How to build homes for the future? Energy-efficient solar windows and 3D printed walls


Here’s a joke for you. Two elderly women are having lunch in a restaurant, and one of them says: “Wow, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other replies: “I know — and such small portions too.” 

That’s a gag from the classic movie Annie Hall but it also happens to perfectly sum up the state of London’s housing crisis today.

The typical quality of new homes being built here is poor. And if that’s not bad enough, we don’t have enough houses being built either.

According to the housing charity Shelter, more than 50 per cent of people who buy a new-build home discover serious problems with construction, faults and unfinished fittings. And, to make matters worse, we’re also not building enough. 

Only about 29,000 homes are constructed in London each year, which is well short of the 66,000 we need. Demand for housing is outstripping supply, which in turn has caused prices to skyrocket over the past few decades. As a result, an average young person in the capital now needs to save for 40 years to pay for a deposit to buy an apartment. It’s a sorry state of affairs. 

In the latest in this series on Changing Cities, we will be looking at how other cities are responding to the challenge of providing high-quality residential accommodation but at an affordable cost. After all, London isn’t alone in grappling with demographic pressures.

According to the UN, the global population will have hit 11.2 billion by 2100,  which is an increase of 3.6 billion people on today’s head count. Research by Professor Sean Smith at Edinburgh Napier University suggests that this equates to two billion new homes needed worldwide by the end of this century, with most of them in urban areas. 

That’s a huge number but there’s no reason to despair. New technologies and approaches are already delivering results in cities around the world, helping to make homes cheaper and more liveable. These innovations can be broken down into three categories: affordability, quality and sustainability. Let’s look at each in turn. 

First, affordability. It’s not inevitable that housing has to be unaffordable, and one of the ways that the price is being brought down is by radically cutting the cost of construction. In the Dutch city of Eindhoven, for example, the construction company Van Wijnen is creating homes using 3D printing technology.

This enables structures to be built out of concrete much faster and more efficiently than before. Because the houses are printed by machines rather than built by hand, it vastly reduces labour costs and also means fewer leftover materials. 

A render of Van Wijnen’s 3D-printed homes (3dprintedhouse.nl)

Similar projects have been launched around the globe. In Shanghai,10 houses were built with 3D printers in less than a day using cement mixed with construction waste.

Meanwhile, the US Army recently used 3D printers to construct a 46sqm barracks for troops in just 40 hours. This is much faster than would have been the case using traditional methods.

Icon, a 3D printing start-up company, estimates that this approach could bring the price of building a home down to under £10,000, which is a fraction of the present cost. 

Another great example of how urban areas are making housing more affordable can be found in American cities from Seattle to New York. There, an innovative model of home ownership known as a Community Land Trust (CLT) is commonplace and it’s transformative. 

Here’s how it works. In a CLT, the land is owned by the community, and so when you buy a house or an apartment, you pay only for the bricks and mortar (not the land underneath), which brings the price down substantially. 

But here’s the really clever part. When you come to sell your place, the value of your property is calculated as having increased in line with local incomes, so if wages have risen by two per cent annually, then that’s how much your house price has gone up by. 

That means that CLT housing is permanently affordable, and ensures that buying a property stops being about gambling on crazy price rises, and goes back to simply being a matter of owning a home to live in.

If new approaches such as these are making new housing more affordable worldwide, they’re also improving quality. In Singapore, if you want to get planning permission for a new block of flats, you have to demonstrate that the project will use innovative techniques and materials.

This is driving huge investment in research and development in the construction industry, spurring companies to deploy cutting-edge technologies that have the potential to significantly improve housing standards. 

As a result of this smart approach to planning rules, new housing projects in Singapore are starting to feature sound-masking technology that cuts out urban noise pollution more effectively. 

That’s not all. New approaches to construction are enabling Singaporean house-builders to install vertical green gardens in a low-cost way as well as creating green roofs that weigh less and require less maintenance. This makes it easier for residents to be close to nature even in the midst of a dense metropolis. 

The third type of innovation that you can find in global cities is to do with sustainability: making new housing much more environmentally friendly and less energy intensive. According to research by the International Energy Agency, buildings and construction represent 36 per cent of the world’s energy consumption and generate almost 40 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions. 

Shockingly, even new homes being built in the UK are at risk of not meeting standards on energy efficiency and insulation, according to Lord Deben, chairman of the Committee on Climate Change: “We are in danger of building houses that have to be retrofitted, which would be very expensive. We could build them now to low-carbon standards instead.”

This is already the norm in cities across Germany and Sweden. One popular method is known as the “passive house” approach, which is used to design homes that require little or no heating bills at all, because they’re so well insulated and use technologies to move air that’s been heated by the sun to other parts of the building.

But this isn’t the only way that new housing is becoming more sustainable worldwide. Another breakthrough is the emergence of solar windows: transparent panels that can generate electricity without burning fossil fuels, and which can easily be fitted to houses and apartment blocks. 

It’s a similar story with so-called solar tiles, which look like normal roof slates, but are actually tiny solar panels that can cover the entire top of your home. These are now on the market in American cities, with homes in San Jose and elsewhere already making use of this advanced material.

Thanks to new technologies and innovations, cities worldwide are showing how new housing can become more affordable, better quality and far more sustainable. Millions of Londoners will be hoping that our city starts to follow suit.

If other places can do it, why can’t we?



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