Futurology: A new study looks at the design of the home in 2050

Futurology house
© Futurology: the new home in 2050

It seems that sometimes it goes too far, and in other ways doesn't go far enough.

A new study has been released by the NHBC foundation in the UK, Futurology: The new home in 2050 that has a lot of interesting ideas. Prepared by Studio Partington, a design practice in London, it "provides an interesting insight into some of the trends we are likely to see 30 years or more into the future."

In the next 30 years we will witness substantial changes to home-life through technological advancement in response to societal, demographic and climate changes. The family home of the future will evolve to be more resilient and more adaptable to society’s ever-evolving needs. We will see a resurgence of the ‘multigenerational’ home, a flexible home where the young can live into adulthood and where the elderly members of the family can be cared for.

For urban living, the designers foresee more of what has become known as "missing middle" housing in North America: "Homes will be arranged vertically on smaller footprints to increase density and make the best use of limited land." They see it being connected to district heating and cooling systems, and without parking because "car ownership will be lower with more journeys taken on public transport, by foot and bicycle, or through the use of on-demand and ride-sharing services."

For rural and suburban living, they suggest that "the traditional home arrangement will remain largely unchanged due to the greater availability of land, allowing homes to adapt and expand as families grow and working styles evolve."

Lower densities will allow for greater ‘solar access’. Roofs orientated to optimise solar access will become photovoltaic banks. Energy will be stored in the home itself, with batteries charged from solar panels and/or low-tariff electricity. Simple passive strategies for ventilation and cooling will be possible. The transition from petrol/diesel and hybrid to electric vehicles will have been made and each home will have induction or cabled vehicle charging.

There are many things to love about their ideas for flexible townhomes that can adapt and change to accommodate multi-generational living. They suggest a doubling of traditional suburban densities (which is already happening as developers pack bigger houses onto smaller lots).

There are aspects to the designs that surprise me. Stairs are shown with winders, occasionally even double winders. These are far more dangerous than straight stairs and make it difficult to install chair lifts, which are a lot cheaper than elevator lifts.

They also show ground source heat pumps in the country and district heating in the city, even as they discuss how homes will be highly energy efficient. However I thought that there was pretty much a consensus that if you build a really well insulated house, (say, to Passive House standards, which by 2050 I would have thought would be code) then an expensive ground-source heat pump system becomes superfluous.

There are some interesting and sometimes counter-intuitive planning ideas, like putting all services on the exterior walls so that the interior non-load bearing walls can be changed as required. Do people do that very often? Don't electrical outlets have to be on every wall? Or will we need electric outlets at all in 2050? Perhaps not.

With services distributed around the perimeter walls of the home or through a floor void as in offices, the internal walls need only serve as acoustic and spatial separators that can be easily re-organised. Lighting will be controlled by movement detectors or voice activation, so the constraints of positioning switches and sockets are removed, creating more opportunities for homes to be adapted to a person’s life.

Because most British homes have hot water radiators, they plan an integrated system of thermal storage of hot water.

Despite the trend for miniaturisation in electronics, some of the technology in the home will increase in size as we use devices for storing excess electricity or heat generated from renewable energy. Specifically, thermal storage in the form of enlarged insulated hot water cylinders will require additional physical space in the home. The interaction of heating, heat recovery and ventilation systems will also be more complex, with increased servicing, maintenance and controls.

Again, I wonder if this is overcomplicating things, but then I keep thinking we should be building dumb homes that have lots of insulation instead of complex storage systems. However, there is little argument that we should be living in an all-electric future powered by renewables. There is also a consensus that there will be more off-site construction.

There is much to admire in this report: the stressing of flexibility, of multigenerational living, and the recognition of societal changes with a huge increase in the numbers of both older people and younger people who can't afford to leave home. They recognize the need for the increasing of density, the replacement of the private car with so many alternatives. The designing for adaptability is something we have been talking about a lot recently, the idea of Open Building, where all the building components are accessible and replaceable. The study authors write:

We need to future-proof homes, plan for longevity and changes, and build in the structural capacity to move walls, extend floors, build upwards or even downwards. This trend, together with the accepted social responsibility to make homes accessible, suggests that a good proportion of new homes should be built to be adaptable.

house of the future© Smithson House of the Future

As Yogi Berra noted, “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” British architects like Alison Smithson tried it in 1956 and our houses don't look much like they predicted, and neither does the clothing. While reading "Futurology: the New Home in 2050," I thought that it didn't go far enough, that it was all too much like the housing of today, but 2050 is only 32 years away and if you think of how much housing has changed since 32 years ago, 1986, you realize that this is a very slow-moving industry. So perhaps it makes sense that they did not go all Smithson and get too wild and crazy.

Download your own copy from the NHBC Foundation.

Futurology: A new study looks at the design of the home in 2050
It seems that sometimes it goes too far, and in other ways doesn't go far enough.

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