What will home look like in 2050?

An urban planner, an architect and a museum director discuss the changing idea of "home" and what that might look like five decades from now.

A future of communal living spaces and sustainable architecture, experts agree

An urban planner, an architect and a museum director discuss the changing idea of "home" and what that might look like five decades from now. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Most people have a sense of what a home is: shelter, family, a place to eat, sleep and call your own. But as climate change, pandemics and other crises sweep the planet, "home," at least in our Canadian context, will likely look a lot different in the future. And we don't mean next year, or even next decade, but in 2050.

A lot can happen in a short time: consider that it took just six decades between the invention of human flight and landing an astronaut on the moon.

As part of Spark's season-long series, "The Next Big Thing," three experts—an urban planner, and architect, and a home historian—joined host Nora Young to offer their thoughts.

Historically, homes have evolved to give us more comfort, said Sonia Solicari, the director of the Museum of the Home in London, UK.

"You get the Industrial Revolution, and you get this explosion of techniques, in terms of upholstery, etcetera, and things like padded sofas and curtains become much more affordable and accessible," she said.

As director of the UK's Museum of the Home, Sonia Solicari's mission is to reveal and rethink the ways we live and think about home. (MuseumoftheHome)

The relationship between housing and health increases between the Victorian and the Postwar era, she added. "The Victorians would have been absolutely used to the idea of the sick bed, the sick room, and people would be born and die in the home."

Solicari said that by the end of the Second World War and the development of public healthcare, "it kind of shifts the need of the domestic space," so that home could be more for comfort and entertainment, and didn't have to also be a hospital, or a care home, because those amenities were now outside the home.

With climate change, you can't see the home in isolation. So, the future of the home is really the future of seeing that relationship of home to city, or home to countryside.- Sonia Scolari

Fast forward to today, though, and the idea of home—and the space it occupies—needs to be rethought, said Jennifer Keesmaat, the city of Toronto's former chief planner.

"We have designed our housing very much around how we get around," she said. And how we get around primarily in the Canadian context is in cars. And we know that our greenhouse gas emissions are directly tied to mobility and how we move in cities and use cars. And so part of what we need to do is really break that link."

Jennifer Keesmaat spent five years as Toronto's Chief City Planner, part of a long and influential city-building career. (thekeesmaatgroup)

Seventy-five per cent of all new housing built in the last decade has been in areas of "auto-oriented sprawl," Keesmaat said, "which is inherently unsustainable and is actually also very costly, because it demands a tremendous amount of road infrastructure and different kinds of services."

The only way to fix this problem, she argued, is to double down on building housing in more densely populated urban areas, where there is existing infrastructure like schools, parks and transit—so it isn't necessary to use a car at all.

She pointed to the example of King Street in downtown Toronto. Once an area of office towers and parking lots, there's been a push in the last decade to build housing and make it possible to live and work in the same area. Now, she said, 75 per cent of the people who live along the King Street Corridor—equivalent to half the population of Manitoba—walk or cycle to work.

75 per cent of the people who live along the King Street Corridor in Toronto—equivalent to half the population of Manitoba—walk or cycle to work. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

From an architectural perspective, the home of the far future needs to be sustainable, not just in the materials used to build it, but in terms of creating its own energy and even water supply.

Farzad Mirshafiei, a Los Angeles-based architect, created exactly that in a competition to design a sustainable home for 2050. Designed to mimic ocean coral, its exterior absorbs water from rain and then filters it to make it drinkable. The windows are actually solar panels, and parts of the house even generate energy from swaying in the wind, in the gentle way coral moves to undersea currents. The houses can be stacked like pods to make the most of urban density, he added.

A house in 2050, imagined as a series of stacked cells and inspired by nature. (Farzad Mirshafiei)

Mirshafiei also predicted that, thanks to robotics and AI, homes could become more modular as they're used for different purposes at different times of the day. So, for example, walls and ceilings might move to reshape a space from an office to a dining area, he said.

But all this is for naught if homes don't become affordable. Both Keesmaat and Solicari foresee the rise of more communal spaces, where multiple families live in the same complex and share common amenities.

As an emerging young architect, Farzad Mirshafiei was lauded for his designs of a house for the year 2050, built with renewable materials and energies. (Farzad Mirshafiei)

That would require a mindset shift for most urban planners, she added. "You're allowed to put five or 10 cars if you want to in the driveway, but you're not allowed to put 10 families there. So I think the biggest challenge is that we have an antiquated approach to land use zoning in cities, that is forcing us to mistakenly believe that we're out of land when we're not.

"We have a tremendous amount of land, in close proximity to schools, in close proximity to parks, in close proximity to transit, but we're not using that land well, and it has two negative outcomes. One is that it restricts who can access housing in cities. So it's driving our affordability crisis. And the second negative outcome is that we actually need more density, if we want to create walkable communities."

Written and produced by Adam Killick.