Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ten Predictions for Housing Future

Home construction has visibly evolved during my lifetime toward less labor driven systems.  That evolution is no ways complete.  The materials aspect has supported this evolution but is not a convincing driver per se as the cost of labor is.  It labor were cheap, we would still be using slats and plaster.


I have actually had the pleasure of spending quite a lot of time and effort investigating this subject in assisting an effort to launch stress skin panel housing.  The project never got of the ground but clearly should for both economic and performance reasons.


It is possible for me to make several assertions.  Let us refer to stress skin panel housing as SSP housing.


1          SSP panels can be manufactured using OSB sheets that are eight feet wide and however long (say forty feet even), one inch low grade cut stock, other surface sheeting and polyurethane foam as the pressure binder and filler.  Manufacturing is tricky but had been worked out by the folks that I worked with.  A large range of other protocols are available for customized applications.  (That has included housing a smelter for the past thirty years) 


2          SSB panels can be cut to order as needed and shipped.  Or the panels can be shipped to cutting shops and assembled with other components for site construction.



3          This system allows a site with the foundation established to be assembled to lockup inside of two days.  I am not familiar with current work on ‘chassis’ methods but it is suggestive of similar thinking that attempts to displace a lot of normal foundation work.


4          The resultant building is twice as strong as conventional wood frame construction and is easily strengthened beyond that.  It represents a natural replacement for present housing methods in hurricane and earthquake prone areas.  Far more importantly, I know that this system can be delivered inside the cost envelop of present housing systems. 


5          Relying on wood based system allow easy owner modification and later renovation and change outs in terms of design.


Again it is all about cost.  Strength usually costs a lot of money and that cost increase is often not linear at all.  A system that easily matches present design needs while naturally far stronger and cost equivalent is a great beginning.


Thus item 6 in this article is generally way underestimated.  No one has been able to exploit the need properly to date.  The moment a system as I have just described is implemented it will take over the global housing industry everywhere because it will combine cost competitiveness with magnificent design flexibility.  Every thing else is simply sliding toward plug and play methodology.






10 Predictions for the Future of the Home


Along with food, clothing, water, and air, one of the very basic necessities of living ever has been and ever shall be the home. As a fundamental aspect of life itself, shelter understandably must undergo changes both minor and major in order to cozily accommodate mankind’s perpetually shifting needs and wants. Take a peek at current technologies and studies that may serve as veritable crystal balls for what may be in store for future construction projects. Keep in mind, of course, that these are merely predictions and not steadfast declarations. Time will tell whether or not they eventually come to bear fruit or current technologies veer humanity on an entirely unexpected course altogether.

1.      Use of sustainable and/or organic materials

Materials engineers, contractors, and architects are already starting to take advantage of recycled, sustainable, or completely organic substances in the construction of new homes. On the synthetic end of the spectrum, for example, Serious Materials has developed an environmentally-friendly drywall known as EcoRock. This revolutionary new invention uses up to 80% less energy during production than the traditional drywall made of gypsum. Made of 80% post-industrial recycled materials – including leftovers from cement and steel factories – it is also 50% more efficient at repelling mold without the use of harmful anti-fungals, produces 60% less dust than traditional gypsum drywall, and does not release mercury into the air. At the end of its life, Serious Materials intends for EcoRock to be utilized as a pH additive in soil or recycled into another generation of drywall. Even if it ends up in a landfill, however, the material decomposes in a safe manner that leaves behind no negative environmental impacts. The company intends to release this hopefully influential new drywall in Alaska and the Western part of the United States in 2010.

Other architects look towards the natural world for inspiration, building upon the previous efforts of Frank Lloyd Wright and other organic architects. Some find creative ways to include the surrounding environment in their designs, building around pre-existing rock outcroppings, tree groves, bodies of water, and other structures. A few cutting-edge architects, however, take this concept one step further by experimenting with the use of nature itself. Magnus Larsson has sent ripples of excitement throughout the industry with Dune – his amazing use of Saharan sand and Bacillus Pasteurii bacteria to construct a 6,000 km wall that prevents further desert encroachment. Mimicking the shape of spacious tafoni, the project sets a potentially revolutionary precedent challenging other architects to design sustainable structures straight from the Earth itself.

