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Last edited 19 Feb 2021
The future of housing
For some, the very words ‘the future of housing’ conjure up mental images of the hi-tech architecture of Blade Runner and homes built by robots. For others, the expectation is of something much more traditional in look and feel, albeit smart-enabled and hiding multiple innovations under its skin.
Of course, the current reality is that, while some housing architects, self-builders and developers have delivered some incredible one-off projects, the UK’s mainstream housing supply is still dominated by volume housebuilders and larger developers.
The most common private sector business model is based on the economics of land values, and a management system that prizes low risk, consistency and repeatability. It’s all about placing the lowest possible demands on a moveable workforce to deliver a very well-understood, non-challenging new homes style that most customers generally like or think is good enough. It is rarely a culture for innovation.
However, driven by shortages in cheap labour, almost every volume housebuilder in the country is now exploring new methods of construction, and many have live research or pilot projects testing new manufacturing methods and offsite technologies. New joint ventures are emerging, and local authorities are re-entering the housebuilding industry with pioneering projects, providing homes for those most in need while raising capital through market sale, meaning more to invest in future projects. Cost is important, but so is quality.
 New methods of construction are already underway
The offsite sector uses a broad spectrum of materials and technologies including highly-energy-efficient timber, lightweight steel, precast concrete and hybrid manufactured building technologies, all designed to create new solutions and speed up construction.
Applications such as cross laminated timber (CLT) and timber frame consturction are often favoured in these factory-led approaches to housing. Tellingly, all of the organisations involved with the newly-launched Offsite Solutions Scotland build with timber, and Stewart Milne is the first timber engineering manufacturer of many expected to contribute to a buiding information modelling (BIM) library with floor, walls and roof products now created as BIM objects.
It is not just the structural fabric or facades of a building that are changing. Interiors are being pre-manufactured offsite too, with volumetric kitchen and bathroom pods designed using BIM to fit an exact space, reducing waste and making installation safer and easier.
Digital technology is also improving the flexibility of building design – a concept most recently explored by Cree's LifeCycle Tower (LCT ONE). Built without load-bearing walls, the building is completely adaptable on the inside. A hotel can become an apartment block and then an office, then revert back to a hotel. LCT ONE also adopts technology to measure the performance data of the products used, with a preference for timber as a natural and renewable source.
 Community-led housing leads to more timber spaces
We can also see changes coming through an increase in community-led housing, and a greater emphasis on health, wellbeing and high quality placemaking. According to housing design experts, all the key health-related elements such as sunlight, well-landscaped open spaces, thermal stability, good ventilation and accessibility are increasingly making their way into the broader housing market.
To see recent examples of this, look no further than the 2018 Housing Design Awards winners. The overall winner was the Bourne Estate, a shining example of how a housing architect and a local authority (in this case, Matthew Lloyd Architects and Camden Council) worked together to rejuvenate an Edwardian council estate, delivering new high-quality flats which are enriched by highly-effective communal spaces.
Though a contentious process at times, a genuine consultation with existing residents gave them a say in the look, use and feel of the building. So while communal spaces in blocks of flats can be unsociable and dingy spaces, especially for social housing, that is not the case with the Bourne Estate which is filled with intricate design features including oak slatted ceilings and solid dark timber doors that give the area warmth.
Similarly, AHMM’s winning project Signal Townhouses has created a real community feel. Built on brownfield land, the first phase of the site has delivered 16 three-storey homes around a courtyard, bringing the community together while also allowing privacy. The back-to-back homes are spacious and full of light.
All of these examples also point to changing expectations about the design and build quality of UK housing. In July 2018 at the Policy Exchange, UK housing minister James Brokenshire MP gave a speech on housing and how the drive for quantity should not affect quality. Brokenshire described the future of housing as “high-quality, energy efficient and manufacturing-led.”
Post-Grenfell, revisions to Building Regulations and improvements to the system of checks and controls on building standards are likely to start affecting the new home building sector. Under the watchful scrutiny of the APPG for Excellence in the Built Environment and other parliamentary groups, pressure will continue to be put on housebuilders to deliver more homes, faster, with fewer defects and much improved after-sales service. The hope is for a much more customer-centric housing market in the future.
Smart technology is already creating a flourishing new market for apps and housing features that serve our needs for energy saving, security, communications and entertainment. This is an industry that is booming and not too far into the future it is likely that most new homes will incorporate data analysis tools to allow them to respond fully to the behaviour of inhabitants.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Affordable housing.
- British post-war mass housing.
- Domestic building.
- Flat definition.
- Home ownership.
- Housing associations.
- Housing market.
- Housing standards review.
- Minimum space standards.
- Residential definition.
- Smart home.
- Terraced houses and the public realm.
- The history of fabric structures.
- Types of dwelling.
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