The home has been the focus for major design and technological advances in recent years, but is also a hugely sensitive area in which to innovate.
Put simply, the home is a very personal space and not everyone is comfortable with a fast rate of technical change – and the impact that might have on our levels of privacy.
As IBM iX global partner Amanda Gosling says: “I think the home could be a place of tension. On one side it’s the sanctuary and where we go to relax and unwind and then on the other side it’s the biggest place of quantifying myself and my family and everything in it.”
There are also huge demographic shifts affecting the design of the home – most notably the rise, in London at least, of a new generation of renters priced out of the rapidly overheating housing market.
And at the other end of the spectrum there’s an aging population driving an increasing demand for sheltered or secure accommodation.
The third major shift is in aesthetics, with a growing drive to create beautiful product design for previously standardised items such as smoke alarms or thermostats, while previously standout items such as hi-fis or television sets start to blend into the background.
The connected home
When it comes to technological innovation, the connected home is by far the biggest story for domestic design.
It’s now possible to buy not just internet-connected smoke alarms or thermostats, but also door locks, air monitors or even indoor weather stations.
Research firm Gartner suggests that the connected home is part of a growing trend, with nearly 26 billion items set to be linked to the internet of things by 2020.
However, Gartner also puts the connected home near to the top of its Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies. The cycle – a way of visualising the potential of technologies – suggests that the connected home is about to reach the “peak of inflated expectations”.
What this analysis means in broad terms is that there’s currently a deluge of connected home products, but that only a few of these (if any) are likely to get any long-term resonance with users.
Despite the seeming success stories – Nest being bought by Google for £2.2 billion in 2014 and British Gas setting up its Hive connected products division in 2012 – the connected home is still at an early stage.
Two of the biggest barriers are concerns about data privacy and fears that the technology will be unreliable – a big problem if you’re talking about something like a front-door lock.
Research last year from connected home platform icontrol networks showed that 64% of the 1,600 people they surveyed feared that connected home technology would lead to their data being collected and sold, while 57% feared that connected home products would have too many bugs.
Meanwhile recent research from British Gas showed that just over half of 2,000 people surveyed thought that connected home technology would have a positive impact on their lives.
Kassir Hussain, director of British Gas connected homes, said of the research: “In the tech space there’s been debate about the potential of the ‘Connected Home’ and the ‘Internet of Things’ for years, but much of the conversation in the past has been about the technology itself, rather than the benefits to consumers.
“Our research shows that the benefits of connected home technology have enormous widespread appeal, and people are seeing first-hand how it can support them in becoming more in control of their increasingly busy, demanding and unpredictable lives.”
Hussain admits though: “In saying this, there is plenty more to be done to help people feel comfortable about embracing these products for use in their home, and the next couple of years will be crucial in terms of increasing adoption.”
According to Greater London Authority data, average house prices in the capital grew by 7% in 2015, while lending to first-time buyers fell by 8%.
Unsurprisingly, the average number of private sector rents in London is running at more than twice the rest of the country – this is despite the average rental price in the capital (according to data from HomeLet) hitting £1,500 a month last year.
As Central Research Laboratory strategy director Mat Hunter says, this growth in the number of renters is leading to innovation in both system design and aesthetic design.
Hunter says: “We’re already beginning to see people have new offers to help them feel that the rental market is fair, that they’re getting a good deal with landlords.”
He adds: “But what will happen in terms of the way they fit out the home to make it feel like home – even though legally they’re a bit impermanent there?”
One answer could be in the growth of flexible items in furnishing homes. IKEA head of design Marcus Engman says: “We can see that versatile items are becoming very important – items that you could use for a lot of different things. That is connected to the idea of the fluid home; that you don’t actually furnish in roomsets for specific activities.”
Another demographic shift is with an aging population. In 2010 there were 10 million people in the UK over 65 years old – with this figure set to nearly double by 2050.
Hunter says: “When you’re thinking about independent living [for older people], there’s something important there about communications and monitoring. How is it that someone can be looking after us or looking over us but not surveilling us?”
He points to connected home developments such as Nest’s investments in web-cam technology as a key driver in this area.
The changing look and feel
Aesthetics – the look and feel of your home – is clearly a highly personal area, but some trends are starting to emerge.
One is with the growth of “designer” items that had previously been standardised kits, such as Nest smoke alarms or the Yves Behar-designed Hive thermostats.
Anna Bateson, director of digital at Charlotte Tilbury Beauty, says: “Lots of these products look at how you can combine the intelligence that technology can bring to something like a thermostat with the aesthetics and pleasure of really beautiful product design.
“This can totally transform something from being a boring functional thing that everybody had and no-one thought about to something that actually becomes a point of beauty.”
Conversely, while previously functional objects are becoming more eyecatching, previous centrepieces such as television sets and hi-fis – replaced by wireless systems such as Sonos – are starting to blend into the background.
Last year Sony released the X90C, it’s thinnest-ever 4k TV, with Sony Creative chief art director Hirotaka Tako describing it as being like a “window”, that will fit into the lives of people who use it.
However, Tako says this drive to minimalism is not universally popular, adding: “People, particularly in Europe – like to display and decorate. People in Europe like clutter! And having objects is a really important part of making your life happier or more fruitful. Therefore we constantly have to work to give things a tactility or materiality.”
This trend is particularly notable in another recent standout TV design, the Serif TV created for Samsung by the Bouroullec Brothers.
Erwan Bouroullec says: “From the outset of designing Serif TV our aim was to craft an object that fused technology with our knowledge in furniture design and to create a solid presence that would sit naturally in any environment.”