The office of the future will contain much of the same furniture as the office of the present, but a lot of the equipment and objects will go. Say sayonara to the fax, copier, shredder and shelf after shelf of lever-arch files. Instead, information will be stored on servers and accessed through large plasma screens. It will become easier for staff to spend part of their working week telecommuting from home (or, indeed, the banks of a trout stream). Given the DTI's concern for live–work balance and our terminal road congestion, staff may even get this as a legal right.

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.


Materials 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 …


Photovoltaic 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.


Self-compacting concrete – more reliable and less heavy than standard concrete


This 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 nanotechnology

This 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.

Technical timeline

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


The world’s tiniest tweezers Nanotechnology is best considered as a “catch-all” description of atom manipulation at an almost vanishingly small scale that has applications in the real world. A nanometer is a billionth of a metre – that is, about 10 times the diameter of a hydrogen atom. If you want to know how small that is, take an apple and expand it to the size of the world. The atoms in your apple will now be the size of apples. The technology for manipulating substances at molecular and atomic levels involves the ability to create and adjust molecular structures to create potentially new materials, devices, machines or objects (put simply: tailor materials with specific properties). It is made possible by hugely powerful computers that allow the design of new materials and the simulation of their properties, and devices such as scanning tunnelling microscope, which can identify and manipulate individual atoms. Now we can see just how many angels fit on to the end of a pin. And not least, there is the advent of virtual reality, which enables a veritable host of boffins to visit and experience the wonders of this new and hitherto unimaginable nanorama. No surprise, then, that it is eagerly anticipated that within the next few decades, large-scale objects – including buildings – could be fabricated using microscopic robots, which would join to make a “glue” that is able to assume any shape or size. The raditional constraints of design and construction would be eliminated; microscopic parts would replace standard components – bricks, steel sections and fixings – and texture, colour and strength would be defined at cellular level. This could mean the end of the orthogonal geometry required for efficiency in standard frame construction. Arguably, mankind has reached the end of the road in terms of scale when it comes to constructing objects. A professor of nanotechnology points out that a few thousands years ago men were building things the size of Stonehenge by shifting huge chunks of rock around, and now it is at a level where atoms can be moved to suit our needs. But that’s where it ends: after that it’s quantum mechanics. An example of this atom-shifting prowess can be seen at IBM’s laboratories in Zurich where scientists have built an atomic force microscope, a machine that can move individual atoms and place them in designated spots. Researchers have used this to create Millipede, a system in which tiny dents, a nanometre in diameter, are punched on a polymer surface and used to store data. In this way 15 DVDs’ worth of data can be put on to a stamp-sized disc – enough to give a mobile phone a memory the size of a large computer and turn it into a combined personal organiser, phone, mp3 music player and much more. It’s not in the marketplace yet, but will be in a few years. Nanotechnology products are already with us. Particles of metal oxides, each manufactured on a scale of a few billionths of a metre, are now used to create a new generation of sun blockers, for example. These can cut out ultra-violet rays but do not have to be applied in thick, white layers. Future technology will create concrete bridges, lightly sprinkled with nanocrystalline materials to inform us as to damage status. Damaged building materials will order repairs, climatic control sensors will track down the source of leaks and contaminants, and intruders, both physical and via the network, will be tracked down and captured. Virus-scanning software will extend to protect smart materials, to ensure they are not re-engineered or reprogrammed to destruct, or mutate into dangerous materials by cyber-criminals of the future. Other advanced materials may simply fix themselves – as we will produce nanoparticles with almost any desired radius, an innovation that will enable us to monkey around with future structures, harnessing new material properties that are blessed with the properties of self-assembly and self-organisation.