In the UK, 30 years is not a long time in housing. If we were transported back in time to 1973, we would be astonished by the archaic design of cars, telephones, hair and instant coffee, but we would be at home in the houses. So it is safe to predict that in 2033 we will not have traded in our brick-built abodes for monocoque glulam eggs on legs. On the other hand, there will be some changes in how homes are built – and a complete revolution in the way their internal systems operate.
The rate of change of change will certainly increase in the future, but technology is unlikely to be its main driver. Rather, it will be the government's gradual tightening of the Building Regulations, and the demand for automated houses to assist the elderly to maintain their independence and to preserve the leisure time of those working 40-plus hours a week.
The picture is more complex than that, of course. When it comes to houses, we should never underestimate the cultural and economic drag in this country. In Britain, land is so overpriced relative to the rest of Europe that the houses built on it tend to be less sophisticated. And buyers, who inevitably sink most of their capital in their home, want the safest designs possible: as a rule of thumb, a house designed by an architect retails for 10% less than a standard housetype of the same size. But what about skills shortages and prefabrication? If you're making a production run of module in a factory, why not maximise your return by designing the smartest, most beautiful product possible?
How these economic, scientific and social forces get resolved is anyone's guess; the diagram on this page describes a future in which the people of Britain have embraced high-tech houses as enthusiastically as local and central government have embraced environmentalism.
Capsule01My working day
It is my second week on this site and my turn to drive the pool car. They operate this scheme to cut down on fuel costs; it also means that you can guarantee a parking space. The only problem was that Gary forgot his swipe card again and we had to go back for it. You can’t get on the site without the card; all your skills and work history are on it. I decided to go into the gym before work this morning. Now that there is not so much lifting, I have to watch the waistline. Time was, you had to carry materials all over the site and I was forever putting my back out. I wasn’t the only one either. It’s amazing how many projects used to get held up because guys were off with back problems. The robotic lifter does most of the hard work these days and the 3D drawings mean we place our gear exactly where its supposed to go. I decided to go from the gym straight to the site as the site showers are much better than the ones at the gym. I always feel much better after a hot shower and it’s a great feeling putting on clean site clothes (complete with the company logo). I dropped off yesterday’s togs with the site laundry service – and remembered how I used to hate going home in dirty clothes, covered in dust. I have the top health and safety qualification, including first-aider, which helps keep the project insurance cost down. Not that there is much call for my first aid skills these days – I have not been on a site where there has been accident for a few years now. On my way to the site cafe, I noticed Sarah didn’t have her ear defenders with her. I gave her a nudge to make sure she grabbed them before starting work. The guys don’t mind if I give them a nudge as its my job to make sure everyone has the right kit. They also know that if the inspector spots them the whole team is liable for a fine. Incidentally, half the workforce are women now – what a change that has made to the attitude of the place. Time for breakfast. I haven’t done enough in the gym to have a cooked breakfast although the chef does a great fry-up – none of that grease with everything. When you leave the cafe, you have to swipe your card again so that they can log how many hours you’ve worked. You can’t cheat, as if you go over your limit without clearing it with the manager, the card won’t let you on site next time. Not that I really need to work overtime these days. They pay me enough to put something in to my pension fund every month and they also pay for a health scheme, which makes me feel that bit more secure, especially with the family. Well, better get to it. There have been quite a few changes on the sites in the last few years but the work doesn’t do itself yet! The above might not be a realistic picture of how a site operates now. But there is no reason this scenario couldn’t become a reality in a few years’ time. To an office worker, the facilities described here – wearing clean clothes to and from work, having access to good quality food in a clean environment – are standard. Why should it be any different for construction workers? Peter Rogers
Building management system As well as all the control processes, the building management system will retain and constantly update personality models of those living in the house. It may be able to use this model to predict when a person would like to listen to soothing music, or when to suggest a cup of coffee or a television programme. This would (obviously) depend on how good its sensors were, and how effective it was at reading mental states from physiological signs such as heart rate and sweat. This application would be of particular use if one of the denizens became physically or mentally ill – it could put us in touch with trained counsellors, security services, doctors, analysts, friends or police the moment a sufficiently alarming shift in mood or behaviour was detected. When building management systems become sufficiently powerful, they may be used to confine criminals within their homes, or to monitor and treat people suffering an illness or recovering from surgery. The utilities program pays bills automatically. It tries to minimise these bills by actively controlling the use of water and energy and by conducting regular searches for cheaper suppliers and better technologies.
Music and films The in-house entertainment section of the home management system downloads films and music on a sale-or-return basis from internet file-sharing sites, based on the system’s personality models of the occupants.
Toilets The intelligent toilet analyses waste and emails you and your doctor if it detects any problems. The solids are transported to local tanks where sludge is allowed to settle, and treated with ultraviolet light and ozone. It is then fed through a series of tanks containing algae, plankton and mussels. The water, which by the end of the process is clean enough to bathe in, is sold as fertiliser to local gardens to pay the running costs of the scheme.
White goods Refrigerators, washing machines and cookers will have in-built intelligence. This will allow the maker to remotely diagnose faults and determine when to service an appliance. It will also allow the maker to, for example, upgrade the operating system of a washing machine so that it can understand the conversation between the microprocessors in a package of detergent and the others in the label of the clothes, and then set its wash program accordingly. “Active tags” on goods in the refrigerator and smart cupboards email an online supermarket for more food, shaving cream, toilet paper, alcohol and so on when the household’s stocks fall below a certain level (which will help the supermarkets’ stock control systems no end).
Walls Made of structurally insulated panel system, or SIPS. These small, portable components are the bricks of the future. They are delivered fully finished, ready-for-installation, pre-filled with a commercial cousin of aerogel, a near-perfect insulation material [The world’s tiniest tweezers, page 16]. The result is a thinner wall that will increase room sizes by a small but important amount. They will contain sensors and microprocessors that will give the building management system precise information about the physical state (weight and size) of the house, and the capacity to change it. At its simplest, it will be able to shut the window if it’s raining, or shut off heating in a part of the house that is unlikely to be used.
Wireless data port Each wireless data port, linked to very high-speed optical networks, will be able to transfer huge amounts of information very quickly. You could download The Lord of the Rings trilogy in less than a second. Very small aperture satellite terminals (VASTs) will serve rural areas. Neighbourhood networks will allow better communication between people living in a street, who have a responsibility to look after their joint energy supply, water and waste recycling units and tool store where the street’s lawnmowers and power tools are kept.
Water collection Rainwater from roofs is collected in an underground cistern and recycled for use in toilets and washing machines.
Security Biometric identity procedures are becoming cost effective. A camera scans the caller’s face and attempts to determine their identity. If they are on the key list, the door opens automatically. If they are a visitor, and there is nobody at home, the door can email or send a text message to the owner, who can then log on to their house over the internet and find out what the caller wants.