Architecture: Backwards to ye olde future: Tomorrow's homes have been unveiled. But Fay Sweet had to look deep behind the mock-Georgian facades to find anything new

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The Independent Culture
I've seen the future and it bears an uncanny resemblance to the past. I've been walking around FutureWorld at Milton Keynes and I should have been thrilled. After all, here is an estate of homes designed for the next century.

This new and eclectic Brookside contains 36 houses jostling for space on a circular 4.5-acre pocket of Kents Hill on the south side of Milton Keynes. It includes specialist housing for the young, old, poor, childless or asthmatic. They're well built, well insulated, well mannered and, well, a bit ordinary.

Their conservatism is proclaimed in houses called Yeoman Cottage and the Balmoral. These are the sort of homes most of us buy and are not merely for show, but for sale, too. The participating builders and developers know well that the majority of us do not want adventurous or experimental houses.

'We've been in this business for 20 years and I don't remember anyone coming to us and asking for a modern design,' says Christopher Jones of Custom Homes, which offers customers a choice from 200 period homes, one of which is called the Balmoral. This timber frame and brick-clad house contains a mock Scottish baronial hallway, double staircases climbing to the library and a dining room bursting with decoration. This house has the lot - wood panelling, Regency striped wallpaper and fancy wood-block floors.

Custom Homes knows its business. 'The trend is clearly moving towards the Georgian style, with houses such as the Balmoral, and Regency. Tudor remained incredibly popular for a very long time, but now I think it has finally had its day,' says Mr Jones.

'Our clients are looking for a home that, although it has been chosen off the peg, looks as if it has been there for years. They want something that looks good, offers the maximum amount of space for their money, and has low running costs.

'The Balmoral offers all that. It's on the market for pounds 192,000, contains all sorts of high-tech goodies - it's very energy efficient, it's super insulated and has extremely effective radiators while being glazed throughout with low-emissivity glass.'

We house buyers are prepared to accept 21st-century technology inside the home so long as it is hidden. We want the outsides of our houses to look as if the industrial revolution never happened. The advertising for the Yeoman Cottage by Medina Gimson and Relmfield Builders sums it up: 'A medieval style showhouse . . . demonstrates effectively that housing in the immediate future need not lose its beauty and character in the pursuit of low energy costs.'

The British Steel House, designed by TBV Architects, is another wolf in sheep's clothing. It has a clever, computer-designed, bolt-together (and recyclable) steel frame ideal for fast construction. The wall insulation reduces heat loss by as much as 58 per cent more than conventional insulation and the house boasts state-of-the-art plumbing and central heating. And, in the belief that homeworking and 'telecottaging' are serious trends, there is a large, fully computerised workspace above the garage. But it still looks like an executive Home County nest. The opportunity to build an all-steel house was passed over. This is architecturally disappointing, but commercially, who can blame them? Who wants to live in a metal box?

Next door, and a million style miles into the future, there is the Radiant House by the architect Richard Weston. This is a pared down, glass and plywood structure built with the help of the engineer Mark Lovell. It looks the most modern structure on the estate and its simplicity is refreshing amid the nostalgia. The Radiant House is a rectangular box with one wall of brick and three walls of 15mm sheet glass on top of which a five- ton plywood roof, in the shape of an aircraft wing, appears miraculously to balance.

Mr Weston said: 'Despite the terrible recent batch of advertising boasting proudly about Milton Keynes' olde worlde housing, I'd been looking to build a home here for some time because it is near my parents in Leicester and because it is almost impossible to build something modern in London. The FutureWorld people approached me to join them because they knew I was intending to build something radically different. I have been surprised by the retro appearance of the other homes.'

Weston has put his money where his architectural taste is (the price is pounds 180,000) and demonstrated his convictions by living and working in his own glass pavilion home. He knows his taste is not shared by others: 'The public response is 'Wow - but I wouldn't want to live in it.' That's fine, I'm sure it would take a huge leap to change our habits. The odd thing is that many people say they mistrust modern design because they prefer something that's built in a traditional way using honest materials. My defence is that most so-called traditionally built houses are constructed using all sorts of trickery and false materials, while my house is absolutely real; it is as it looks.'

On balance, however, I think the perfect past/future compromise for the modern home owner is provided by the Stuart House. It is timber-framed and has a glistening copper roof - extremely durable, recyclable and no more expensive than slate - which will in time go a subtle green. The house is thrilling to look at and easy to imagine as a comfortable home. It has a modular structure consisting of a series of bays formed by great pillars of Douglas fir. Wood 'branches' sprout from the top of these pillars and support the roof timbers. The interior arrangement, with 150 square metres of floor space, is simple and flexible. For example, the entire south-west facing half of the house is given over to a double height living room; remaining space at the back is divided into a kitchen and two bedrooms. Upstairs there is an office/study area, one bedroom and bathroom.

'The house is designed for quick construction, the economic use of environmentally friendly technology and materials, and because the space is modular and easily rearranged, it is extremely flexible,' explains its architect, Jonathan Ellis-Miller.

'Energy consumption is kept as low as possible. We've used passive solar heating technology and a thermal wall that, according to our calculations, should make the house self-sufficient in heating for 340 days of the year.'

So, at least we know the future works.

FutureWorld is open to the trade from 6 to 10 June, and to the general public from 11 June to 10 July. A conference, 'Designing for a sustainable future in the built environment', takes place on June 6. Inquiries on 0580 819562 or fax 0580 819127.

(Photograph omitted)