adds.

"It is one of the most serious issues facing the industry. Unless we educated planners, that will put the brakes on technological change."

Planning is crucial not only to what we build but where. Proving that nothing really changes that much in housebuilding, the planning system will remain the industry's bête noire. Given the sensitivity of modern development and the elevation of nimbyism to the nation's favourite pursuit, the government's proposed planning reforms are unlikely to have much impact on speeding up the processing of planning applications. Even if by some miracle the government does increase the speed at which planning applications are processed, the industry does not have the skills to produce homes more quickly unless it turns to new technology. But how will the conservative curmudgeons of the planning committee react if cosy vernacular has to be ditched in favour of terraced homes with aluminium monopitch roofing and clip-on brick and timber cladding?

Instead of battling against a tide of obstacles to development within existing communities, the government should pave the way for private housebuilders to develop new communities, a new town movement based not around the car, but around the person, picking up on the principles of humane development. Such communities would be based not on brownfield sites, but on green. Greenfield housebuilding has become thoroughly discredited, as a result of the campaigning of environmentalists, but its poor image is undeserving. Our desire to safeguard green fields could be as misplaced as our nostalgia for suburbia.

Agri-business means that the sacrosanct green field is likely to be heavily polluted, stripped of its hedges and more or less devoid of birdlife, while the derelict urban site that is now the preferred option for development can become a haven for all forms of wildlife and may be a rare, prized patch of green for city dwellers. New housing estates on greenfield sites do not have to look monotonous and soulless – the same principles of good design that are being applied to existing towns can be applied to new communities. New greenfield communities would offer us a chance to get it right.


Mystic minister
Crystal-ball gazing is a risky activity at the best of times – particularly when you are writing for a magazine with 160 years of history behind it. I suspect past pages of Building are littered with wildly inaccurate forecasts by pundits of their time. But at the risk of providing some fun for future generations of Building readers, here is my vision of housing in Britain 25 years from now. The first obvious point is that there will still be housing problems to tackle, but they will be different in many ways to the problems of today. A quarter of a century ago, we were just coming to the end of an era in which slum clearance had been seen as the major challenge. Twenty-five-odd years from now, the current preoccupation with regeneration will also be a concern of the past. For this to happen, we will have to have made real progress in tackling areas in decline. We will, I suspect, have become much more ruthless about demolishing poor quality housing in low demand areas. But this will not just herald a return of the bulldozer. We will also have become more skilful in ensuring the regular improvement and upgrading of housing that has got a future but is looking a bit long in the tooth. Housing finance will be more flexible than today – divisions between options for renting, leasing and owning a property will be far less rigid, and people will be much more likely to alter their tenure and finance arrangements during their lifetime, depending on their circumstances and changes in the wider economy and the housing market. Partly in consequence, the rigid divisions that characterised much 20th-century housing development – owner–occupation on the one hand, council housing on the other – will look very passé. Mixed communities will be taken for granted rather than seen as a problem, or as an unwelcome imposition by planning authorities. Complaints by housebuilders about the planning system will not have become a thing of the past. That is the inevitable consequence of a high level of demand for homes on a small island in which the protection of green space will be even more politically charged than today. But if the rows still continue, I am nevertheless optimistic that we will have got much better at producing high quality developments that do not make profligate use of land. Great swaths of brownfield land will have been successfully developed and transferred into attractive and desirable housing environments. The Thames Gateway will have spectacularly reversed 300 years of history by making east London and the Thames Estuary a sought-after location in the Thames Valley. Modern high-speed transport systems will have not only reduced travel times, but created development opportunities in unlikely locations. People will commute daily to London from Arras as well as Newcastle, and local housing markets will reflect this fact. We will also have become more relaxed about modern technology and modern-looking housing. No longer will developers seek to add value by trying to make their product look as if it could have been designed 100 years earlier. We will have also made huge strides in improving housing quality, with much more off-site fabrication, and an expectation on the part of the homebuyer that their home should be built with zero defects and offer minimum energy consumption and low maintenance costs. We will not, however, have lost our love of DIY, so improvements, extensions, alterations and conversions will continue to flourish. This will reflect not just a widespread determination to personalise our own homes but also rising expectations. There will be more one- and two-person households than today, and they will expect to live in more spacious homes. In all parts of the country, people will rightly want quality and choice in housing. Quality and Choice was the title of the housing green paper published in 1999. If I am still around to see its aims realised within the next 25 years, I will be a very happy, as well as a very elderly, observer of the housing scene – and might even be tempted to do some more crystal-ball gazing for Building.


