Marie-Louise Schembri, Project Director at Hilson Moran, contributes to our Future of Housing blog series to discuss the need for a different approach to home design for the industry to contribute positively to climate change but also ensure we are living comfortable lives.
The light at the end of the tunnel is a small, green LED bulb of an AI system that has figured out how to make your home more comfortable, healthier, zero impact, zero maintenance and adaptable to your needs, over time.
If that sounds too good to be true it’s because this approach has not been part of the mindset through the many years of home design. The end goal with a few exceptions has so far been low cost, fast build and sellable. We’re often either priced out of what we would each consider being our dream home or perhaps it’s simply in the wrong place. We are then forced to make compromises on quality and size, meaning our homes either fall below our expectations or are just unattainable. As such, we tolerate cracks, poor design and inadequacy in the biggest financial investment of our lifetime.
Now that the housing industry is being forced to ramp up delivery rates – estimates have put the number of new homes needed in England at between 240,000 and 340,000 per year and London alone has a target of 65,000 a year according to the New London Plan – we need to ask the question, how do we avoid repeating the same mistakes, move away from the old housing objectives and start properly implementing AI to deliver the homes we all need?
At the first of Connected Places Catapult’s Housing Breakfast events, Neal Hudson described the statistical falsehood of the housing ‘crisis’, Jemma Mouland, from the Centre for Ageing Better, challenged our preconceptions of homes for an ageing population and Nigel Walley made us aware of our right to access data that is associated with our homes. During the event, I talked about the climate crisis and the resulting design challenges. All four of us had two things in common; we are all using digital technologies to analyse, interpret, resolve and communicate substantial problems facing housing, and, our work, though in different areas, places the home occupant at the centre of better quality design.
Turning up the heat with modern design practices
As we push design further up the path of best practice, we are coming across situations where the best result is a sweet spot between several conflicting factors. One example is that in fine-tuning the energy conservation of home heating (eg insulation, air-tightness and thermal breaks) to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, we have made them unbearable during warmer months. New apartments, in particular, are just too hot.
Now imagine this problem in a near future with warmer summers, an ageing population (less able to adapt body temperature), flexible working (homes occupied during warmer hours), policy-driven decentralised heating systems introducing hot water pipes and systems in corridors, brownfield sites next to sources of noise where open windows have a long-term health risk and higher density buildings where large vent areas are a safety risk. We’re throwing more heat into our homes and letting less out.
We, environmental engineers, have had to dramatically adapt the way we operate. We’ve become coders developing in-house tools to provide the architects with several relevant solutions that altogether work for energy conservation, avoid overheating, provide sufficient daylight and fresh air, and manage noise.
The same pattern of consolidated solutions is apparent in some of our tools. Healthy Cities Parametric Tool (H-Cities) pulls together external variables such as air quality, wind flow, noise levels, sunlight and shading – elements that determine human comfort and safety in the built environment – to one 3D data-rich and visualised platform. Another tool we are developing for a prototype home at Building Research Establishment (BRE) pre-tests multiple permutations of prefab architectural components against energy, daylight and overheating standards for any site location.
Fixing homes for the future with digital tools
Without these digital tools (and a design consultancy team reskilled as coders) we would waste precious time flip-flopping from one iteration to another. Instead, these tools help us refocus our time on the issues that matter most: providing a better quality of life in homes, in our communities, and our cities.
It doesn’t end there. In a collaboration with Loughborough University to validate the thermal models we use to predict the risk of discomfort, we found significant discrepancies from actual measured temperatures in homes. We hope that soon, machine-learning will use available measured data from home thermostats to provide perfect prediction and that we will be able to upload this into the Future Home Standard, an efficiency target that will be measured by IoT devices rather than design requirements as has been the case in the past. Watch this (virtual) space!
This blog is one in a series and is part of our new Future of Housing programme. Find out more about our work in this area by visiting our new Future of Housing knowledge hub.