Comment Blog 11 April, 2019

Time to build houses for this century, not the last

The emerging world of work has far-reaching impacts on how we should plan for future homes and communities.

In all the debate about how to deliver the quantity of housing needed to solve the current crisis, no one seems to be asking ‘What kind of homes should we be building in the 21st century?’

Rapid changes in the nature of work is a key part of the context. Due to technological advances, increasing amounts of work can be done almost anywhere. Workplaces are changing rapidly, but policy and thinking around housing, communities and public spaces are stuck in the mid-20th century.

People now routinely work at a distance from their organisation’s main workplace. Around 14 per cent of the workforce now work mainly from home. 33 per cent of employees spend some of their time working from home. Over 70 per cent of business start-ups begin at home, and 55 per cent opt to stay there.

But the story is not all about homeworking. The spatial and mobility impacts of the new world of work are much more varied and subtle.

Nearly all large organisations are rationalising their workspace. This means offices are smaller, but support more people working there as needed. Manufacturing and distribution centres are increasingly automated, with fewer people based on site. Retail is going through a major transformation impacting who sells what and where. New companies and individuals now run retail operations with minimal need for premises.

With reduced demand for traditional offices, the biggest growth area in the office property market is for coworking space. The government is adopting this concept too with the closure of many single-department offices in favour of shared ‘government hubs’. Employees work there or elsewhere as needed.

However, we are not planning our homes and communities to provide the right spaces for work in the 21st century. The approach of cramming people into ever smaller units in identical estates, or shoe-boxes piled into the sky, is still predicated on a 20th century commuting model of work. Housing policy remains fundamentally based on separating work from home and community. It made sense in the industrial era. But not now.

We need a much more diverse and flexible blueprint for our future homes. Homes should be flexible enough by design to accommodate changing uses throughout the longer lives we will lead – flexing in and out of work, learning and caring (or being cared for).

A proportion of homes should be designed to include business space, not only ‘home offices’. Contrary to the high-tech image, many home-based businesses and start-ups are in quite traditional fields like food preparation, education, health and skilled crafts.

Fibre to the home must also be included in all new settlements. Much more immersive video collaboration technologies will be commonplace in the 2020s. They’ll be vital for work and learning activities, as well as recreation. We’ll need both space and connection in homes to use them most effectively.

The provision for local ‘workhubs’ or coworking centres in new communities will also be important in helping people access professional workspaces and facilities close to their home.

Indeed, there needs to be a much stronger connection between housing policy and economic development policy. We have to start thinking about homes and local community space as key parts of the national infrastructure of work.

And an inescapable conclusion is that a significant proportion of new homes should be larger.

We need homes that will support much more decentralised, networked and flexible patterns of work, help us to develop new and innovative enterprises or just give us space to do the things we love doing.

It’s a sustainable and future-focused way forward to ensure the right quality of homes, to go with the quantity.