Off site and out of time
News at Ten, 1 October 2053 “The decline of the UK construction industry continues as Japanese and German prefabrication dominates Europe. Industry experts are comparing the demise to that of the UK’s car industry. In another 50 years, it may be nothing more than a cottage industry.” Could it happen?
Imagine a construction industry dominated by off-site manufacture. Not too radical a leap – the government is firmly behind it, perception is slowly changing and economic factors seem increasingly likely to favour prefabrication in the future. Now imagine a world dominated by Japanese and German prefabrication. Also not hard, as these countries have already made huge progress in creating a favourable perception of prefabrication in their own countries. Take this a little further and you get a world where the UK construction industry is a pale shadow of its former self. It refused to embrace prefabrication and drive it forward in the early stages, so it wasn’t ready to react when opinion swung. German efficiency and Japanese tenacity triumphed, and the UK watches it all slip away. Any of this sound familiar? We once had a fairly impressive car industry, believe it or not. For transportation, flat-pack is the obvious solution, so container shipping becomes viable. Or what about air? Intercontinental journey times are constantly falling, and communication technology increasingly means that intercontinental travel is less necessary – cheap long-haul cargo transportation could well become the airlines’ lifeline. So, with this in mind, there won’t even be the need for Japanese prefabrication companies to come to the UK – they can transport buildings from abroad and benefit from cheap labour. If they are feeling generous, they may leave UK firms to fight it out for the assembly scraps. Not a pretty picture. Looking on the bright side though, with a UK industry of half its current size, the Japanese will have at least solved our skills shortage problem …

Space timeline

Publication of To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, by Sir Ebenezer Howard, setting out guidelines for garden cities and suburban living 1963
Traffic In Towns by Professor Sir Colin Buchanan published 1968
Explosion at Ronan Point tower block in east London – as a result of this and other lessons from tower blocks, innovation in tower design was condemned as a failure 1982
London’s Barbican Centre opened – a mixed-use development before anyone had ever heard of the term 1920
Publication of Prince Charles’ book A Vision of Britain, tied in with the launch of plans for new town Poundbury on Duchy land in Dorset, intended to raise housing design quality through patronage 1999
Launch of PPG3, heralding the arrival, or return, of high density living, and putting the emphasis on design quality 2003
Launch of John Prescott’s sustainable communities plan, which aims to build 200,000 homes in the South-east 2019
Worries about terrorism prompts development of “bunker” houses (four floors underground) 2023
Mood house introduced as wall colour, lighting and background music changes to reflect mood 2039
China builds first mile-high city 2060
Falling population levels lead to larger houses 2065
DTI reports that 4 million people now work from home 2070
Police announce massive drop in crime as burglar-proof houses introduced 2075
Stringent new Building Regulations require all new homes to be self-sufficient in energy and to put 25% of energy produced back into International Grid 2111
Nanotechnology leads to house design life of five years 2160
Space mirrors now supply 98% of energy in homes


Driving my ancient A-class Mercedes, I can't help but be surprised at how things have changed. When I bought the car, with its dual electric–diesel system, emissions of 55 grams a mile and satellite speed control, in 2004 I believed I had the future in my hands. New oil discoveries in Antarctica had confirmed that there would be supplies to last 100 years at least and, despite my enthusiasm for alternatives, I could see nothing but business as usual. I should have known better. The writing was always on the wall. Fifty years before, Crick and Watson had unravelled DNA, and 50 years before that, the Wrights had flown. Why couldn't I have seen that the world would change so phenomenally? The new alchemists were Slater Madden and Williamson, a trio working from Birmingham University. They found the holy grail: a means of linking hydrides with solar cells to produce hydrogen directly from sunlight with 65% efficiency. Years of messing around with energy-saving schemes and fuel-economic vehicles were written off just as quickly as canal barges were when they were overtaken by railway trains. Overnight, my car was worthless, as the trio and their philanthropic patrons assigned the patent rights to humankind and the motor industry lost the opportunity to manage the transition. Buildings' roofs were rapidly converted into distributed power plants (the hydrides stored the hydrogen) and the juice left over from domestic uses supplied the fuel for motor vehicles. The cost of the system was too cheap to meter. However, unlike the similar promise made for nuclear power, this invention left none of the after-effects involved a fraction of a per cent of the £400bn invested in nuclear power the century before. Fortunately, my choice of Mercedes was a good one. The Germans survived the rush of Chinese imports that twisted the world's economies around and destroyed the American car industry. A new style of architecture emerged after the great discovery. The designs of the post-millennium era, pinched by their fear of global warming, gave way to a more relaxed "hydrogen look", which critics compared with Californian flamboyance of the 1960s. My great regret, though, was the government's decision to abandon rail transport. Possibly it had never been viable, but after the Peterborough disaster in 2008, when a 300 kph supertrains derailed and collided head on with an old-fashioned 225 full of schoolchildren, leaving 622 dead, there was no longer any taste for such speed. Admittedly, my satellite speed control had had a role to play in this, as motor transport became so much more reliable and safe. Last year, there were only 199 deaths, a tenth of those 10 years ago. They are still falling. Of course, not everyone has to use their speed control, unless they are automatically activated by a speed trap in a sensitive area (the penalty is that it's locked on for 24 hours) or they belong to the 15-21 age group. Journey times on the motorway are as predictable now as they were with the old British Rail timetable; a result of booking my car journey on the net – the charge being determined by the demand for the route. Of course I am still working, as I was lucky enough to be one of the first to undergo therapy to switch off a few ageing genes, but my commute today is to one of our rural serviced offices adjacent to my youngest son's school. Why it took us so long to crack the work–life balance still baffles me. He is nagging me to buy the latest Otua but I am still attached to the Mercedes and, anyway, in a couple of years the Ultimata will be in production. Then I will be able to use the car's computer to transport me to wherever I want to go with a minimal amount of driving. What a wonderful world for one's children to be growing up in and what a privilege to have been part of making it.