A new report issued by the UK National House Building Council pictures the type of houses that Britons are expected to be living in around the middle of the century. To what extent is this fantasy?
The report, called Futurology: The new home in 2050, foresees a mixture of improvements in carbon emission reductions using a variety of new building fabrics and a mix of renewable energy technologies.
These are likely to include decentralised energy, with district energy centres providing local area networks for both heating and electricity. The homes are characterised as being “highly energy efficient” without any reference to net-zero carbon emission targets recently called for by the World Green Building Councils.
Every home or apartment block will be equipped with the facility to charge an electric car either by induction or connection, the report says.
Homes are likely to be flexible to cater for micro-living (one person), mixed use and an older population.
But as the gap between the efficiency of new homes – translating into low energy bills – and the existing housing stock widens, pressure will increase to bring the latter up to the same standard.
The report envisages that most new homes will be constructed offsite and assembled on-site. Because it is more efficient, underfloor heating will be common. Heat pumps should also be much more widely used, and linked to home heating and cooling systems.
Lighting will be controlled by movement detectors or voice activation, as may other devices. Without the need for wall-mounted radiators and light switches, the furnishing of rooms can become more flexible.
Moreover, electricity does not have to be delivered via sockets in the walls. Together, this implies that walls might also more easily be moved. The space within the home can therefore become more flexible and adaptable as needs change.
Householders will have their energy use managed for them with a centralised interface that will combine heating, electrical consumption, ventilation and vehicle charging as the use of building management systems (BMS), currently prevalent in commercial buildings, spreads to homes.
Building energy management systems using wireless technology and embedded monitoring are common in industry and will move into homes.
The artificial intelligence in the system will learn the household’s pattern of consumption, so that, for example, locking the front door as all occupants leave, will to cause the house to power down, turning off non-essential equipment, just as an electric car does nowadays.
Currently, there is chronic underperformance in home energy use, because occupants are not, for one reason or another, empowered or able to manage their energy use efficiently.
Making energy management automatic, by using artificial intelligence and algorithms, will save both energy and money – provided that the price and the carbon impact of manufacturing, installing and maintaining these new systems is taken into account – a subject not covered by this report.
To save further money for consumers, such a system would, according to the report, take advantage of the hourly fluctuating prices of electricity, by selling home-generated electric power to the grid at times of peak prices but draw it from the grid when prices are low.
Much of this technology is already present on the market but not widely applied to housing.
For example, in the UK the prices for solar electric systems are now so low that feed-in tariffs are being phased out next year completely; other renewable energy systems are expected to follow suit, and not just because of government cutbacks, but because the rising price-lines of fossil fuel energy and the falling price lines of mass-produced renewable energy systems are crossing.
Heating and cooling
The report envisages that thermal storage in the future will take the form of large insulated hot water tanks that would require additional physical space. However, this may not be necessary, especially in areas that are off the gas grid. Instead, electric storage heaters of the traditional type, using high density concrete blocks, could make a reappearance and are beginning to do so in some new housing projects.
Furthermore, if homes are renovated or built to at least a passive house standard, then the need for thermal stores will be reduced significantly, which the report also fails to take into account.
The report does imagine that heat recovery and ventilation systems will be more complex, with increased servicing, maintenance and control requirements. But again, it may be decided, as some eco-housing developers already have, that in the interests of eco-minimalism it is more efficient to do without such over-sophisticated and complicated technology – with its reliability risks.
The report also makes some curious mistakes. For example, in a section on how houses should be designed to protect from extreme weather events such as very high temperatures, it says that an even greater level of thermal insulation would give rise to immediate heat gains inside the house where there is underfloor heating. But external thermal insulation would protect homes from excessive external heat, and underfloor heating does not have to take hours to heat up or cool down, especially if it is delivered using electricity, just below tiles or floorboards.
Additionally, technology today can use heat pumps to run in either direction, so that heat can be drawn from the ground and returned to it as needed to stabilise the internal temperature of the building.
For some reason, the report also envisages that land will become more available for homebuilding, leading to low densities of housing. This flies in the face of current trends and advice, which is that higher density urban living is more sustainable, because it makes the provision of services such as health, education, water and sanitation supply, more efficient; reduces commute times, enables more cycling and walking, reduces supply lines and the impact of home deliveries; and it permits land to be used for growing the food and providing other eco-services that a much larger future population will require.
Curiously, the report also overlooks how water and sanitation will be provided: most studies covering this topic argue that buildings will increasingly collect and process their own rainwater and greywater, and environmental sewage treatment will be necessary on a neighbourhood scale to reclaim and reuse nutrients and prevent pollution.
Future homes will also need to be protected from extreme rainwater events as well, both in terms of their location, design, and the use of permeable surfaces in the surrounding area. To its credit, the report does make reference to this.
To what extent is this future a fantasy?
Currently, there are 28.7 million homes in the United Kingdom. Shockingly, about one in five of those in England are substandard (meaning they don’t meet the Decent Homes Standard for health and safety and thermal comfort). The vast majority of these were built before 1945.
Government grant-funded measures to improve home energy efficiency and decrease fuel poverty have fallen sharply in the last five years. In particular there is very little action on solid wall insulation, which especially affects older properties.
The rate of improvement needs to improve dramatically, according to all observers such as the IPPR think tank. Yet these improvements only bring homes up to a certain minimum standard. There is currently absolutely no strategy for bringing homes up to any standard approaching that of the best performing new homes, let alone zero carbon homes when all existing cavities and lofts have been insulated.
In addition, the rate of new housebuilding is way behind meeting the need for new housing:
The current Conservative government was elected in 2017 with a manifesto pledge to meet the 2015 commitment to deliver 1 million homes by the end of 2020. This is below the 300,000 per year figure recommended by Parliament. Neither target is anywhere near being met.
There is clearly a lot of work to be done over the next 32 years if NHBC’s vision of the future is to be realised.