The Business World: Today's challenge is how to build us a better life

Glitzy headquarters buildings have become clubs for workforce and clients. Homes become factories
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The Independent Online
THE SHAPE of the economy changes every few years; the way we do our jobs seems to change every few months; the technology we have in our homes and offices may change every few weeks. Yet the property industry - architects, builders, developers and so on - has to cope with buildings likely to last 100 years or more.

When changes in the use of land and buildings took place gradually, over a generation or so, there was time for the industry to adapt its products. Now there is no time. So what do wise property people do?

There are two broad approaches, both of which shape policy. The first is to identify, as far as possible, the broad social and economic changes and plan buildings to meet these. The other is to construct nimble buildings, which can be adapted easily to many different tasks during their lives - factories, offices, warehouses, dwellings. In practice, wise property people do both.

Identifying social and economic trends might seem relatively easy. There is plenty of data about life expectancy, changing work patterns, new technologies and so on. In fact, there is too much data, often low quality, which makes interpretation difficult. Sometimes we have the data but fail to understand its consequences; and sometimes even reasonably up- to-date data, fails to capture the latest trends or to identify crucial turning points.

There has been a clear trend for at past 10 years towards more people working at home. But until recently little planning has gone into how homes might be adapted to cope. The Institute for Employment Studies say more than one million Britons work from home and the number is rising by 200,000 a year. The cost case for transferring as many workers as possible is beyond dispute: workers save commuting time, and employers do not have to pay for expensive office space. If quality of output and productivity can be maintained the case is very strong.

But what home builders should do about this is less clear. Build larger houses? Well, yes, but remember family size is falling, so were it not for the rise in home working, the average size of houses and flats might continue becoming smaller. My guess is that these trends will be reversed: that family size will rise again and people will chose larger dwellings. But there is not yet much evidence of this in the figures.

One evolving change is location. Just as there is clear migration of conventional offices out of central business districts, so there is a clear migration of home-owners into them. As conventional offices move out of central business districts, glitzy headquarters buildings have sprung up to become clubs for the workforce and the company's clients. Homes become factories; offices become clubs.

In one sense, there is nothing new. Go back a century and many functions now carried out in factories were done in the home. Clothes were made, fruits preserved, vegetables pickled. The idea would have seemed ridiculous that people should buy themselves a ready-made sandwich for lunch, instead of going into the kitchen and making one for themselves.

So the home becoming a unit of production again, rather than simply one of consumption, is a trend likely to endure. After all, for the price of a PC and an Internet connection an ordinary family can have as much information as a multinational would have had five years ago. Yes, this article was written and, in part, researched on a home PC.

But that does not benefit the property industry much. There are ripples of change: for example, when converting lofts into residential property, some developers are creating specific areas for work, with separate entrances from the living quarters. Putting in high-speed lines and air conditioning are other examples of the way developers can help to blur the distinction between office and home. But this is not big stuff. The key investment is not made by the builder but by the company supplying the services, say, the phone lines. The most important social and economic change is elsewhere.

Enter the d-word. Anyone who lives and works in a developed country faces the prospect of something that only people over the age of 65 will have much memory: stable prices. Now instead of inflation there is the prospect of deflation. Yes, there is another d-word, depression, but there is no necessary reason why we should visit him just yet. Deflation, falling prices, is alive here and now. Computers, energy, phone calls, air fares are significantly cheaper in real terms than they were five years ago. In many cases, they may be cheaper in money terms. Sometimes, so too is property.

As a result, people in the property industry cannot rely on inflation to bail them out of their mistakes, although they can finance buildings at much lower interest rates. The combination of these factors requires and enables them to build in much more quality.

Look at a typical 1960s office block. It is rubbish: poor-quality fittings and finishes, low ceilings, low floor-loadings. But it had to be rubbish, because high financing costs forced developers to go for a quick return. Now there is the money to build better. If plans are drawn up so that the building can be multi-purpose, both initially and later in its life, then it can command a premium in the marketplace.

Those portions of the property industry which have correctly identified the impact of social and economic change on the demand for quality will, accordingly, tend to prosper.

If you want an historical precedent, the time in the past that most closely mirrors our own, it is surely the late Victorian period. Then we had a burst of globalisation; rapid technological change; a communications revolution; steady increases in wealth; low interest rates and stable prices. What is new is the trend towards working at home.

But is it any wonder that people who do work at home so often choose Victorian warehouses to base themselves and the businesses?