Friday, March 31, 2023

How coronavirus has shaped the home of tomorrow

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Home is like the water a fish swims through: so familiar that it often goes unnoticed. Light switches are flicked without looking, and furniture edges navigated with blind precision.

Lockdown challenged this passivity. As the great expanse of life was concertinaed between four walls, those trapped inside felt less like fish in water than sardines in a tin. Around the world, homes that had previously been just fit for purpose were suddenly unfit, and neighbourhoods once deemed “convenient” were found lacking. 

We enter 2021 with a vaccine, and a vision of normality is creeping over the horizon. But many people’s homes will emerge from the pandemic transformed. In the UK, there has been a whirlwind of activity in the property market since the first and strictest lockdown was lifted in May. On July 8, the day Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, announced a stamp-duty holiday, property portal Rightmove reported its busiest day ever for site traffic.

“A lot of people want to make changes,” says Mark Parkinson, a buying agent for Middleton Advisors, who says that all areas of his business are up 20-30 per cent year-on-year. “This last year, we’ve taken on more clients than ever, we’ve bought more houses than we’ve ever bought in the country,” he says. “We’ve had a record year.”

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I am part of the upheaval. In March, I will be moving to a rural rental in North Oxfordshire with an allotment twice the size of my current (gardenless) flat in south London. 

While the response to the pandemic was to focus on how social distancing and hygiene requirements might change the design of our homes, this seems like shutting the door after the horse has bolted. Instead, Covid-19 will change our homes because it has changed the way we live, and the way we want to live.

“The definition of home is changing,” says architect Tara Gbolade, co-founder of Gbolade Design Studio. “It’s beyond our individual homes and rear gardens — [it’s] the streets in front of us, the communities and the neighbours that we’ve spent years living next to but never spoken to.” 

In this story, we hear from designers, estate agents, buyers — and a homesteader in rural Nova Scotia — about the six shifts that will shape our homes in 2021 and beyond.

Multigenerational living

As of September this year, at least 12 per cent of the UK population were adults who had moved back in with parents as a result of the pandemic, according to a survey by the personal-finance website More than two-thirds had no move-out date in sight.

This year, there may be more university students choosing to live at home too, according to Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice-president of Higher Education at the National Union of Students, with many dissatisfied with the treatment they have received on campuses around the country.

“Given ongoing uncertainty about how their courses will be delivered next term, many will understandably not want to risk going through all that again and may prefer to remain in their family home,” writes Gyebi-Ababio in an email.

The sharp rise in multigenerational households may help to diminish the social stigma that persists, in some western cultures at least, around young adults living with their parents. As Madison Darbyshire wrote in the FT in August, it is now seen as “frugal-chic” to live at home during times of economic uncertainty.

The turning tides were confirmed in December, when Stella Bugbee, New York Magazine editor-at-large and cultural bellwether, revealed she had been living with her parents for the past 16 years, a fact she had kept secret until the pandemic put several colleagues in the same position.

Jago Poole, a 28-year-old who works in short-term property rentals, tells me he moved back home in December, when the lease on his shared flat in London was up and his company had ended its lease on the office he worked in.

“The reason you move to London is the social aspects, and being able to go out and see people and do things,” he says. With those opportunities shut off due to coronavirus restrictions, “it was a bit of a no brainer [to move back] really”. 

Although it is bittersweet to celebrate any change born of economic necessity, there are benefits to living in larger families: in the US, 82 per cent of multigenerational households report that living together has enhanced their bond.

The extended home

Working from home — at least for part of the time — looks like it is here to stay. Companies including Google, Twitter, Zillow and Microsoft have all announced plans to allow for total or partial remote-working post-pandemic, and a June 2020 poll by 451 Research reported that 67 per cent of US IT decision-makers expected that work-from-home policies would be either permanent or long term.

At the same time, the popularity of home schooling has risen sharply — some UK private schools are even creating “remote-first” cohorts, who will be taught over video call with the exception of hands-on classes. As a result, our homes will have to adapt.

There are two solutions for the newly space-pressed home: expand or divide. This year, orders at loft conversion specialists Simply Loft increased by 54 per cent compared with 2019 — a daunting prospect given the noise pollution in big cities.

Meanwhile, residential architecture firm Resi reports that searches on its website were up by 95 per cent in 2020 compared with last year, and “home extensions” was their most popular category.

New companies are offering futuristic design solutions. Modulr, a British company launched mid-pandemic, makes sleek, freestanding workspaces that businesses can install in the gardens of remote workers. Starting at £17,500 plus VAT, they will probably be a perk for very senior members of staff.

“People feel that they can go to work — even if it means five steps outside the back door,” says co-founder Jo Van Riemsdijk. Meanwhile, the Australian architects Woods Bagot have created a set of moveable walls and screens that can be adjusted to divide open-plan living spaces into offices during the daytime, and pushed back again at night. 

Other solutions for subdividing space will remain more makeshift: around the world, Google searches for “room divider” hit record highs in August.

