As the office empties of objects and people, it acquires a ghostly double: its virtual environment. Staff monitored and supported by facilities managers inhabit both real and virtual spaces. Is it fanciful to see the two blurring? Perhaps the physical office will lose some of its grim clarity. Possibly its culture will begin to develop more concern with the sensuousness. It will lose its beige–fawn colour scheme and its identical mass-produced furniture. The light, for example, will be lower, the desk chair will mutate into a sexier, curved form, everyone will get more more plants, a more controllable micro-environment and more amenities [Society160, page 64]. The space itself will be far more flexible, too, with computer-controlled partitions instantly reconfiguring the office to the requirements of the moment. This means firms will need less floorspace than they do today, bringing down commercial prices. Out-of-town business parks will become a thing of the past as city-centre office space becomes affordable; the parks are bulldozed and regenerated as housing and leisure developments.
The main structural components of the building itself will probably be steel, concrete, timber and glass. But they will not be the same steel, concrete, timber and glass that we know today. As materials scientists acquire more and more powerful microscopes, so they gain a better understanding of how materials behave at very small scales [The world's tiniest tweezers, page 16], and how they can be altered to improve certain properties – such as customised ceramics for one-off applications. And, for most concrete work, you might use a grade 25-type (that is, able to withstand 25 MPa of pressure after a 28-day cure). However, grade 120 concrete is available, and by 2033 we will be using unbelievably strong grade 700 concrete for specialised uses. With steel, there is the possibility that the property of the building frame might be different at different points. For example, like a spider's web, the frame may be made so that it is stronger at its intersections. One benefit of altering the structure of materials such as steel or glass is that you do away with the need to amend their properties by adding a coating of some kind to block ultraviolet radiation or increase fire protection.
Capsule02Materials science for beginners The thing is, materials scientists are a strange bunch, and so is materials science. You can never predict with much confidence which technology will prevail when. Sir Frederick Kipping invented silicon in the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1958 that was it deployed as a gun-powered sealant. Take another example: in The Time Machine, HG Wells imagined that the people in 2003 would be living in structures made from transparent aluminium. As you will have noticed, this is not the case, although we do have toughened glass that is stiffer than aluminium. Wells published that book in 1895; the wide-scale use of aluminium didn’t really get going until the 1950s. If we take that gap as an indicator of the period between conception and maturity, we can predict that, by 2033, we will be making wide use of advanced polymer composites (think supersmart fibreglass). As a material, these have the considerable advantages of strength, lightness and speed – they can be produced in one-third of the time it takes to work aluminium – and the considerable disadvantage of cost. If we don’t solve the cost issue, then leopard-skin-speckled aluminium panels may beat the polymer composites. And yet polymer composites do promise to be serious building material. For one thing they are fine carriers for nanotechnology [The world’s tiniest tweezers, page 16]. And they have the ability to change colour and respond to climatic change; they mimic the mass and weight of other materials but are easier to cool (which, by the way, makes them perfect for laptop computers). Note that this material offers the possibility of a different kind of embedded intelligence than you get by putting a microprocessor into a component, and it may last 60 years – unlike the microchip-in-the-wall-panel, which has a built-in mortality dictated by the makers’ need to sell replacements. That is important, because some of the problems that have been with humans since they started to build permanent structures will start to be solved. Take cold bridging, for example; this was not technically solvable 20 years ago – condensation was an accepted evil of cladding and precast concrete blocks. In the not-so-distant future, polymer composite walls will be able to prevent it by changing temperature in areas or sections of a building. This is not exactly the digital dystopia portrayed in The Matrix; it’s just walls with unevenly distributed performance characteristics. A large percentage of the old housing stock will be retrofitted. Over the next 30 years, we will witness a merger of artificial and natural materials: old English oak moulded with PVCu, artificial ceramic stone, and wood-grain effects from polyester powder coatings. And we’ll enhance our polymer composites with specially grown fibres and resins. The honesty of materials – an important tenet of modernism – will become a thing of the past. Enjoy the grain in plywood or the scent of a hardwood while you can …
WindowsPhotovoltaic glass with multiple thin-film technologies will use high-energy photons to produce current at a high voltage; low-energy photons pass right through and are absorbed in a second semiconductor, producing current at a lower voltage. This glass is 10 times more thermally effective than the glass of today. And because its structure has been altered, it is not necessary to add a coating. It uses the “lotus leaf effect” to keep itself clean. This discovery, in 1997, followed an investigation into the ability of said flower to remain well groomed in the muddiest of situations. It turned out that this was a result of microscopic bumps on the surface of the leaf: any dirt or water landing on the leaf touched the peaks of bumps, causing it to roll off at the slightest pressure. So it is with the glass.
FoundationsSelf-compacting concrete – more reliable and less heavy than standard concrete
SkinsThis is permeable to heat, moisture and air. It contains a thermochromic plastic that emits light when an electric current is passed across it – allowing the firm to show adverts for itself, or possibly free movies, to the passing public.
Advanced polymer composite partitioning [Materials science, page 14]These can be adjusted so that that they are transparent or opaque to different frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum, and so that conversations or equipment cannot be bugged or eavesdropped on. They are suspended from the ceiling and can create multiple configurations of office space using the building control system. This means that, with so many staff working from home, the same office space can be used for cubicle working, open-plan working or board meetings – depending on who is in the office.
Concrete frame nanotechnologyThis will create concrete bridges, lightly sprinkled with sensors that inform us as to damage status over fibre-optic links; other advanced materials may simply fix themselves.
Building of Crystal Palace in south London, the first prefabricated building 1876
Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone 1903
Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, fly first powered, heavier-than-air plane 1916
Einstein publishes the general theory of relativity 1947
Researchers at Bell Laboratories invent the transistor 1943
The Colossus computer built to crack German war codes 1950
First tower crane introduced into Britain 1960
The internet is born 1973
Construction on New York’s World Trade Centre and Chicago’s Sears Tower completed 2003
Appearance of largest ever internet virus, SQL slammer worm 2003
Appearance of largest ever internet virus, SQL slammer worm 2020
Programmable houses required by Building Regulations Part G 2038
Factory built house sales exceed “traditional” houses 2080
First entire house built using nanotechnology 2100
Concrete and steel replaced by nanoplete 2163
Cranes replaced by self levitating components