Smart homes not just for entertainment, says Kevin McCloud
A mirror that stores health information and keeps you updated with the news, a remote controlled kitchen and a bath that can be filled remotely using an iPhone app - these were just some of the gizmos that made up the House of the Future at the Grand Designs Live show in London. The concept of the smart home has been doing the rounds for some time now but is it really something that we can expect to see happening any time soon?
We settled down for a chat with architecture expert and star of Channel 4's Grand Designs Kevin McCloud to find out his thoughts on the matter.
"I'm really keen on the idea of life being straightforward and simple and things being easy and not scary. But, I'm not at all a fan of the idea that we should all be lying on the sofa - it seems to imply some sort of Roman decadence and laziness and I'm anything but lazy. I'm a fan of making an effort."
Cutting quite a dash in three-piece grey, an effort McCloud has certainly made. Relaxed and friendly, albeit while wolfing down his lunch, he happily takes us through the more technological side of his field.
"I like the idea of home automation and systems that run so that they serve a useful purpose. For example - a system that tells me how much energy I'm using so that if I've left the lights on or left a window open, it will tell me. I think we're moving to the point now where home automation isn't just about home entertainment."
Technology has advanced exponentially in the past 20 years or so, with plenty of science-fiction fare becoming fact. Remember the video call that the aging Marty McFly had with his colleague on his TV in Back the Future II in the year 2015? Thanks to internet-enabled smart TVs, you can now do exactly that, without the need for a time-travelling DeLorean. But not all developments have been quite so dramatic. Gradual improvements in software and the processing capabilities of computers have also played their part, something of which McCloud is well aware.
"In many ways, computers have made things easier for designers, although in some ways they've made things harder. On the whole, it's brilliant - anyone can download Google SketchUp and use it, which is fantastic."
SketchUp is a free 3D-modelling program launched in 2006 which enables users to build three-dimensional models of anything from houses and sheds to cars and ships. A no-brainer for anyone thinking of a design project of their own.
"Ten years ago, things weren't the same. If you'd asked me the same question then, my answer would've been completely different, but now because free software can be downloaded and is easy to use, it's much easier for people to get involved and producing designs can be much faster."
And it's not just Google who's in on the act. There are now plenty of free and reasonably priced software options around for budding designers and property developers and you can even get official Grand Designs software too - all a big change since McCloud first started out, and just what was it that first fuelled his passion for architecture?
"Good question. I got given a book by the old man who lived next door which was a guide to architecture written in 1932 - he'd had it since he was a young boy. It was full of pencil drawings which I loved, so I started to do my own drawings and that's how it all started."
As well as being a successful designer, writer and TV presenter, McCloud has also transferred his skills to his Hab housing business project. The initials stand for Happiness, Architecture, Beauty and the aim is to produce modern housing that takes into account the landscape, culture and community of the area, rather than swiftly knocking up a sea of identikit homes. In a joint venture with housing group GreenSquare, Hab currently has several projects underway with new residents due to move into the first development in Swindon in June 2011.
Comprising a mix of rented accommodation, rent to buy, and social housing, these Hab houses are designed to be eco-friendly, as well as providing a comfortable place for residents to live, thanks to some nifty gadgetry.
"What we have is a home information portal - a touchscreen that's built into the wall. It tells you useful information such as how much energy you're consuming and what the temperatures are and it can be programmed and updated remotely."
The idea of a integrated system that could save energy, as well as money, is certainly appealing but we'll need to wait and see whether it becomes a mainstream idea or whether it will remain a niche option used by companies where green issues are high up the agenda. Apart from the tech on offer in his own Hab housing though, what's the best technical wizardry that McCloud has seen at work?
"There's a great company called Newform Energy and I'm particularly enamoured with its Hybrid Solar Solution panels. It's an excellent example of renewable power and it delivers hot water and heating all-year round."
This is something of a boon for a solar-powered system, as they're notorious for unreliable power output in times where there is little or no sun. Newform's system gets round this using a number of techniques including the integration of a heat pump which means that the output of the thermal collector isn't dictated by the intensity of the sun.
Speaking as an expert in building design, McCloud reveals that his favourite building of all time is the Library of Celcus at Ephesus in Turkey, while he admits that "I don't really have a soft spot in my heart for glass-walled buildings". Despite his love of ancient examples of architecture, McCloud has certainly made use of the latest technology is his housing project, but is he a gadget fan?
"Oh yes, I'm quite techie."
And his favourite gadget?
"Hmmm, it would have to be my iPhone. It might not be that brilliant as an actual phone, but it does everthing else utterly brilliantly. I've even done presentations on there - showing pdfs to people sat round a table. It's a fantastic tool."
At the very mention of apps, McCloud slips an iPhone 4 out of his waistcoat pocket and starts flicking through the various folders.
"My favourtie app would have to be Trainline - its works better as an app than it does on the website. I also really like weather apps. Living Earth HD is especially good - it shows you a computer reproduction of the cloud formations as they are in the sky right now."
Why the big interest in weather apps? Is it to do with building design and materials?
"No, I'm just a geek", confesses McCloud.
Along with a few architectural apps, McCloud names some other favourites including radio station streamer ooTunes, file-sharing service Dropbox and guitar amp app iShred. Despite a definite infinity with iOS, he's keen to downplay suggestions that he's an Apple fanboy, referring to its "appalling human rights record", in relation to the Draconian work practices that reportedly take place in the brand's China-based factories.
However, he makes the point that if we looked too closely at many of the big-brand names we'd probably find less-than-perfect working conditions in some of their factories, too. Although not a definitive member of the Apple fanboy fraternity, he admits:
"The thing about Apple products is - they work. They do what you want them to do, and they make it easy."
And there you have it - you can have all the fancy gadgetry you like, but producing technology that actually works while keeping it simple remains the key - whether that's for a mobile or a smart home of the future.
What do you think of the smart home concept? What would you like to see in the home of the future? Let us know in the comments box.