2. Powered by alternative energy sources or wireless electricity

As humanity attempts to wean itself off of nonrenewable resources and focus on solar, nuclear, wind, and other alternative fuels, its residential and commercial spaces will understandably come to follow suit. A dwindling need for natural gas, for example, means the gradual phasing out of heating, stoves, and other systems incorporating technology that channels the fossil fuel directly into a building. Instead, they will gradually come to host solar panels, small wind-powered generators, and other related machinery as they become more streamlined, sophisticated, and viable for long-term home use. Obviously, this process would take a considerable amount of time to complete as the technology evolves, but it is not outside the realm of possibility.

Before the full transition to renewable, sustainable energy sources, wireless electricity may begin trickling into homes before improved solar panels and similar constructs. WiTricity currently offers power for electronics such as television, cars, pacemakers, and other technologies through Original Equipment Manufacturers. It boasts an impressive 95% efficiency rate with no obstructions and a reasonable distance between the transmitter and the recipient and emits no radiation. In addition, walls built of any material other than metal do not block out signals. While it will not replace traditional wiring systems anytime soon, it would be more realistic to think that WiTricity will find its way into architecture prior to other energy sources.

3. Repurposing

Due to rising environmental concerns, architects and builders are scrambling to find creative, sustainable solutions to long-term issues. One of the most popular and celebrated strategies involves the repurposing of spacious, abandoned shipping containers as viable living spaces. Frequently made of steel, they provide residents with safe, eco-friendly, and sturdy housing that can be fully assembled in 90 days. Within 60 days, the buildings are completed from the outside and contractors can start in with the interior.

Companies such as Tampa Armature Works construct these homes from 4 stacked 40×8x8 units, which results in 3 bedrooms and 1,280 square feet. With the addition of a trussed or hip roof, a ½ inch plywood floor (which sits upon a pre-existing ¾ inch sub-floor, drywall, hat channels, metal studs, windows, doors, shingles, wiring, and fiber-cement siding, the former shipping containers are fully transformed into secure, viable homes that clear landfills of potential waste. For more detailed information on how these resourceful contractors convert consumer leavings into excellent living spaces, visit Bob Vila’s Green Home Improvement Library.

4. Small living spaces

MIT researchers predict a shift from larger homes to more compact spaces over time. Part of this does stem directly from the current downswing in the housing market of course, but smaller homes also mean smaller energy bills. Aging Baby Boomers will come to appreciate the efficiency and ease of maneuvering through fewer rooms. This also means that contractors pay for less materials and labor, which in turn drives the overall cost of a home lower. With technological advances also becoming more and more infused into everyday life, this also means quicker installations and more controlled consumption as well.

5. A movement away from retirement communities and nursing homes

Because the Baby Boomer generation has more money and a higher standard of living, civil engineers and architects at MIT predict that it will gravitate towards a more self-reliant lifestyle free from the elder care facilities of their forebears. Advances in technology that will allow them longer and healthier lives will help foster comparatively more independence than previous generations as well. Baby Boomers also possess greater financial resources as well, with many able to afford home-based care once frail health begins to descend. This trend, should it come to pass, will signal a reduction in retirement and assisted living communities in addition to nursing homes. In turn, the facilities could very well be converted into single or multi-family living spaces so they do not go to waste.

6. Panelized and modular forms

Another projection by MIT researchers posits a shift towards panelized, modular architecture. These allow for better, more streamlined integration of technology over time, expediting the installation process. Tyson T. Lawrence at MIT proposed the Chassis + Infill system, consists of two main facets, in his 2003 master’s thesis. The chassis conforms to a specific set of standards, making mass production the most efficient means of construction. What provides the flexibility, however, is the infill aspect of the system. Consisting of a series of interchangeable parts, it grants homeowners the ability to alter their living spaces without the hassle of an expensive, disruptive, messy, and potentially dangerous renovation. In turn, this renders conversion to newer technological innovations far easier than traditional housing designs.

