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Back to the future

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The aspirations behind different visions of sustainability are reflected in the spate of designs for homes for the future

In the recently published book, City Flights: debates on urban sustainability*, on the disparities between views on sustainability held by UK and continental commentators, the editors write, 'it was clear that, to the British, the term 'sustainability' meant innovation, change and commitment to the future, and to the Austrians, stasis, conservatism and fear of the future'. On my reading of the book, I thought that the Austrians - and other non-UK participants - were refreshingly candid about the problems of sustainability, whereas the UK contingent were less openminded. In essence, the UK contributors seemed to be looking forward to - even be committed to - a conservative future.

Belief in the benefits of sustainability resulted in overt calls for restraint by the UK contributors, with Ian Christie, deputy director of social policy think-tank Demos, proposing that 'sustainability is about regulating consumption. . . we have to persuade people to manage their own demands, as well as come up with solutions which help them do it'.

On the other hand, Manfred WolffPlottegg, an architect from Germany, argued that 'sustainability is a traditional tool, which is designed to prolong elements which should instead be deleted. It is a conservative tool that does not create new ideas. It is a tool that wants to keep things running the way things are'.

Whatever the assessment of the contributor's intent, the book shows an interesting dichotomy in perceptions of problems and solutions for the future among European opinion.

As the book says, 'the British present thus wanted to be identified with the term, while the Austrians wanted to put as much clear blue water as possible between it and them. . . each side was surprised by, not to say incredulous of, the other's views'.

The implications of this difference in attitude can be seen in the ubiquitous, 'Home of the Future', variations of which seem to be springing up all over the place.

Recently opened at the Museum of Welsh Life - a heritage site documenting the social history of south Wales, with re-enactments, craft shows and guided tours - this House for the Future is described by Heinz Richardson of Jestico + Whiles Architects as 'a natural evolution of traditional Welsh housing, responding to local conditions, the climate of Wales and the availability of materials'.

Primarily it is designed to be an environmentally friendly building, ensuring that greenhouse gas emissions in its construction are kept to a minimum. The house has solar panel heating, low energy lighting, high insulation values, wind generators, CHP (combined heat and power system), geothermal heat pumps, a wood-burning stove, rainwater collection and grey-water recycling facilities.

A centralised BMS (building management system) responds to the changes in internal and external environment, adjusting the ventilation requirements to suit. It can even double up as a burglar alarm.

The National Museum of Welsh Life describes the roof as 'shaped like a natural water collector' (presumably roof-shaped), comprising a recycled aluminium roof, turf and natural Welsh slate and capable of capturing 155 litres of run-off a day.

The thick turf and soil layer acts as a natural filter before collecting the rainwater in loft tanks, although mechanical filtration is also used at point of collection. This grey water is re-used in the dual-flush toilet cisterns and garden stop-tap.

Richardson is keen to say that this scheme is a House for the Future rather than a House of the Future.

'Hi-tech architectural solutions are a bit of an irrelevance when it comes to trying to save the planet, ' he said. 'We need a holistic approach of flexibility, accessibility and lifestyle changes, rather than relying on technical quick-fixes.'

To keep operational energy use to a minimum, internal fixtures and fittings have been chosen for their performance rating. A microwave has been included within the fixtures because, say the architects, it is 'a more environmentally friendly method of cooking as it uses lesser quantities of energy over shorter periods to do the same job as a conventional electric or gas-fired oven.'

My mother, on the other hand, rang me when the house was featured on Wales Today, the regional news programme, to say that she was amazed that a house for the future looked so much like a house from the past. 'It's made of wood, it's got grass on the roof and they collect rain in water butts', she told me. 'It sounds like the 20th century never happened.'

The newly opened House of the Future outside Brussels is a different animal altogether. Sponsored by leading corporations including a sizeable chunk of money from Microsoft owner Bill Gates, it portrays a showroom together with educational and corporate entertainment facilities. Even though Richardson notes that technologies are add-ons that can be incorporated into any given housing shell - so that computer-operated robotics could easily be built into the Welsh house - the Belgian house uses this future techno-vision as a starting point.

The first thing to note is that the building interior is beautifully stylish, with attractive interior decor and layout. The furniture is delightful and - I am assured - readily available off the shelf, rather than made specially for the showhouse. The bed is computer controlled to fit your spinal requirements after computer assessment of your physical features; the huge smartscreen TV can give information about a footballer, say, during a live game at the touch of the screen; the family-room cinema has a sound-proofed office attached and the kitchen has voice-activated appliances. Combine this with lightsensitive blinds-operation, web-linked BMS and sauna as standard, and you have a pleasant domestic environment for the wealthy European. This is the aspirational stuff that makes you say, 'I want one!'.

The promotional blurb states: 'Our biological vegetable garden is fertilised after advice from our home PC terminal, that indicates on the basis of a soil analysis how much of and what type of fertiliser your beans need.' This is my kind of gardening;

manual labour by proxy. There are still plenty of references to 'our earth is exhaustible, ' emphasising that the differences in objectives between the two houses perhaps are not that great - both wishing to conserve - it is just that the Belgian model seems to be less depressed about it.

The lack of wireless networks is a shame, but given that Nexans, one of the biggest cabling companies in the world is a sponsor it is hardly surprising, and there is plenty of other electronic gadgetry to impress. The kitchen is fully voice-activated. By asking the computer what is available to eat, the computer asks a few questions to see whether you are hungry or just peckish and then provides the options, cooking times and serving suggestions. The TV screens - presumably sponsored by vested interests - can then beam manufacturers' adverts at you while you prepare the meal (unfortunately you still have to prepare it yourself ).

The cupboards, washbasin and hob can be called to appear from behind stylish screens and fold away after use (although without a manual override at present it is possible to go hungry in a power cut). Bar code readers in the fridge will relay, graphically, the list of contents which are about to run out and at a vocal command you can confirm your order via the Internet (the fridge haggles with the supermarket). Deliveries are made to the larder and fridge by a secure external hatch.No more shopping; unless that is, for some strange reason, you want to.

All of this seems to symbolise a clear vision of a technically adept and benign future - somewhat at odds with the UK version. However, there is one aspect where the UK house definitely wins over the Belgian experience. As we were leaving the Belgian house, the stench from the cesspit - perversely located to the side of the front entrance - was gutwrenchingly foul. Fortunately, in the UK site, the presence of a sewage infrastructure nearby made the provision of reed beds unnecessary.

Chalk one up for modernity.

*City Fights: debates on urban sustainability, Mark Hewitt & Susannah Hagan, James & James (Science Publishers), 2001, pbk

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