Concept homes are supposed to lead the way to the future. The only problem is, the housebuilding industry never wants to follow. As David Wilson Homes launches a fresh mission, we wonder whether the industry will ever boldly go anywhere
The idea of having curved rather than angular walls never caught on. Neither did building homes out of plastic, as Alison and Peter Smithson did for the 1956 Ideal Home Show (pictured). And as for having bathtaps preset to deliver water at just the right temperature, well, the reception was lukewarm.

These innovations all appeared in concept houses, and they were each intended to jolt housebuilders out of their "tried and tested" mindset, and inspire the public to demand something different. The struggle continued with the Milton Keynes Future World estate of the mid-1980s. Then in the 1990s we had Nigel Coates' Oyster House, Pierre d'Avoine's Slim House and Laing Homes' Innovation House. They were all written up by the press – and none did much to dent the industry's traditionalism.

There are many barriers to innovation, from making ideas work in a real building to selling the principles embodied in concept houses to clients. As David Wilson Homes embarks on its own concept house project, it's worth putting it in the context of two others, Pierre d'Avoine's Slim House and Integer's Millennium House, to see how forward thinking the industry is today.

Innovating on the inside
Project: LIFE Concept Homes is the latest venture from housebuilder David Wilson. As the name suggests, the firm is taking a scientific, customer-focused approach to its programme. "As a housebuilder I'm looking after the person who pays the mortgage," says James Wilson, the group development director. "There is no point in creating something so wacky that the buying public walks away from it."

The firm is building two near-identical four-bedroom houses, one in Sheffield and the other at Elvetham Heath in Fleet, Hampshire. From the outside you might not even notice them – and that's the intention. "Starting from the premise that this is a major investment," continues Wilson, "we wanted to create something that blends in but internally is completely different."

The innovation is primarily in the homes' internal layout and its technology, which will be tested by guinea pig occupants and a researcher. The housebuilder designed the shell, but is deciding what should go into it with the help of consultants, including a home economist and Saffa Riffat, head of the school of the built environment at the University of Nottingham. "More than 90 companies have come to us and expressed interest in getting involved in the project, making everything from environmental products to pastry cutters," says Wilson. Riffat, who was the housebuilder's partner on a previous research project to build an eco-house on campus, has been asked to look at environmental technology, such as solar roof tiles, passive air-conditioning and combined heat and power systems, with a brief to explore ideas that might be mainstream in 10 years.

"From the eco-house we learned a lot about different methods of sustainable energy – but we couldn't install them because they are not commercially viable," says Wilson. "This project is looking at how people live, the lifestyle side. Hopefully people will love it and we can introduce it to the mainstream – that's the objective."

The housebuilder has already picked up on a few ideas evolved in the concept houses, E E notably balconies and terraces, and added them to its latest townhouse designs.

The biggest barrier is mental attitude – doing what you did last time is easier than doing something new

James Wilson

But not all of the housebuilder's ideas will clear the first hurdles. "We started off looking at ways of creating alternative bathrooms, by having something like a plunge pool, but the technical requirements ruled it out," says Wilson. "Also, we wanted to include a semi-basement, to see how easy or difficult it is to do them." Basements were once standard in terraced houses, but these days they count as an innovation. "We are doing a basement," says Wilson, "but we did find a knowledge barrier along the way – in knowing what to look for and finding a contractor that knows what it is doing. But probably the biggest barrier is mental attitude – doing what you did last time is easier than doing something new."

Fear of the unknown
Architect Pierre d'Avoine encountered this same unwillingness to entertain new ideas when he showed potential clients the house he created for the 1999 Daily Mail Ideal Home Show. The house was the winner of a competition aimed at reviving some of the innovation shown by architects in the 1950s.

D'Avoine's Slim House pre-empted PPG3 in its terraced efficiency. Although the house's rooftop communal gardens and hybrid steel and timber-frame construction method marked it out as unconventional and innovative, it had been designed with the needs of the social housing sector in mind, and had a build cost of just under £43,000.

At the time of the show there was talk of keen housing association interest, but nobody was prepared to try the concept. "Several housing associations approached us but they all said they didn't want to be the first to do it," says d'Avoine. "And although they liked strategies such as the rooftop communal gardens, they said they wouldn't work for their particular customers."

Although Slim House did not produce a stream of repeat orders, d'Avoine says the project was worthwhile: "We've used it as a piece of ongoing R&D." More recently, d'Avoine designed a pair of modular houses to sit on the roof of the Piper Building, in Fulham, west London. Although the practice had innovated to help the social sector, it now finds most of its work is at the top end of the market. "We seem to be designing more one-off houses. Private clients are looking for more substantial space standards and high environmental standards."

Going mainstream
The Integer initiative, devised eight years ago by architect Cole Thompson Associates and IT expert I&I, has been highly successful at exploiting the potential for innovation in the affordable housing sector. Integer married environmental design with high technology and was first unveiled in the Millennium House in Garston, near Watford, in 1998. The distinctive timber and glass house still stands on the site today, having won a reprieve from the demolition that was supposed to follow its temporary planning permission.

The house's construction was charted by a hard-hatted Carol Vorderman for the BBC's Tomorrow's World, and has since been followed by three more demonstration projects and 135 houses in six projects. The team is about to start rolling out Integer projects on a larger scale. "It has taken us a lot longer than we anticipated," says Nick Thompson, director of Cole Thompson. "In the early days people said we were building experimental houses. The market and the industry have moved forward. Now there is a much wider client base that is up for it." Integer is even applying its principles to the refurbishment of a tower block, Glastonbury House, in Westminster, central London.

Innovation in disguise

David Wilson's four-bedroom concept house is unremarkable on the outside, but the windows, balconies and terraces give a hint of the innovations within. Above the semi-basement are three more floors of living accommodation, laid out to provide more free-flowing, flexible space than you would find in a traditional house. Usable external space has been maximised by the provision of a first floor balcony and terraces above, and some of this could be glazed over to create conservatories. The two test homes should be ready for occupation by their yet-to-be chosen guinea-pig occupants within six months.

Great idea, slim prospects

Pierre d’Avoine Architects has just planted two prefabricated houses for Baylight Properties on top of the Piper Building in Fulham, west London (top right) The idea for these came from the practice’s terraced Slim House (below right), which comprised 5 × 25 m long living quarters punctuated by courtyards and topped by a studio and a green roof. The roof was intended to be a communal garden, shielded from the street by a giant screen which d’Avoine suggested could carry planting, artworks, street lighting or maybe even an advertising hoarding.

A rare success

The Millennium House was part log cabin, part conservatory on the outside and a techno-home on the inside, with such features as a computer in the kitchen, movable walls, and grey-water recycling.

Integer’s upcoming Glastonbury House makeover (pictured) for Citywest Homes includes adding communications technology, photovoltaic panels and a communal “sky lounge”.