Smart homes concept

Housing is the fundamental right of all people, yet gross distortions in housing conditions and in the balance between supply and demand exist across the world. This situation is not peculiar to poor regions. Affluent countries fail to provide decent and affordable housing for all and this is an impediment to the advancement of modern and just societies.

There are many excuses for this failure, but fewer for effecting workable solutions. A central theme is that housing must not impair the health of its occupants, yet there is evidence of ill-health from recurrent problems such as moisture penetration, emission of harmful chemicals and, inexcusably, lack of basic amenities. In the future, houses must do more than provide shelter and protection – they must contribute to a minimum standard of living for everyone and eliminate conditions that give rise to building-related illness. Furthermore, housing must not be used to define strata in society. All households must have access to modern services, and ICT in particular, otherwise the digital divide will become a reality for many people.

Monitoring and controlling conditions

Maintaining control over the condition and functioning of homes and alerting occupants – and others with a legitimate interest – to the hidden dangers is fundamental to this thinking. Providing the means for monitoring and controlling the condition of buildings, especially housing, over the lifecycle would represent a major breakthrough in preventive maintenance and servicing of the built environment. Technology is already capable of providing many solutions, for example the introduction of embedded technology into factory produced components. However, the application outlined above needs careful examination, development and testing of prototypes and feedback from full-scale demonstrators. In this regard, the workability of any new approach and products is unlikely to be assured by scale-models – people’s health is too important an issue for this kind of treatment. The scope of this research thus includes mechanisms for monitoring and control throughout the lifecycle, by the use of embedded technology. Access to information on the condition of one’s home should be readily available and should be provided to authorised third parties. The use of embedded technology is not, however, confined to the occupancy phase. Tracking of components from manufacture through transportation and incorporation into the building can provide valuable histories for use in diagnostics and preventive measures. A term that could have been adopted here is that of smart homes; however, this would not necessarily convey the importance of healthy homes and living.

Households change over time: they grow and contract and their tastes and requirements alter. Generally, homes stay much the same, apart from minor alteration and periodic redecoration. The lifecycles of households and homes could not be more out of step. Housing may be regarded as having to serve future generations, but when it fails to serve the present something has to be fundamentally wrong. Adaptation to new services and upgrading of the building fabric, services installations and interior fittings are needed for many homes. Retrofitting is an option for existing buildings. However, replacement with new buildings may be the only option where decay and obsolescence are too far advanced. Clearly, the mistakes that have led to this situation must be avoided in new buildings. For this reason, an implicit assumption is that the manufacture of customised products from standardised components – the concept of mass-customisation – will provide the platform for modularised house building on a major scale. This is needed if people are to have affordable, decent quality homes that are equipped for 21st century living. Moreover, homes must be capable of adaptation in a controlled and relatively easy way to provide different configurations of space to suit households at different stages in their development.

Limited options

Often, people have to move to another home if the present does not satisfy needs. For many people, however, this may not be an option, either because they are unable to afford such a step or simply because they wish to remain within their community. In other words, housing provision must be driven by people’s needs. The implications of this closer alignment of the needs of households with the provision of housing amount to a radical departure from traditional house building concepts in which largely conventional methods of construction can, quite literally, build in obsolescence. Furthermore, the speed with which new or replacement housing can be built is unlikely to be satisfied by a traditional construction response.

The primary aim is to produce sustainable, healthy homes that protect, support and stimulate occupants, including their formal and informal activities. An implicit aim is to ensure that past mistakes in mass housing are not repeated. The specific objectives are to:

  • define users’ needs – housing developers, owner-occupiers and tenants – as a basis for developing housing concepts and support systems;
  • develop housing solutions – based on high levels of service provision, low energy consumption and re-configurable, extendable space;
  • develop natural or passive methods for heating, cooling and ventilating that can be used alongside active systems and all necessary control regimes;
  • develop methodologies for the correct selection of building materials, products and systems and the detection of harmful materials and potential emissions; and
  • develop systems using state-of-the-art sensing and navigational technology to support the tracking and interrogation of products and components, including support from internet-based apps.

In spite of improved understanding of how to eliminate problems in buildings, especially multi-storey housing, building failures are all too prevalent. Much of the blame can be laid at the door of design teams in omitting to consider the broader implications of their work and in the lack of systematic feedback from projects past and present. The research should, therefore, re-engineer the process of design and production to include tools for the systematic gathering of performance data and for detecting potential failures. For example, the quality of the indoor environment can be assured through a variety of measures including, for example, methods for selecting the most appropriate components and for warning of the potential of harmful emissions.

Research should also examine the use of natural or passive methods for heating, cooling and ventilating the spaces within buildings so that the relationship between air quality and the energy used by more active methods can be better balanced. The efficient co-existence of these two approaches has to be determined so that effective monitoring and control strategies can be developed, ensuring that optimal comfort conditions are provided. The incorporation of embedded technology should be examined in the context of providing knowledge of how the building and its systems are functioning. The interconnectivity between different ICT infrastructures and standards for communication, for example Ethernet, BACnet, LonTalk and Bluetooth, are central to this approach and questions in regard to their deployment will need to be carefully examined. This has to operate in parallel with the ongoing development of industry standards for product information to provide data for embedded technology. The use of internet based apps – search and do agents – to assist in the coordination and control of the entire design, construction and facilities management process needs to be investigated further. The aim should be to provide real-time support to occupants and other stakeholders such as maintenance crews.

Actions required

The quality of housing in most countries is highly variable, with a significant proportion of dwellings lacking one or more basic amenities. A radical overhaul of the housing supply market is required if a serious impact is to be made. Traditional methods of house building have to be complemented by large scale manufactured housing programmes through which affordable, decent quality homes that reflect owners’ and occupants’ preferences are produced on a wide area basis. Mobilising the supply chain to support such an ambitious, but vitally important, initiative will necessitate the inclusion of major industrial companies and the collaboration of large municipal authorities. Inevitably, this means that major players are needed, at least for the production, delivery, installation and commissioning of these products.

The areas of competence required for this research include, but are not restricted to:

  • occupant needs in healthy buildings
  • home automation
  • building automation
  • embedded technology – sensors and communications
  • building technology and quality assurance
  • modular building system concepts
  • modular building components
  • control systems
  • logistics and supply chain management.

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