The homes that the future built

by Melanie Howard

Essay Part 1 | Essay Part 2 | Essay Part 3

Five pointers for future-orientated design

1. Networked society

Networks are seen as a technological phenomenon, but the reality is that their use and spread has been driven by the fundamental value changes that have made society almost unrecognisable from how we lived in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. As described eloquently by Professor Manuel Castells in the Networked Society, it is based on the conception that ‘the individual’ has become the basic unit of society and that each of us create our family, social and economic structures through networking with others. These structures are dependent on the ability of individuals to come together and associate, entailing some active participation and involvement, whatever the platform, real or virtual.

But all social interactions are becoming less hierarchical, less prescribed and more engaged at a peer-to-peer level, resulting in what is known as the Personalisation of Authority. To explain, we are four times more likely to believe a member of our family or a friend than any politician or journalist about a range of social and environmental issues. This shift is finding expression in our daily lives whether in the way we make purchase decisions, the content and tone of the media, and of course, in the bricks and mortar which make our homes. Implication 1: It used to be the dining room for gathering the family and the church for society. But the Networked Society places greater emphasis on more relaxed and informal meeting spaces facilitating increased entertaining, such as open-plan living-dining at home and more accessible spaces such as community centres, cafés, playgrounds and picnic places for the community. To which, of course, we need to supplement ready access to networking technologies both at home and wherever else we spend time.

2. Culture of change

Along with greater longevity comes the Culture of Change. This identifies that higher participation rates in tertiary education and soaring house prices are delaying full adulthood. Variously called ‘kidulthood’ or the ‘long family’ to capture the extension of adolescence among young adults (25% of 30-year-old men are living with their parents), this is a significant trend with implications for the design for homes. But there is also key evidence that despite the slower start these days, once we have embarked on the excitement of relationships, jobs and home ownership, we are far more likely to change these frequently and reinvent ourselves. Divorce and separation still carry the pain but not the stigma, and it is no longer only US citizens who have second, third and fourth marriages or children with multiple partners.

Thus we can predict an accelerating curve of ‘life changes’ through the course of a longer lifespan - changes that will bring an ever increasing group of people needing for more flexible use of space in homes as reconstituted and step families come together in new, often part-time ways. Already, more than one in 10 families with dependent children is a step-family. Longitudinal research shows that three-fifths of divorced adults will “repartner” within five years.

Family instability and the need for greater flexibility is also creating a new role for young-at-heart and fitter grandparents to buttress child-caring needs and participate in the wider family group. Despite concerns about family fragmentation and potential isolation, intergenerational ties remain strong and the ability to accommodate visiting relatives and supportive friends is key.

Implication 2: ‘Reconstituted’ family gatherings require more communal entertainment space because there are typically more people. But at the same time the ability to create more private bedroom space for visiting children/step children will be at a premium. Rising house prices and moving costs will make more flexible internal layouts which facilitate “the culture of change” more valuable and desirable. Modular extensions to the home should also be considered as a route to providing additional accommodation.

3. Return to the native

Most of England lives in cities, towns or suburbs. The policy to build more new homes within urban boundaries is only likely to make this increase. Paradoxically, it seems that the concept of being close to nature has never been more powerful. More than half of us ‘feel the need to be closer to the country and rural life’ and nine out of 10 people want to be close to nature. Dubbed ‘symbolic rurality’ by rural sociologists, this suggests that we carry around an image of idyllic countryside in our heads that we want to connect with, even if we have chosen to live in the city for its amenity.

This yearning is reflected in ‘factual entertainment’ programmes in which families move to the country. Or the participation in mass twitching with Bill Oddie or cooking woodland animals with Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall. Tesco’s battle to purchase a major chain of garden suppliers is testimony to the power of ‘green’ not just as environmental concept, but as something we all want in our day-to-day lives. It speaks also of a counterbalance to the world of choice, a return to the authenticity of the natural world to reconnect with the essential. Implication 3: This trend highlights why everyone will value ready access to safe green space for children’s play, relaxation and reconnecting with nature; any opportunity to benefit from the attraction of ‘real’ nature through well planned windows or access to fresh air should be prioritised. Increased value is put on private outside space suitable for growing plants, as well as indoor spaces for cultivation, especially when integrated into the kitchen such as for growing herbs.

Back to top

Essay Part 1 | Essay Part 2 | Essay Part 3 |