The house of the future? A sun-filled, shape-shifting, shed-share paradise

Oliver Wainwright
·6-min read

Shared home-working spaces, communal garden sheds and houses built using apps – these are just some of the ideas in the winning proposals for the government’s Home of 2030 competition to develop prototype “homes fit for the future”, showcasing the “best of British design”. The aim was to imagine what the best age-adaptable, energy-efficient, healthy homes might look like in 10 years’ time; but, according to the winning architects, most of the best ideas have been around for generations.

“You can’t get much more flexible and adaptable than the Georgian townhouse,” says Jennifer Beningfield of Openstudio, leader of one of the two winning teams announced today. “We’ve taken this very simple model and updated it for the 21st century. Our idea was to create infinite choice and variation from something very simple.”

Her team’s scheme imagines a terraced housing type made from two standard components, a base unit and a loft, joined with “connector” pieces, allowing for multiple configurations over time as family circumstances change. Standing between the homes, the connectors would accommodate stairs and a lift, as well as storage and shared workspaces. One of the most important aspects since the pandemic, says Beningfield, is providing “space to work from home, without having your laptop on the kitchen table”. Each home would have its own private outdoor space, while they would all back on to large communal gardens, arranged in the manner of a traditional London square.

Built off-site to exacting Passivhaus standards, with a twin wall timber frame, the homes would feature generous 2.7m high ceilings and tall 2.5m windows and doors, massively increasing the amount of daylight brought into the rooms, compared with most new-build spec housing. Beningfield, who studied and worked in South Africa and the US, says that off-site construction is crucial, given the appalling build quality of so many new homes in the UK – which she fears will only get worse after Brexit, if much of the skilled labour is forced to leave.

The second winning team, led by Igloo Regeneration, tackles the building procurement process head-on, proposing a new software platform to connect small developers and self-builders with supply chains. “It’s the same technology used to build aeroplanes,” says Igloo founder, Chris Brown. “We’re proposing a collaborative database for building components, with every product in the system, allowing you to select materials and immediately calculate the embodied carbon in the design.”

The software, which is being developed with the Active Building Centre, would also act as a procurement platform, allowing smaller developers and community builders to aggregate the products they want to buy, thereby enabling them to compete with bigger housebuilders on cost. Brown says a similar system is already being used by Norway’s largest housebuilder with impressive results.

The second part of their proposal imagines a “site build barn”, a kind of temporary house factory that would sit on top of a group of plots while construction was under way. Pre-made components would be clipped together in these barns, enabling more precise manufacturing than traditional on-site construction. Meanwhile, a “re-manufactory” would enable the recycling and reuse of components at the end of their life, with the planned preventative maintenance schedule kept track of in the database – again, in a similar way to how aeroplane components are scheduled for repair and replacement.

Igloo’s designs, developed with Newcastle-based architects MawsonKerr, also envisage shared green spaces, with garden sheds and allotments to encourage the growth of neighbourly bonds. “We see the formation of the community starting during the development process, with people helping to build their homes,” says Brown. “A lot of what we’re proposing is not new stuff – it was happening in Letchworth Garden City 120 years ago. All the societies and clubs created enormous social capital in that place. We’ve forgotten about the importance of that when we’re building new homes.”

Much of the content of both wining schemes stands as a rebuke to the kind of identikit suburban-minded homes churned out by most volume builders today – a stance made explicit by the teams’ reaction to the prize on offer. The winning teams now stand the chance of being introduced to a developer, with the possibility of working together on a Homes England site.

“The shortlisted teams all got together,” says Brown, “and we thought: if the first prize is being introduced to a developer, who may or may not choose us to bid for a site, in a context where everyone is bidding based on who can pay the most money for the land … Well, we all wondered what the second prize would be.”

Given the unappealing nature of the offer, and the likelihood of their ideas being watered down by the usual commercial constraints, the six shortlisted teams have chosen to go it alone, and get the ball rolling themselves. Igloo was already working on a masterplan in Sunderland, for the site of a housing expo in 2023, which will now showcase all six of the shortlisted Home of 2030 proposals.

“It is not a criticism of Homes England,” says Brown. “It’s simply about the likelihood of getting something built if you have to go through the usual competitive process. In Sunderland, where the project is funded by the council, we have a chance to really show an alternative way of doing things.” Inspired by the Finnish model, where housing fairs are used to kickstart big regeneration projects, the Sunderland Future Living expo will see the first phase of around 100 homes built on an old military site, which is eventually planned to house a population of 15,000.

It is a fitting result for a competition that appeared to be little more than a government PR exercise to distract from the reality of retrograde reforms being made to the standards of new homes. The competition was announced in March this year, soon after consultation for the government’s Future Homes Standard was launched, to widespread criticism that it represented a backwards step in energy standards. If the proposed reforms to Part L of the building regulations go ahead, a home designed next year will be allowed to perform much worse than one built in 2013, when the current standards were introduced. Similarly, a building that would fail to meet the current regulations would pass under the new system.

Then came the publication of the government’s planning white paper in August, which effectively proposed to tear up the planning system as we know it and put even more power in the hands of volume house builders. Dubbed the “developers’ charter”, it has been widely condemned by Labour and Conservative politicians alike, and slammed by the Royal Institute of British Architects as “shameful”, doing “almost nothing to guarantee the delivery of affordable, well-designed and sustainable homes”.

As is so often the case with blue-sky ideas competitions, the ambitions of the Home of 2030 winning teams are admirable – and, in this case, eminently buildable – but there is little evidence to suggest that either the government or the volume housebuilding sector has any intention of putting them into practice. For that, we must look to Sunderland in 2023, and hope that a progressive coalition of other councils, communities and smaller-scale builders have the imagination to follow their lead.