In future, ideal homes will float in space

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a wonderful notion to suggest that a home could be 'ideal' and make an exhibition of it. The Ideal Home Exhibition, at Earl's Court until 10 April, is one of those slightly dated British institutions that has managed none the less to move enough with the times to keep tattiness at bay and nostalgia within acceptable limits. Exhibitions are about dreams. And in this dream we step out of the grey drizzle of west Kensington into the leafy suburbia that apparently, for a great swathe of the British middle classes, is the ideal home.

Vision of the future it ain't, though. When the exhibition started in 1908 it was just such a vision. It was the place where manufacturers of the great burst of new consumer durables showed their wares - products that became substitutes for the domestic servants whom the middle classes could no longer afford after the First World War.

Right through the Fifties, people flocked to see how technology could make their lives easier. In particular they came to see how the lives of middle-class women, most of whom still did not work outside the home, could be liberated by machines.

Today, we are in the middle of two great social changes which will, within a generation, transform the ideal home. One of these trends is well established: the growing proportion of women in the workforce, which in some parts of the country has passed 50 per cent. The other is still in its infancy: the growth of the home as a workplace. These two changes are just as important as the loss of servants and the invention of labour-saving devices. Yet there is only a glimmer of them at the exhibition.

Lack of awareness of these great social changes is exemplified by a preoccupation with rural English fantasy styles. The rule of thumb is that the more upmarket the image, the more old-fashioned the style. The most expensive baths are free-standing cast-iron ones with little feet - just like the bath in the Second World War home on display. The most expensive loos have mahogany seats. The most expensive swimming pools have proper tiled floors instead of plastic liners. The show homes inevitably have that great Victorian invention, the conservatory.

But the lack of feel for the future extends to substance. Given the pressure on the time of dual-income families, you would imagine there to be a wealth of devices designed to save time. But we seem to have stopped making progress here. There is a central vacuum cleaning system, where you plug a hose into the skirting board. There is an award- winning electric can opener. There are lots of water-purifying systems to clean up tap water; there are solar heating systems, clocks to switch on and off the garden sprinker, walk-in fridges, ready-glued wallpaper, and the screwless electric plug.

But these are hardly going to make a radical saving in time in the way that the washing machine, tumble drier, dishwasher or duvet did. The advance we really need is to improve the technology we already have, which, as successive Which? reports show, is not very reliable. The most time-consuming aspect of 'labour-saving' devices is waiting for someone to come and fix them when they go wrong.

The real innovations for dual-income families are not to be found at the Ideal Home. They are being developed in the supermarkets, most obviously with ready meals. We save time, not by buying more goods but by buying more services.

Electronic technology, by contrast, is racing forwards. The home is being transformed from being principally a unit of consumption - a place on which people spend money - into, for many people, a unit of production - a place in which people make money. This shift in use is possible because of two developments. First, for a couple of thousand pounds, an ordinary home can have as much computing power as a multinational corporation of the Sixties. Second, telecommunication costs have fallen sharply in real terms, while the kit has become vastly easier to use.

If homes are increasingly to become factories, you might imagine that ideal homes have ideal factories already installed. Not so. There are interesting ideas, such as installing fully fitted offices inside garages, or converting the loft into an office, rather than a spare bedroom. There is at the exhibition a home office centre, sponsored by BT, but it is just a stand with yet more computers and faxes on display. The one important new communications tool, the video phone, is on a different stand and does not work very well: the screen is tiny and the image jumps about.

A true vision of the future would show how the electronic kit that the home office needs might be integrated into a conventional home. It is not just a question of selecting and fitting the latest devices, nor of a clever loft conversion; it is how to make the home office a nice and welcoming place to work: to do for the office what kitchen designers did for the kitchen in the Sixties.

The conceptual change of that era was to put the kitchen into the dining room. Instead of the kitchen being a little back-room where food was prepared, and then carried into a dining room, the two developed into a family room, equipped with technology, where food was both prepared and eaten.

To do the same for the home office will take some tough thinking. Should it be the centrepiece of the home, or should it be tucked away in a 'calm zone'? Should it be big, or small? Does it have to be dedicated space? Or could the main bedroom double as the office, and how could those dual functions be made to co-exist in a friendly way? Maybe those Victorian-style conservatories could be given a real function aside from a place to sip G & T on long summer evenings.

Designers are at least aware of the problem. The exhibition ran a new award scheme this year, with the Royal College of Art, to find the ideal home of the future, taking into account social and technological changes. But look at the ideas of the winner, Graham Powell. 'Graham's design,' the guide explains, 'is called Mollusc, an adaptable housing system of attachable rooms . . . a series of separate units of rooms which lock together to form a customised living space.'

This is a radical vision, but an unhelpful one. Because, unlike the Sixties, when a couple of walls could be knocked down to merge kitchen and dining room, this would mean knocking the whole house down.

We cannot do that. The plain fact is that the housing stock turns over very slowly. Each year less than 2 per cent is added to it. So we will have to work within the homes that we already have. Older homes, paradoxically, will be easier to convert into new functions than post-1914 boxes, as they tend to have larger rooms.

The problem that designers have to tackle, then, is one of space management. Homes that suited us for the first three-quarters of this century no longer do. We will need to build bigger homes more cheaply. But the greater challenge for designers is to find ways of redefining the space within existing homes. That would be vastly more useful than recreating a myth of a semi-rural Britain that never was.