Houses of the Future

Review of Houses of the Future exhibition for YBE, Sydney, ARTICHOKE Magazine, vol. 10/02. 2005

Those who weren’t paying attention might have missed the fact that 2004 was the Year of the Built Environment. One of the significant events to mark this was the Houses of the Future exhibition that showcased a series of six prototype houses, each utilising one material: concrete, clay, cardboard, steel, timber, and glass. Each house was designed to demonstrate environmentally sustainable design measures in water, energy and materials, and illustrate new ideas for living in the 21st century. They were realised and sponsored by a collaboration of housing industry supporters including building material suppliers, industry associations, research institutes and architects.

Perhaps the title of the exhibition is misleading as the six built prototypes were designed as structures that exhibit a particular agenda, rather than as habitable houses. In this context, the set of houses presented a range of ideas that could potentially offer some innovation to the housingmarket and raise public awareness about the enviro-friendly possibilities that are available.

While only considered as a temporary housing option, the cardboard house designed by Stutchbury &Pape working in association with Col James at the University of Sydney was the main headline grabber. The obvious question , “but what happens when it rains?” is solved by an HDPE plastic cover over the whole structure acting like the fly of a tent. The structure and enclosure has been designed in a series of repetitive portal frames that combine cardboard layers into planks and beams which are fixed with nylon wing nuts, polyester tape stays and Velcro fastenings. The result is a very pleasing architectonic form that uses fully recyclable materials.

The clay house designed by Environa Studio has a courtyard plan and consists of a variety of clay products. Of all the houses it provides the most efficient model in terms of site planning for the suburbs. By wrapping all the rooms around a central indoor-outdoor “solarium” which is operable, the house demonstrates how a compact plan with a courtyard can solve issues of privacy and security. This typology, utilised by Jorn Utzon in his Danish housing projects in the 1950s is a viable and untapped option for smaller lot housing in Australian cities. Environmentally, the house uses the thermal mass of clay bricks in a reverse brick veneer with an insulated veneer of clay bricks on the external face.

The most poetic of the structures is the concrete house designed by the NSW Government Architects’s Office. In its simplicity it recalls some of the elegance of the concrete houses of Tadao Ando and Shigeru Ban. A simple pair of horizontal planes: elevated floor and planted rooftop are separated by a series of supporting precast concrete cylindrical drums that are the structure and walls. Although the plan does allocate room uses, they are spatially not particularly functional due to the curved rooms and forest of concrete pipes that interrupt the space. However the thermal mass qualities of concrete are immediately apparent upon entering, as the house is noticeably the most thermally comfortable on the warm day we visit.

Nanotechnology can loosely be used as a term applied to a range of applications that deal with the control of matter at the scale of atoms and molecules ie. very tiny. It includes smart materials which can change in response to their surroundings, nanopowders that can be used for UV absorbing paints, coatings and sunscreens. It was used in the glass house designed by Jim Muir of UTS. The house is more a space than a house and does not attempt to allocate rooms.

The steel house designed by Modabode is a linear pavilion that is one room deep in the modernist tradition of Murcutt and Mies and it is the most liveable of all the structures. It was conceived as a pre-fabricated dwelling consisting of steel-framed modular components that can arrive on-site ready made. A large over-sailing roof provides environmental control and gives its strikingly familiar Australian vernacular identity while thermal mass it provided by the “Water Hog” plastic rainwater tanks built into the floor and store water for toilet flushing and the garden.

The timber house was designed by Innovarchi and provides an internal landscaped space that is used to recycle water. The building wraps under and around it with a continuous surface that links floor, wall and roof.  Traditional timber products are used in the house but the main focus is the cladding, a wood-fibre and phenolic resin product that challenges preconceptions of timber useage. Unfortunately the house remained unfinished for the duration of the Sydney exhibition and consequently many of its ideas were not apparent.

Housing exhibitions that suggest future directions are not new. The Weissenhof Exhibition at Stuttgart in 1927 led by Mies van der Rohe and featuring works by some Euro-big guns including le Corbusier, Gropius, Hans Scharoun and Mart Stam built a number of new apartment buildings, defined by their unified characteristics of white stucco with flat roofs, strip windows and minimal detail that were to become the prototype for German housing projects in the 1930s. Similarly the Case Study House program, initiated by Arts & Architecture magazine in Los Angeles between 1945 and 1966, was one of the highlights of mid-century American architecture. It featured low-cost, experimental modern
prototypes using steel framing and industrial components designed by the likes of Charles Eames, Richard Neutra, Eero Saarinen, Craig Ellwood and Pierre Koenig.

Australia also had its precedents with the Robin Boyd designed House of Tomorrow presented in Melbourne in 1949 and a Home of the Future designed for an exhibition in the Sydney Town Hall by Harry Seidler in 1954. A Lend Lease organised exhibition displayed twenty four architect designed houses at Sydney’s Carlingford Home Fair in 1962 and this may have instigated the likes of project home builders such as Pettit & Sevitt in Sydney and Merchant Builders in Melbourne to use architects for their designs in the 1960s and 70s.

Houses of the Future introduces the environmental agenda to this legacy of housing exhibitions. There are demonstrated examples of water management and collection systems using landscaping, passive solar design, and increased lifecycles of building materials.  Critics of the Houses of the Future exhibition have asked, given the current push for the consolidation of our cities, why are we exploring adaptations of the detached single-unit dwelling? In the next genesis it might be worthy to investigate models for multi-unit housing that also incorporate environmentally sustainable design measures and illustrate new ideas for living in the 21st century. Nonetheless it is exciting to have ideas that, while familiar to the design industry, have been realised and made available to the general public, to touch and kick and talk about.