Homeworld ’81 revisited

The Homeworld ’81 BBC Future Home 2000 

Last month I attended one of the online events celebrating the 40thanniversary of the Milton Keynes Homeworld ‘81 exhibition. Yes, I am old enough to have been there (so was Robin Roy and a number of other old timers from the OU). Indeed, as I was covering the Homeworld ’81 exhibition for the journal Planning, I was able to attend on the press day, (together with my wife as my ‘photographer’) and partake in the £4,000 free lunch provided. The exhibition of 36 houses was intended to showcase innovative housing designs and was followed up by two further exhibitions, Energyworld in 1986 and Futureworld in 1992. The houses from all these exhibitions were later sold and today form part of the streets of Milton Keynes.

Set against the backdrop of the Oil Crisis of the 1970s and growing environmental activism, the criteria for exhibiting at Homeworld ‘81 focussed on innovation and energy conservation. It was quite fascinating to revisit my 1981 Planningarticle which, much to my surprise, contained design insights that resonate as much today as 40 years ago. Here’s a taste:
“All the houses had something to say about energy. The two most extreme examples of this represent an important contrast. There was the Ideal Home Solar House with a two floor conservatory for passive solar gain plus active collectors on the top floor. The second example, the Autarkic House, was the only example of real alternative technology on display, complete with its Veganic Garden. This can be built from a do-it-yourself kit, with energy saved in construction as well as occupation.  The Money Programme Future Home 2000 falls into the same category as the Solar House, but its design is more aesthetically pleasing than the latter’s total concession to technical performance.”

I have dug out my press release picture of the BBC Money programme Future Home 2000 (see above) and last month  a BBC retrospective on Homeworld ‘81 included interviewing those who lived in this and other houses from the 1981 exhibition.

In looking at my 1981 review, I was struck by the reference to Veganism (well ahead of its time) and also the mention of the embedded energy impacts of house construction (today the environmental impacts of producing concrete cement and other traditional building materials are attracting considerable attention). The issue about some of the house designs being structured around the needs of the technology rather than the needs of users raised issues of user engagement, understanding and buy-in that remain with us today. This particularly related to a theme in the house designs about passive vs active solar heating. In last month’s retrospective presentations, a number of people involved in the original designs reflected on how susceptible some features were to the way people came to use and adapt the houses. The active technologies quickly fell into disuse, and even the passive solar designs proved vulnerable to shading from trees growing up by them. The most robust design response was simply around enhanced insulation standards, and the use of this in Milton Keynes led to higher national new house insulation requirements. Today, energy saving technologies are more familiar; homeowners know about PV and solar panels – but the challenge of eliminating gas boilers and the high insulation level needed for heat pumps takes us to another level of house design/user interplay.

My 1981 review also picked up on a second agenda to Homeworld ’81 that sat behind the official energy and innovation gloss. This was something not really picked up at the time, but was probably the real reason why Homeworld (and it successor exhibitions) took place at all. In the wake of the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, Milton Keynes Development Corporation recognised they would have to refocus their development strategy in a big way. In my article I noted:
“…with the demise of the 1,500 houses per annum rental programme, the grand ambitions for Milton Keynes are looking a bit shaky. Without a big housebuilding programme, employment growth will fall and with it the confidence of government and industry. Homeworld ’81 is a confidence and investment booster aimed at the building industry, the Department of Employment and government ministers. Time only will tell if it is politically successful.”

In retrospect, the energy saving designs of Homeworld ’81 had only a limited influence as housebuilder broadly stuck with traditional building methods and UK insulation standards lagged behind those of other nations. But the more strategic political aim was, indeed, achieved; the development of Milton Keynes did refocus around private housebuilding and investment, and the development momentum has been maintained ever since. Furthermore, in the last 15 years or so, Milton Keynes has rediscovered its appetite for innovation and sustainability initiatives. We have seen it in the forefront of electric and autonomous vehicle development, smart grids, G5 mobile infrastructure and the recently launched on-demand bus service. All of these reflect an ethos of innovative design approaches embedded within a vision of economic and social development. Indeed, one key design lesson from this 40 year retrospective may be the importance of designs having a meta context to support them.






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