21 Ways to Build a 21st-Century House


70 years ago, Frank Lloyd Wright gave the world a glimpse of what a house living in harmony with nature should look like. That’s a harmony we urgently need. Luckily, we’ve never been more ingenious in our eco-friendly construction methods – and the house of the future is being made today.

Here are our predictions for what you can expect:

- 1. Modular offsite manufacture. Assembling a house from a “kit” is a great way to keep manufacturing costs and building time down, efficiently making the most of specialized offsite workshops. Sounds soulless? Take a look at our round-up of prefabricated eco-houses and decide for yourself.

- 2. Green building materials. From concrete that absorbs CO2 and smog to cables of recycled straw, the traditional ingredients of walls, floors and roofs are being abandoned in favor of smarter, eco-friendlier alternatives. We’re currently seeing the tip of the iceberg.

- 3. Keeping It Together. With new materials come new ways of bonding them together. Take the way the Loq-Kit house snaps into place like Lego. Even more excitingly, look at the recent breakthrough with self-bonding rubber, which can be cut into pieces that on contact will bond to each other as strongly as in the original piece. Where will this go?

- 4. Living walls. You can”t get more harmonized with nature than having a living house. Grass covered walls keep air sweet and clean, and vegetation-covered roofs mop up the fierce heat of summer, cooling the entire building. It’s a solid argument for letting our cities become overgrown.

- 5. Sonic cloaking. Noisy neighbors, the roar of traffic…these could become things of the past when we discover how to bend soundwaves around our houses. Science fiction? Less than you’d think.

- 6. “Traditional” alternative energy. Solar panels, wind turbines, biomass…ways to divert naturally-occuring renewable energy into our homes. The technology is cheaper by the day and firmly mainstream. And every year we’re getting wiser about how we collect that energy, like building solar-cell-lined roofs to catch the maximum sunlight during the day or night.

- 7. Alternative alternative energy. Cutting-edge lateral thinking into solving the energy crisis – like putting gray water to work in the home, converting the energy of raindrops into electricity, or using every physical exertion we make around the home to generate a current – even the fun ones. There are all sorts of weird ways to generate power that we’re only just beginning to explore.

- 8. Ways to monitor power usage.The more aware we are of what energy we’re using, the less we use. So it makes sense to design into our dream eco-house as many illustrations of our consumption as possible. Lights. How about a soothing glow from the lights that starts turning red when we’ve left too many appliances on?  How about some way to hear all that invisibly-wasted energy?

- 9. Ground Heat. It’s free, it’s under our feet, and it could save us $100s a year in heating bills (and considering how gas bills are rising at the moment, that’s news that keeps getting better). It’s the natural heat generated underground, as utilised by ground source heat pumps.

- 10. Passive Heating. Making the most of the energy you already have, circulating it and guiding it to where it’s needed, and above all, keeping it from escaping.

- 11. Recycled Loft Heat. A Heat Recovery Ventilation system would do wonders for the eco-house of tomorrow: recyling the dry air that gets trapped under the roof cavity at night (warm-feeling in winter, cool-feeling in summer) and distributing it round the house during the day. Here’s some details.

- 12. Electronic regulation. A house that knows when you’re home. Sound sinister? That’s what Hollywood has done to us. Yet a house kitted out with human-detecting sensors and computers that regulate temperature and light accordingly is a terrific money-saver. And there’s other benefits. How about setting your windows as well as your alarm in the morning, with the aid of Smart Glass?

- 13. Electrical lights. We’re free of the energy-wasting design limitations of incandescent lighting, and briskly exploring the funny-shaped possibilities of CFLs. Light-emiting diodes are an even bigger step – now you can put lighting anywhere. Maybe “lights” as we know them (lamps, ceiling lighting, and so forth) will disappear as LED lighting fully integrates with furniture and home.

- 14. Natural light. Forget about light bulbs. How about making the most of what’s beaming down on us for free every day? The futuristic eco-house will make the most of daylight, guiding it in through cunningly-positioned windows, mirrors, Illumawalls and sunpipes. And how about capturing it for later? Solar panels, you’ll be thinking, and you’d be right – but how about using this design?

- 15. Natural Darkness. In the future, darkness will become fashionable again, as we learn not to be so afraid of it. When the natural light fades, the house will respond with dimmed light and artfully-cast shado
w, highlighting the parts of the rooms we need illuminating. We’ll stop fighting the night and enjoy it instead.

- 16. Solar / UV treatment of waste. We’re fascinated by the Steripen – and it’s not lost on us that the biggest, cheapest source of UV is the sun. So we can easily imagine a domestic waste-treatment system that utilizes ultraviolet in a big way, helping take the heat off municipal treatment centres and render the local environment a little safer.

- 17. Rain Harvesting. It’s not only ultraviolet that falls free from the sky. Our superhouse will catch rainwater for use around the home (though probably not for drinking, unless filtration technology drops a price bracket or two). And don’t forget that the rain is generating electricity as it patters down. It just doesn’t stop giving.

- 18. Cleaner Air Indoors. Why use expensive, airway-irritating air fresheners when plants and sophisticated ventilation can make the air inside smell even sweeter than outdoors? It’s easy enough to do (check out the Guardian newspaper’s how-to guide) and electronic airflow regulation will make it super-efficient.

- 19. Homegrown Food. The house of the future uses its garden well – whatever its size. There’s places to play, and there’s places to grow, Victory Garden fashion, supplying the kitchen with seasonal crops all year round. In fact, we can see the line between “house” and “garden” blurring, allowing less weather-hardy plants and house occupants alike to thrive in between.

- 20. Cooking innovations. Sun-ovens are an amazing new way of cooking food without the merest sizzle of artificial power. What else can we expect? Geothermal cookery? It’s possible.

- 21. Waste management. Our future eco-house owners will look back and simply marvel at what we threw away. All those things we could have composted. All that food we never ate. How rich we must have been to throw money away like that. Both house and lifestyle will be tailored to assess the real value of every item we consume and discard. A dream? Our recycling programs have already taken us halfway there…

But these are just my predictions. What are yours?

Image: Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” via specialkrb

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.