Needs and expectations change

large-householdNeeds change as families grow up. Teenagers need space for homework, a place to make noise, and the ability to come and go late without disturbing other members of the household. Whilst grandparents tend not to live with their children so much in the latter part of the twentieth century, an inability of the health services to provide adequately for an ageing population may mean that more space for the older generation may be needed in the future. Employment is less secure than it has been in the recent past, so the opportunity to let accommodation to generate income or to work from home may be required. Patterns of work are changing as global corporations outsource more services and more people work from home as self- employed entrepreneurs.

One of the most significant events that can change what is needed of a house is if one of the household members becomes infirm and not able to use the bath or toilet, to walk or to go upstairs. This can happen through illness, age or accident. When planning a home, a number of simple measures can be incorporated at the outset at minimum cost which will permit the house to be used by a person with limited mobility. An example would be to make the doors sufficiently wide to accommodate a wheelchair; adapting them later is an expensive and disruptive process. A house with level access and wide doors is also more convenient for everybody – for a young family with a push-chair for example.

Your expectations may change; what was considered an adequate kitchen 15 years ago may now need to be twice the size to accommodate a double bowl sink, the freezer, the dishwasher, the full height fridge, the high-level oven and the microwave, as well as space for the food mixer, the toaster and the coffee machine.

Our sources of fuel are going to have to change radically to address the exhaustion of fossil-fuel reserves and the more critical issue of emissions causing climate change. Conventional fuels will become more expensive as stocks become harder to exploit and as policies to reduce the use of fossil fuels begin to bite. Whilst you may design now to conserve energy and to use renewable energy sources, the technologies involved with solar power, micro-wind power, hydrogen fuel, heat pumps and combined heat and power installations are all developing rapidly. The demands made on buildings as a result of using different energy sources may be significant: for example storage volume and flues for biomass, or orientation, elevation and lack of shading for solar power. You should consider how to ‘future-proof’ the house and reduce the cost of adapting to other energy sources in the future.

Similarly, the technologies for television, telephone, data and security are all developing and will make different demands on our homes in the future.

A sustainable system of any kind must be capable of adapting to changing circumstances. Building houses with adaptability in mind means that they should have a long useful life before they have to be scrapped and replaced, which helps to conserve resources. Homes can also become no longer useful because of inadequate budgets and poor standards of construction. Building for durability and minimizing the need for maintenance can also reduce the need for resources.

Long-life housing

Many Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and interwar houses remain useful because:

  • They are built to relatively generous space standards. Neither the house nor the rooms in it are built to the minimum sizes of modern homes. The additional space above the minimum allows the dwelling to accommodate changing needs.
  • They are built in forms that can be extended relatively easily: terraces or semi-detached and detached houses. The use of traditional roof purlins and rafters allows extension upwards into the loft, which is particularly useful in high-density situations where extending the footprint of the house is often not possible. Modern multi-storey blocks, however, are almost impossible to extend.
  • They are built in a way that can be modified: load-bearing brickwork can have openings made in it, although other constructional systems such as frame structures and dry methods of building such as timber construction are cheaper, easier and less disruptive to adapt.
  • Services are capable of being upgraded relatively easily; open coal fires and gas lighting have given way to central heating and electric lighting. There are accessible voids in the floors and roof, although services generally have to be chased into walls. There are modern bathroom and kitchen unit systems that accommodate accessible services.

Separating layers with different life cycles

It is useful to think of “a properly conceived building as several layers of longevity of built components”. The layers have been expressed by Stuart Brand in his book How Buildings learn: what happens after they are built as the six S’s, which are:

Pipes and wires in a service void – separating the services from other layers of the building enables them to he changed, improved and replaced easily.

Buildings need to accommodate these different cycles of change for them to last well and improve over time rather than degenerate. Houses should be designed so that the short-life layers can be changed independently of the long-life structure.

Experience in other countries

In some countries an adaptable approach to building is much more common than in the UK. In the Netherlands there is a part of the house building industry that has followed the ideas of the architect N. J. Harbraken, who developed the notion of ‘supports’, or long-lasting structural frameworks which are filled in with shorter-lived non-structural walls and partitions. Residents have a choice of layout and specification using prefabricated components. This combines the idea of residents participating in the housing process with the idea of economic sustainability deriving from the efficient use of resources and reduction in waste from using advanced technologies and prefabrication. In Japan, too, the house-building industry uses a high level of prefabrication, with ‘Open Building’ thinking which establishes a framework within which a wide range of different components can be assembled to form different houses.

Lessons from the commercial sector

Some aspects of this approach are now common practice in the construction and fitting out of commercial office space. Technologies have been developed to permit prefabricated plumbing and wiring and soundproof dry partitioning for example, and some of these techniques are being tried in the housing sector, particularly in the Netherlands. Also, the move towards loft-living is creating larger, adaptable dwelling types.

What are the engines of change?

There is a growing awareness amongst the British public of the higher standards of space and equipment enjoyed by households in other parts of Northern Europe and North America. People’s expectations of space and performance are rising.

Household composition is smaller and more dynamic. Young people leave home earlier, and old people live with their offspring less often. This has to be set against the reduced ability of the health service to care for old people, and so the granny flat becomes more desirable.

Also, modern electronic systems offer many potential advantages in the home, and the demand for these benefits is likely to have a significant impact on the design and specification of houses over the next five to ten years. We will expect cabling systems for voice, data, entertainment, security, building-management systems to reduce energy consumption, remote diagnostic services for people who are old or unwell, as well as ever more demanding computer links for home working. The Joseph Rowntree Trust Smart Homes project demonstrates some of the possibilities in this area.

How much should we invest in adaptable buildings?

There is clearly additional cost in providing more space inside and space for extensions outside, for additional rooms and adaptable construction methods and accessible services. This has to be balanced against additional costs in the future of adapting housing which has not been designed with adaptability in mind to new needs and expectations. There is, however, the risk of high opportunity costs inherent in investing for future change which does not take place. We have to make decisions based on what we know now and what we can learn from the past. One or two rules of thumb could be derived:

  • Do not invest too much on adaptability to meet a future that is very difficult to predict.
  • On the other hand, recognize that change is inevitable.
  • Plan for foreseeable change to reduce risk. This might include more home working and higher standards of space and equipment in the home.
  • Simple measures that may cost little can keep future options open – non-load-bearing construction, for example.

FACING PAGE Top: The dining area of Ken Atkins’ bouse in Lewisham, seen here over Walter Segal’s head, was too small when the whole family came round. Middle: Ken was able to buy six new woodwool panels and he and a friend had the extension watertight after two weekends’ work. The existing kitchen window and the patio door were fixed in a new position.

Bottom: Inside the new extension which only cost around £1,500 at the time which represents amazing value.

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