The city exodus

The need for space, combined with the flexibility offered by homeworking, is driving people out of cities. In June, views of homes in rural zip codes across the US increased 34 per cent year-on-year, according to 

Savills’ Crispin Holborow, who specialises in selling high-value property in the UK countryside, says there has been a huge leap in sales of country estates priced above £15m, with 22 sold or agreed deals in 2020, compared with just one in 2019. “This is the strongest market we’ve seen since 2006/7,” he says.

Last year, Parkinson of Middleton Advisors saw a new demographic of rural and market town buyers, either people who “would have never imagined they might move out of town” or young couples “leapfrogging” the suburban semi. “Some people are just panicked, [saying] ‘I’ve got to get out,’” he says.

Whether on the moors or in Moorgate, the aesthetics of rural life will be hard to escape in 2021 given the unstoppable ascent of “cottagecore”. The all-encompassing design trend conjures an idealised version of British country life — think shabby chic meets Greta Gerwig’s Little Women — and became globally popular in nature-starved urban households during the pandemic.

“I think cottagecore was inadvertently invoked for many people — this romantic idea of homesteading, of being totally self-sufficient, was in a way a coping mechanism for the horrifying reality,” says Katie Calautti, a New Jersey-based writer whose Instagram is animated by florals, flowing dresses and livestock.

Some of her favourite cottagecore bloggers are in China and Japan. “Everything during Covid is about seeking comfort, self-care, escapism. That’s pure cottagecore.”

Self-reliant living

Back in April, when the first lockdowns occurred in Europe, the UK and the US, Google searches for “how to grow vegetables” hit record highs. The grow-your-own mentality has stuck. Last month, when the UK government announced the joint winners of its Home of 2030 competition — a design competition centred on affordable, efficient and healthy homes — both had community gardens or allotments at the heart of their schemes.

Chris Brown of Igloo Regeneration, who led one of the winning teams, tells me that the inclusion of allotments in the design was inspired by “the incredible outbreak of mutual aid across the country and our experience of this turning into communal gardening projects”. 

Around the world, more ambitious growing projects are taking root. From Kitchener, Ontario, Brent Fewster, who has until now worked in food logistics, tells me about how Covid-19 precipitated his family’s impending move to a remote homestead 2,000km away in Nova Scotia.

Working at home “generated the desire to see if there was a way that I could actually be there while my kids are growing up,” says Fewster.

Over email, Mark Valencia, who runs the YouTube channel Self Sufficient Me, tells me the numbers viewing his videos — which include everything from quail breeding to using a fish head as plant fertiliser in his garden in Queensland, Australia — tripled in the first month of the pandemic, from about 3m a month to 10m.

He sees it as a coping mechanism that stuck. Nine months on, “There is still a noticeable boost in people getting into growing food at home and continuing due to the pandemic.”

The energy-efficient home

The reality of running a home 24/7 has made energy efficiency a budgetary issue as well as an environmental one. “It’s hitting people’s chequebooks,” says Vanessa Hale, who heads Strutt & Parker’s annual Housing Futures survey. In 2020 they saw a leap in buyers coveting dull but useful features such as double glazing and smart thermostats, and a sharp rise in the numbers wanting to move into new-builds as a result of their perceived eco-features.

Gbolade of Gbolade Design Studio explains why the pandemic precipitated such a shift in thinking. “In many homes, one part of it is freezing, and the other side is boiling hot,” she says. This minor irritant became an obstacle during lockdown, as many households needed to deploy every room available.

The community home

Gbolade, who specialises in “placemaking” architecture, is modifying forthcoming developments to contain more business units to provide local amenities, and to include wider pavements and communal areas. The biggest change will be to accommodate the remote office: she is working on a residential development in west London that will integrate a co-working space on its ground floor. It is an approach that stands in contrast to the car-centric ethos of traditional suburban planning.

“It comes back to this holistic view that residential spaces will no longer just be residential,” she says. If this shift can be implemented, it has the potential to benefit people who live in all types of housing — not just those wealthy enough to be able to escape to the country, or put a work pod in the garden.

Ultimately, the big question when it comes to post-Covid housing is this: how can we adapt so that we are better prepared for the dreaded “next time”? 

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It seems the answer is not to be found in measures that react to the details of this pandemic. “Designing very specifically for Covid misses the point of resilience because tomorrow’s Covid might not be Covid at all,” says Jonny Anstead, founding director of Town architects. He believes we need to design homes — and communities — in such a way that they are resilient to all threats: a different pandemic, climate change or something as yet utterly unknown.

“[What matters is] building a general resilience to the unknown challenges of the future,” he says. “I think a really dangerous alternative exists where, out of fear, we retreat into our homes and cars.”

It’s a bold vision of how homes might change in 2021, and perhaps a poetic one: after a year spent stuck at home, the door to the outside world is opening.

Follow @FTProperty on Twitter or @ft_houseandhome on Instagram to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen


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