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Are houses obsolete?

In my last piece I considered the impact of working from home on the way we work and on corporate identity. Alongside offering cultural challenges and opportunities, working from home also offers physical challenges and opportunities. 

In bringing forward our first revolutionary development of zero carbon homes in Kent, we have frequently asked why anyone would choose to invest in a new build bricks and mortar house with a gas boiler and hob. All of that is legacy technology. The future, and we are collectively already too late getting there, is in highly insulated energy efficient homes, built in a factory, generating more power than they consume and using only renewable electricity, no fossil fuels. 

This got me thinking about other legacy dogma that we ought to be challenging if we are truly to build homes fit for the future.  

One of the upshots of the sudden and total switch to home working for our team and, no doubt for many other companies, is to show that it is entirely possible to achieve and that the stranglehold of the commute to an office for a nine to five stint at a desk need not be the norm. If we discover a long-term New Normal beyond the coronavirus, what might the implications of this be on the homes we live in? 

And, not just the homes we live in, but the communities we build to reflect the New Normal. And, what other societal changes might be just around the corner that could bring a paradigm shift in the day to day patterns of our lives that have remained comfortingly familiar for many years.  

Let’s reflect on three things; the way we travel, our communities and our homes 

It is a truism that one of the things that changes property value more than any other is the introduction of new infrastructure, be that road, rail or tram, making it easier to leave where you live and take your economic activity somewhere else. Or, go somewhere else to improve your economic opportunities and import some of that back to where you live. Now, imagine that you didn’t need to go somewhere else to improve your job prospects and that a greater proportion of the wealth you were generating was retained where you lived. The enforced move to working from home shows that this is increasingly possible. What might the impacts of this be? 

For a start, travel to major employment hubs would be much less significant. Travel is likely to have a greater focus on leisure and social engagement. This would probably happen over a broader spectrum of the day, reducing the impacts on peak travel both in terms of cost and capacity. This could mean that public transport can be more focussed on local connectivity and serving the needs of smaller areas rather than moving large numbers of people into commercial centres. 

One must also question the long-term sustainability of individual car ownership. I rent everything; a house, car, films, music, but still the car sits on the driveway for 98% of the week. As car ownership models change and car companies become providers of mobility rather than sellers of vehicles to companies and individuals, the advent of self-driving cars will push this to greater extremes. It won’t be so long (within my lifetime, I expectthat we won’t own cars, simply call up self-driving car from an app on our phone and it will whizz us speedily to where we want to go. 

The implications of this are profound; we won’t need garages or driveways at home and town centres will be freed from the need to provide car parks with the capacity to hold hundreds of cars. These spaces could be put to other uses, such as creating new communities in walking distance of all the benefits that local town centres bring. One way to reverse the decline of the high street is to bring it closer to the day to day lives of more and more people. More residents in town centres across the country could only be a good thing. 

This brings us to community. Some of the changes coming down the track, as highlighted above, have the potential to have huge positive benefits to local communities. There is a feeling that the more everywhere becomes the same, with the same shops on every high street, the more the local and unique becomes important. Supporting and sustaining that local uniqueness will enrich the lives of all that live there.  

One of the implications of home working is the potential for individuals to become detached from their colleagues and, notwithstanding measures I outlined previously, to suffer from isolation and cabin fever. In lieu of the day to day contact that comes from going to an office, such contact might, instead come from the community of those who live and work around you. Working from home means less commuting, less commuting means more time for you to do with as you wish. This ought to have a positive impact on personal wellbeing if that time is spent well and not spent in isolation.  

So, what might a community of home workers look like? You don’t want to drive or get a bus to see another face, in an ideal world you could step outside your door and see other people. You might sit in a coffee shop or a local drop-in office hub. Or, maybe, where you live has a co-working space and your office colleagues might work for your corporate rivals, but live in your block. Those town centre car parks that are shortly to become redundant could be replaced by new communities where you do know your neighbour because you don’t rush out the front door while its still dark and get home while its dark and binge on Netflix until bedtime. Creating walkable neighbourhoods close to town centres at mid-levels of density to offer greater opportunity to provide communal facilities, but provide generous space, both private and shared must be the answer. 

Tighter communities based around where we live, work and spend our leisure time ought also to offer some solutions for addressing care for the elderly and vulnerable, by making them part of that community, not a problem to be housed somewhere or anywhere but detached from the rest of society. 

So, what of the humble house? In a previous job I travelled extensively, looking at new developments across Europe and the US. In the States, where the car is king and there is no shortage of land, outside the cities, houses rule. In Europe, where space is at a premium and historic town and city centres are packed with culture and charm, apartments are much more common. These aren’t the flats that you and I might see if we went to our nearest volume housebuilder’s scheme, these are beautifully designed, spacious apartments that families can comfortably live in and that each of us that saw them would happily have lived in too. 

If our new developments are to offer social richness, strength of community and make efficient use of land they need to be built at much higher densities than houses alone would permit. We have a template for these in the UK, of course, the Mansion Blocks seen in London offering large, highly sought-after apartments. Now imagine the new mansion block, mid-rise, light, spacious and airy apartments with generous private space, larger communal space for families, perhaps on the roof to make them more secure and semi-private and communal spaces where the wider community can meet and come together. Now imagine these in the centre of towns across the country breathing new life into high streets and communities. 

Of course, houses will have their place. As long as they are zero carbon and built for the future. But, can a new paradigm emerge that addresses so many more social, commercial and environmental issues than a house alone can? Together, not apart. If there is a lesson from the current crisis, it is that we are all stronger when we come together and act for the collective good. 

Adam Cunnington