Overview: Floods? The failure of micro-flats? Few can resist crystal ball-gazing

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The Independent Online

If some of the predictions of 40 years ago had come to pass, we should all be living in pods, commuting in space ships and eating pills instead of meals by now. It was fun at the time though, and nobody can resist the offer of a crystal ball - even today's academics in terms of housing policy.

If some of the predictions of 40 years ago had come to pass, we should all be living in pods, commuting in space ships and eating pills instead of meals by now. It was fun at the time though, and nobody can resist the offer of a crystal ball - even today's academics in terms of housing policy.

Last week a number of them got together at the launch of Housing Futures 2004, a joint initiative between CABE (Commission of Architecture and the Built Environment) and RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects). By all accounts they had a whale of a time considering the challenges facing us in the next 20 years.

Among those looking at the future of housing from different perspectives, some chose imaginative methods for presenting possible scenarios. Sean Griffiths, director of FAT Architects, came up with an imaginary newspaper article about the Ideal Home exhibition from 2024. He wrote that Middle England has not given up yearning for a house and garden in the country, and suburbia lives on, despite all the wishful thinking. Only in London and a few other trendy spots did the urban renaissance amount to anything. Could one reason be the "continuing rejection of architects' values by those who inhabit mass housing?", he asked. Their designs have ended in social failure and the new Modernism repeated the mistakes of the 1960s.

"Prefabricated micro-flats, in particular, have proved to be lacking in adaptability for the new inhabitants of the inner city - those on the lowest incomes and the immigrant poor," he speculated. Readers 20 years' hence would be told that key workers had fled from their specially built homes to the suburbs, hot on the heels of the inner-city wealthy who have been driven out of their lofts and Georgian terraces by congestion charges and crime.

"The open-plan lifestyle celebrated by previous occupants has been replaced by a more flexible maze of rooms creating warren-like environments that accommodate the demands of living, sleeping, eating, reproducing and - importantly - working," his article suggested. And it got worse. Griffiths pictured British cities of the future as either a heaving mass of humanity or deserts of desolation.

Climate change got a rather more upbeat treatment - after floods, hurricanes and mud-slides forced everyone to take stock, that is. Roger Levett, of Levett-Therivel sustainability consultants, described a young 2024 couple who are not only living in a modest 19th-century terrace house but in a similar manner to someone in 1900. Ugly replacement windows have gone and in their place are triple-glazed but elegant sashes controlled by electric motors. Pristine roofs appear to be slate but are in fact photovoltaic panels, provided free and with a greenhouse tax rebate.

"The coal plates are back in the path outside every front door. Not for coal but to give access to the eco-utilities connections," continued Levett. Water for drinking and washing comes in separate pipes. "Traffic is back to the Victorian scatter of bicycles and small service vehicles - the late 20th-century car infestation turned out to be a transient anomaly. The road itself has been reduced to a single-track gravel path winding past a succession of lawns, play areas, ponds and the occasional vegetable patch."

John Worthington, chair of Building Futures, believes that the value of looking ahead is that both potential pitfalls and opportunities can be identified. He would like the public to engage in the debate with their own vision and expectations for the future. What happens in the next 20 years is too important to leave just to the experts.

www.buildingfutures.co.uk

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