Architecture: House of the future? Straw, bamboo and cybertronics

The building ideas for the millennium and beyond come from the millennium before, says Nonie Niesewand. Well some of them.

The hard-core hard-hat industry trade fair is about the last place you'd expect to find a hay bale billed as a building material of the future. Huffing and puffing engineers, builders and architects cracked the jokes about three little pigs and the wolf who blew down their house to architect Jeremy Till perched upon hay bales. But he has the last laugh. Islington council gave him and his partner, architect Sarah Wiggles-worth, planning permission to use hay as an insulation material in their conversion of an old industrial building in north London. They also built an acoustics wall made of sandbags filled with sand and cement, bought from a fire protection firm. It cuts the noise from the railway running alongside one wall of the building. There's a turf roof - slightly tilted for drainage - upon which strawberries will grow. And a reed bed in the garden that cleans up the water naturally; and a lavatory that doesn't flush. Instead, chopped straw, unseasoned hardwood sawdust and a handful of topsoil will keep it sweet smelling. They've kept the original gabion walls, the same steel cages filled with rocks that you sometimes see on motorway embankments, to stop the cliff falling in on the place.

"We got the go-ahead on our conversion from a building control officer at Islington Council; she was a Nigerian and felt quite easy about it," says Jeremy Till.

Maybe they are the Swampies of architecture. But with planning permission to start on site with their own house in April 1998, they make a radical eco-chic contribution. Jeremy Till defends some of the more challenging ideas, such as hay as an insulating material, by pointing out that in Canada loss adjusters consider it less of a fire risk than normal insulation.

Another green builder, architect Neil Winder, built his house in East Anglia - and a neighbouring farm - with reed-beds that naturally filter used water from the house ("grey water" from sinks, washing machines and baths rather than lavatories). Just as the Marsh Arabs discovered centuries ago - but, as he explains, "When my new client is a loss adjuster, I must be doing something right."

Doing something right - ie environmentally friendly and cost effective - is the big issue. And architects are asked to be the astrologers for the next millennium.

Will they envisage us living in bamboo-built houses? Bamboo is fast becoming the staple in modern design. Whether utilised as building material or a source of inspiration, it's the world's best renewable resource of the future. Bamboo can grow more than 47ft in 24 hours. It survived the Hiroshima bomb. Oliver Wise saw it turned into a 400-bedroom hotel in Ecuador, where they put templates over the young shoots to make them grow in triangles or squares. It has lightness, strength and suppleness and it's hollow. It can be woven, and has tensile strength. It splits straight, which is why Thomas Edison used a splinter of bamboo as a filament for another world first, the light bulb in 1892.

So much for the low-tech; now for the hi-tech. Your house of the future will welcome you with open doors if you wear a jewellery pin that carries your personal transponder. The same software makes your Switch card work. If you wear a jewellery pin that carries your personal information diverted to a phone and computer circuited in your house, lights come on as you arrive, the doors open, appliances start up. Bill Gates of Microsoft already has a house on the shores of Lake Washington that is wired to a computer console. Inhabitants wear an electronic pin linked to consoles in each room so that houses respond to individual needs, from opening garage doors to putting on the washing machine or the video. When anyone in the Gates household gets a phone call, only the phone nearest the person will ring. Information is beamed up on the console screen. He calls it the house that tracks its occupants.

Now for the hardware, which was easier for the building industry to wrap their heads around. Chipboard is stronger, capable of covering bigger spans, with glues between the off-cuts instead of synthetic resins. A group of architects are building the Utopia pavilion at Expo '98 with this wooden chipboard. Cement, which weathers so badly that Richard Rogers had to come up with a master-plan at the South Bank to put all that concrete under a wavy glass roof, gets a face-lift with carbonation in the manufacturing process so that it weathers well. Even better for bridge builders - it doesn't drop off steel frame structures. Solar roof panels - metallic, looking like jade and amber and agate - will make roofs more colourful at the same time as making buildings absorb energy through every exposed face. What is interesting about these proposals is that they come from a civil engineering and construction base. This isn't a computer-aided design fantasy for the next century that projects whizzy furniture and smart ideas that involve inflation, space launching and techno materials we haven't even heard of. Growing bamboo shoots in geometric shapes for the building industry is weird.

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