Design Briefing: The Future of the Home

November, 2021

Residential design is notoriously slow-moving, but experiences over the last 18 months are changing that and prompting architects and designers to respond to how we actually live now. In this Design Briefing, Debika Ray considers the new possibilities opening up for the design of our homes.

Photograph by Paul Phung

For La Folie Divine in Montpellier, Farshid Moussavi designed apartments with curved balconies that obstruct lateral views thereby creating a private outside space.

Amid the tragedy of the past 18 months, the pandemic period has also been an exercise in imagining a possible future and opening our minds to alternative ideas and ways of living. The most fortunate of us have glimpsed a world in which many jobs can be done from home, where cities are less crowded and polluted, and where daily life is more centred around our local neighbourhoods. We’ve been forced to spend time at home and examine what works and what doesn’t. These experiences have fuelled the imaginations of many designers and architects, particularly when it comes to the domestic sphere.

Architect Farshid Moussavi has long been concerned by the rigidity of the urban housing market in major cities. It has become clear that the homes we live in today and the way we build new ones will have to change to accommodate both the social transformation that has taken place since 2020, and those that had been set in motion long before that. So far, though, residential design has been slow to change. ‘It insists on standard apartments designed around nuclear families, comprising separate areas for day and for night,’ she says.


We need to start designing for how people really live

Farshid Moussavi

In a changing world, she argues, we need to offer homes for different types of households – from young sharers, older people living with carers and intergenerational households to single people, co-parents and blended families – as well as the flexibility for these to adapt as people’s lives evolve. ‘We need to start designing for how people really live,’ she says, pointing to historical examples that tried to do so – including Haussmann-era Parisian apartments with moveable walls, and flats with two entrances in British mansion blocks, a feature she suggests could allow privacy for adult children, the option to rent out a section of your home or a separate entrance to run a business. In the two housing schemes she is designing in Paris, she is striving to offer as much choice as possible when it comes to different types of home. 

Photographs by Paul Phung

Privacy and shelter encourages residents to use the balcony space like an additional room in their home, a key element in Moussavi’s intention to design flexibility into La Folie Divine apartments. External curtains protect the balcony from wind.

Despite calls to return to the office from politicians and CEOs, a 2021 global survey of employees by McKinsey & Company found that three-quarters would like to work from home for two or more days a week. As workers are leaving companies in unprecedented numbers, their bosses are likely to be obliged to comply with their wishes. ‘Dual-Use’, a module Moussavi is teaching at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, hones in on the prospect of a future in which work becomes more permanently embedded in the domestic realm. For those who can do everything from a laptop, the transition may have been relatively smooth, but it’s less straightforward for people who make things or offer services. In this context, she observes, housing has to be seen as part of the wider urban fabric – space for work need not be in the house itself but could be attached to it or located nearby, whether in an adjoining workshop for hands-on work or communal desk space for people who no longer need to commute to a town centre every day.

Young people are especially poorly served by conventional housing. In many large, expensive cities, young people already live in shared homes, but it’s rare for developers to build housing specifically for that purpose. Co-living schemes, which offer small private studios alongside larger communal areas, have failed to make real inroads, often derided for being contrived, transient and soulless versions of a real community. The pandemic has also shifted what young, single people require from their home life. Global real estate services provider CBRE, who operate co-living housing in the UK, continental Europe and the USA, have found that since the pandemic co-living is ‘gaining momentum’, reporting residents’ increasing levels of engagement in social activities on their sites and citing the advantages of having co-working spaces within the residence as a particular boon for young people otherwise unable to afford the space for comfortable home working.

An alternative to co-living is for young people not to leave home at all. A 2021 report published by the US-based advocacy organisation Generations United has found that the number of US multigenerational households has nearly quadrupled in the last decade. Although more than half of these arrangements began during the pandemic, as many as 70% are planning to continue long-term. Communal forms of living had already been identified as a potential solution to such problems as loneliness and an ageing population, but during the lockdown surge in intergenerational living, privacy suddenly became an issue for anyone who did not live alone. Consequently, one of the more talked-about changes is the shift away from open-plan living to more enclosed, private spaces.

Photographs by NOISE

Making the most of the space inside the apartments of Bjarke Ingels Group’s Smile development, Bumblebee’s wooden, grid-like unit allows a bedroom to be easily converted into a living room, office or work-out space.

For designer Nina Tolstrup of Studiomama, living in an intergenerational household during the pandemic was the culmination of a long process of change – from living alone to sharing a home with partner Jack Mama and then with their children, whose increasing privacy needs as they grew from children into adults compelled them to adapt their home over time. ‘We're now looking at how we transform our house into something that has several mini living spaces and a communal area,’ she says, speculating that greater separation within the home may become more common as people spend more time there.

Another approach is to create modular interiors that transform for different functions. The Smile is a new apartment building by Bjarke Ingels Group in Harlem, New York City. Five of the homes inside have been installed with furniture systems by Bumblebee, a company that aims to make the most of cubic space rather than just footprint. Bumblebee has created a ceiling-mounted unit containing a bed, storage units and a desk that can be lowered to the ground on demand, swiftly transforming the use of space. There are plans to add walls, appliances, a dining table and a pantry to the range of possibilities. The ambition of this retractable, app-controlled furniture is not only to wring as many uses out of a space as possible, but also to bring more of the functions we are familiar with from our digital lives into our homes. The constantly updated Bumblebee software will allow you to Face ID lock private sections, and the software keeps track of what is in the storage bins enabling owners to effectively ‘keyword search’ their own possessions.

But if we live in increasingly smaller spaces, with less privacy and fewer possessions, the public realm will need to compensate by offering more. Sonia Solicari, Director of London’s Museum of the Home, which explores British domestic life since the 1600s, observes that this used to be the case – bathhouses, bakehouses, launderettes and even outdoor toilets have historically been sites of shared activity – but the trend over time has been towards cramming more into individual dwellings. The pandemic has exacerbated this: we’ve become comfortable downloading films instead of going to the cinema, exercising at home and ordering in gourmet meals. As we come out of the pandemic, a strengthened sense of the public and a greater permeability between home and the wider community might be one way in which we can rebuild social ties and attend to many of the inequalities laid bare by Covid-19.

Such changes to the ways in which our homes, cities and public spaces are designed and built will involve large-scale political and structural change at all levels, but dramatic change is, at least, something we’re now used to. ‘Extraordinary things need to happen for these things to take place,’ says Solicari, ‘but if anything good has come out of the pandemic, it's that people seem more open to more radical possibilities.’


Debika Ray