Property: A home that does everything

It's green, it's affordable and it runs itself. The house of the future is on its way, says Robert Nurden
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The Independent Online
YOU'RE at work and you know it's time you restocked the freezer but you can't remember what you need. Simple. Just get on your mobile to your "know-it-all" home computer and find out.

Given the right instructions, it will look at video images of the freezer, use artificial intelligence to check out what's left, and even suggest what you buy. It will then send all the information down the line, and might even do the shopping for you via interactive television.

If you wanted it to, the centralised micro-processor for your smart home would turn on the central heating, set the video, pull the curtains, water the garden, and switch on the electric blanket. It'll pay the gas, telephone and electricity bills by remote metering. With the help of a sensor beam or pressure pad, it will even switch on the landing light as you go to the loo in the middle of the night.

This, many believe, is the house of the future. And unlike other super houses of the recent past, your sensitive home is affordable and extremely cheap to run. Nor is it just another architect's self-indulgent dream. More than 200 of these low-cost houses are to be built this year in and around London, with many more planned.

The Integer (Intelligent and Green Housing) project is the creation of a group of radical architects, backed by Berkeley Partnership Homes, the Building Research Establishment and 16 housing associations and local authorities. The group, which was set up only last year, and the model it has just created have already attracted widespread interest among building societies and MPs.

Every house has electronic appliances with microchips - heating systems, burglar alarms, televisions, hi-fis, videos; but they do not communicate with each other. What the intelligent home does is to co-ordinate the devices to save energy and time. "We are bringing together research and development from appliance manufacturers, utilities, telecoms, television and cable companies," says Integer's Nicholas Thompson. "The central computer enables people to get on with their lives."

At the centre of the prototype two-storey house is a super-insulated "box" containing the service core - kitchen and bathroom - and accommodation core - bedrooms and living quarters. The service core may be prefabricated with the controlled conditions of a factory and delivered to the site. The accommodation is an open-plan space that can be divided up by removable partitions to suit the occupants' needs. Rooms will probably have underfloor heating since wall-fixed systems would not suit flexible room partitioning.

Acting as a shell around the box is an insulated glass case, a variation on the conservatory, creating a "tempered" climate: cool in the summer, warm in the winter. It can be used as living accommodation for nine months of the year or as an indoor garden. It will have solar panels and photovoltaic cells for generating electricity, and part of the roof may even be sown with pampas grass. Ventilation of the box comes from the tempered zone which, with its filtrating plants, provides a cleaner and more healthy environment.

"Buying a house should be more like buying a car - you opt for the features you want, with back-up maintenance through a sort of AA man for the home," says Mr Thompson. "The Integer house provides this flexibility. The worlds of work and home are becoming less defined and houses should reflect that. We want to establish a better designed, more efficiently built product, which the consumer may customise and adapt; which is easier to maintain, cheaper to run and easier to control."

The saving of water plays an essential role in the Integer house. Waste water from baths, basins, sinks and the washing machine is filtered and flows off into a pond into which the rest of the estate feeds. It is then mixed with rain water, recycled, pumped back and used to flush toilets, water the plants and clean the car.

The low running costs of the small, smart house are making the providers of social housing sit up and take notice. It makes sense, they argue, to pay out more at the start - say on solar panels - so that the payback benefits tenants later. And the sophisticated computerisation offers a virtually watertight security system that will bring extra protection for the elderly and disabled. Locking the front door can activate the security system, and if a sensor beam is broken by an intruder, lights and television automatically go on.

Its "caring" capacity extends to the sick since direct communication to the local health centre via video cameras and alarms can provide round- the-clock observation. Could this be care in the community that actually works?