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The home of the future is unlikely to be the curvy white pod of science fiction. On the outside, most houses in the UK will still look 19th century – partly because the public are profoundly conservative in their architectural tastes, but largely because the vast majority of houses that will be standing by 2050 have already been built.

It’s on the inside that they will be different – with everything from floor to ceiling retrofitted to inject some intelligence, efficiency and adaptability into the old shell.

Intelligence will come from an array of sensors which automatically switch lights and taps on and off, order your groceries and even monitor your health. A central control system will manage the home for maximum efficiency, and show when the fridge needs defrosting, or if the micro-generator isn’t running at full efficiency. Houses will be interactive and fully wireless, allowing us to access data from any point.

A drive for extensive resource efficiency could see water harvested and recycled within each home. Integrated solar panels and microgen combined with ultra-thin insulation films will allow some houses to come off the grid. Food will be grown in gardens, roofs and balconies, tended by the increasing number of home workers, and fed by composted domestic waste.

The interior of houses will be more modular, changing to suit needs during the course of the day and over your lifetime. Walls on rollers will allow you to reconfigure your space from office, to lounge, to bedroom. And instead of paint we’ll have floor-to-ceiling screens, where you can join a work conference or watch a movie, change the colour to suit your moods, or just switch to the latest fashion in wallpaper.

There are trends pushing us towards these outcomes. Demand for housing is rising due to both population growth and more one person households. But new homes are not being built at anything like a matching rate. So we will have to make smarter use of what we have, and rethink the space and resources we need day-to-day. We should look, too, at where the innovation is coming from: much of the housebuilding industry – with some notable exceptions – is stuck in traditional bricks and mortar. The IT and consumer goods companies, on the other hand, see the home of the future as a commercial battleground, where they are investing huge resources to win.

And we can already pick up weak signals as to what tomorrow’s homes will be like: solar PV is booming, smart meters are being rolled out, and everyone from Sony to Panasonic to GE to Microsoft has a showcase house of the future.

This will probably be a good thing for sustainability. Although there are limits to how efficient we can make old houses, they do contain a lot of embedded carbon, and making better use of what we have should be a key sustainability principle. Indeed, the way we think about our housing – the fact we are happy to buy second hand and that we repair, make do and mend – should be a model for our wider consumption habits. And because these designs will not come from massive centrally planned schemes, but from consumer facing companies engaging millions of people in small changes to their daily lives, they should make sustainable living more popular and desirable.

By Peter Madden, Chief Executive of Forum for the Future.

This article originally appeared in Green Futures, the magazine of independent sustainability experts Forum for the Future.

Image courtesy of ChiDN on flickr