What will the future of housing look like?

Homes of the future on display in Paris, 1974. Image: Getty.
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The last decade has been a challenging period for housing in the UK. The next ten years do not look any different – although there have been schemes put in place to ease the strain of ever increasing house prices and home-ownership.

Architects are looking to take on a new role in housing, with pioneers such as Richard Rogers pushing for the acceptance of his Y:Cube scheme of prefabricated houses, designed for young homeless people, in partnership with YMCA.

Smart sustainable technology and multi-purpose spaces are on the rise, and are likely to become the standard in the next 30-40 years. The government pledged that Britain would build 300,000 homes in 2018, but only managed around 230,000; even optimistic estimates suggest it will only manage around 250,000 in future years. With the ever growing population it would be interesting to see whether there are any additional steps taken to ensure long term sustainability.

Technology like driverless cars and mirror smart screens are expected to be commonplace within the next two decade – so it only makes sense that our homes are updated to accommodate these new gadgets and advancements.

General shifts in generational living behaviours now mean that houses with have to become flexible spaces that can comfortably hold an ageing population. There are also clear moves towards cleaner energy, eco-building and protection against more extreme weather conditions caused by climate change.

So what innovative approaches towards housing can be expected in the future? Although speculative, the below provides just an insight of what we could see in the next few decades.


1) Robot builders

Imagine a brand new home, built within 48-72 hours for around £12,000. That is the claim of Apis Cor, an American firm, which was the first to successfully complete a house printed using mobile 3D printing technology in Stupino, Moscow. The completed construction (including interior) took around 28 hours for an open plan studio-style home at just over 450 square feet.

The future might even include SAM, a bricklaying robot laying the groundwork for robotic construction. Designed to operate collaboratively with a mason, it can work six times faster than a human, laying 3,000 bricks a day. It’s hoped SAM will be introduced into the UK in the next five years after it has been trialled extensively in construction sites across the US.

The use of drones has also made its way on to the building site. Japanese construction giant Komatsu are currently using drones as the “eyes” for automated bulldozers. The drones can scan the building site, and feed the information to the machines to plot a course.

2) New materials

Modern flat-pack homes are now much better designed and put together than homes post WW2. Manufacturer Huf Haus is now pushing the introduction of shipping container styled properties.

Shipping container homes in Germany. Image: Getty.

Even the type of materials used is advancing. Timber has found its way back into house building thanks to advanced construction techniques, and is now being in the construction of sky-high towers. Urban design specialist Perkins+Will is teaming up with the University of Cambridge to develop the River Beech Tower, an entirely timber 80-storey structure.

On the other side of the material spectrum, we have the use of plastic bricks. Lise Fuglsang Vestergaard from Denmark developed the concept of recycling plastic into useful building materials for future homes. The colourful bricks can withstand up to six tonnes of pressure, and if exposed to the monsoon season are likely to be able to hold up better compared to the current clay brick homes that are often washed away.

3) Living in Space

Probably the most optimistic option, but the same was said for man going to the moon. With yearly advancements in space exploration and the likes of Richard Branson and Elon Musk dabbling with the idea of space tourism within the next few years, we cannot discount the possibility of human settlement one day on planets such as Mars.

Homes in space! Image: Housenetwork.co.uk.

The idea of living in space one day does seem alien to many with logistics and possibilities seeming very slim. Studies by Russia between 2007 and 2011 considered the psychological challenges for a Mars crew. Isolation simulations carried out in a spacecraft showed that after 520 days, four of the six members developed psychiatric problems, including sleep disorders and depression. Researchers decided that astronauts would need coping strategies to deal with the isolation as well as frustrations over the 40-minute communication delay with Earth from Mars.

The future? Image: Housenetwork.co.uk.

If we do manage to overcome such issues and settle successfully in space, it would be interesting to understand the dynamics of society. The types of homes that would be built to deal with the weather and pressure changes, transport and amenities to improve comfort.

There is still a huge housing shortage in the UK and there are still high doubts on whether this will be met in the next few decades especially with the ever increasing UK population, creative solutions and policies seem to be certainly necessary to ensure residents can have improved living quality and the necessary infrastructure to grow with their families.

4) Self-sustaining housing

It’s not just the population that’s growing: it’s also food and energy consumption. Understanding the steps required to ensure families can live in an era of self-sustenance is essential for the future. There are various ideas on how houses can be made to benefit the eco-system, including:

  • Built-in water collection and filtration;
  • Passive heat and heated spaces for winter;
  • Intelligent kitchens to aid with food and nutrition;
  • Natural ventilation;
  • Built in solar-energy;
  • Extendable and demountable spaces;
  • Attached greenhouses for organic food production.

Some possible upgrades. Image: TMD Studio.

Although these are just a few ideas of upgrades that can be made in homes of the future, there also needs to be a balance in considering the costs involved. Millions will have to be spent on R&D and governmental/environmental approvals, which may further delay the implementation of such ideas. The costs of building such homes may also be much more than current costs, which may end up being passed on to the consumer.

So we must consider whether these more sustainable homes will be available to the general public – or only affordable for those with deeper pockets.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.