7. “Mass customization”

Not only does the Chassis + Infill system involve smoother transitions to updated technology, but it also lends far greater customization to a home above and beyond that of previous architecture. The infill half, given its very nature, places far greater control over how a living space looks and feels than ever before. Homeowners unable to afford a custom house once had to content themselves with interior design as their only method of self-expression within a standardized setting. Drastic changes to flooring, walls, counters, cabinets, and other ingrained elements require a hefty cost, a shift in lifestyle as the change takes place, plenty of dust, and an increased safety risk that many people simply cannot afford. A Chassis + Infill setup provides a far more economical environmentally-friendly option with a much higher level of customization. Lawrence conceived of the project as a viable solution to increasing consumer demand for multiple options, resulting in yet another personalized product that caters to their unique needs, wants, and tastes. However, the main downside to this trend is that it only applies to new homes, as infusing them into existing architecture entirely negates the point.

8. Quicker assembly

One of the many advantages accompanying architecture’s trending towards sustainable and/or organic materials, repurposed shipping containers, and the Chassis + Infill system as well as the increased possibility of wireless electricity involves, simply, a much faster assembly. Families finding themselves having to transfer to other cities will be able to make the transition sooner and smoother, and in addition to easing their lives somewhat it also does the same for those who build the homes in the first place. Decreased construction time means a decrease in labor costs. Decreased labor costs, in turn, result in decreased housing prices – a move which allows more consumers to purchase homes at an affordable rate. More individuals and families buying houses means more work for contractors and construction workers alike. Some companies even subscribe to various formalized philosophies and standards, such as Enterprise Resource Planning, Just-in-Time, VirAps, and Design for Manufacture and Assembly, to increase productivity and decrease expenses. Others prefer to bring prefabricated structures and materials straight to the construction sites. Fast but efficient and safe assembly benefits nearly everyone involved in the process of building a house.

9. More integrated technology

So many upcoming trends skew towards embracing the possibility of incorporating technology into the home. MIT’s House_n project, an exhaustive experimentation concerning itself with the future of architecture and construction, explicitly looked into issues of technology integration and put forth some predictions of their own based on their findings. Healthcare as an everyday facet of the home particularly stands out, especially considering the burgeoning demographic involving the retiring and the elderly. For example, aging Baby Boomers will have the ability to receive certain medical procedures – such as the recharging of pacemakers – using wireless electricity. Video surveillance and security systems may someday be able to issue alerts should a resident fall unconscious or otherwise unable to call for help, which serves as a valuable early-warning system to medical professionals. They will also make it far easier to identify guilty parties in home invasion or domestic violence situations. As technology progresses, the applications in a living space extend to near-limitless levels. Architects and contractors alike are already utilizing interactive programs such as VirAps to work with customers on creating and customizing their dream home.

10. Better compliance with green initiatives

With the rise of the environmental movement, consumers latched onto the trend and began demanding more sustainable, eco-friendly products. Contractors, architects, and suppliers catering with their desires found themselves enjoying increased business. Keeping up with the newest and latest developments in environmentally-conscious design grants them an advantage over the competition. Green industry standards and practices, such as Energy Star, even reward qualifying companies with tax credits – provided they adhere to certain restrictions, of course. With so many incentives available from both buyers and the government, professionals ignoring the swelling demand for goods and services that cause little to no negative environmental impact find themselves at a glaring disadvantage. Possessing the flexibility necessary to ebb and flow as the market’s needs and wants change remains one of the cornerstones of the industry. As green initiatives begin filtering into and affecting nearly every aspect of everyday life, those making the effort to meet or exceed these expectations will find themselves flourishing over their more traditional peers.

If current movements are to be believed, the future of mankind’s hearth and home embraces technology and the environment in a way that celebrates and simplifies life and its place in nature. While it is entirely possible that these predictions prove false, they still provide one valuable glimpse into what may be in store for architecture, construction, and related industries.

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