The future of homes and housing

20/20 foresight: looking to the future

As we move further into the 21st century, it's natural to wonder what the future will bring: In what kinds of houses and communities will Americans be living in 2020? What kind of jobs will people hold? Will fewer of us be married? Writers Kim Campbell, Clayton Collins, Marilyn Gardner, and Elizabeth Lund sought answers to these questions - and more - from eight experts whose jobs require them to predict what our lives will be like in 15 years. Read excerpts from those interviews in this section.

Where do you think we're going to be living in 2020? Are we going to be more suburban or urban? Who will make up these communities?

I think it's a combination of [suburban and urban]. Aging will drive where people live. Some people argue that because urban areas have better healthcare, that means more people will move to the city. That may be right, but I don't think that means they're going to be moving downtown. I don't see us having the traditional suburb; I see more satellite cities, all midsized places [near big cities], where people have a combination of their work, their fun, their recreation, and healthcare. It's like being able to have everything that they want in a big city, but not in large doses.

The way I can tell you what's going to happen in a city [in terms of inhabitants] is I pay attention to who serves me French fries.... Who is it that's doing the lawn care in your neighborhood right now? [It] tells you ... who the children are going to be attending the schools. It tells you something about the political systems. It tells you about some of the social and political and economic challenges your community is going to be faced with, and obviously that speaks to demographics. The statistics show that in terms of the large urban areas, whites are moving out, blacks and browns are moving in. That's not always the case; there are a lot of blacks who are moving into the satellite communities as well.

Ninety percent of all the growth in the population will be minorities between now and the year 2050; 100 percent of all the growth in the workforce will be minorities. So that impacts all of our cities.

Between now and the year 2020, there will be a 74 percent increase in the growth of the number of people who are over the age of 50. Guess what the increase will be for the number of people who are under the age of 50? Only 1 percent. When you think about cities, think about where people will live, we cannot underestimate what impact aging will have. Nobody's ever seen this before. It's going to impact the way taxes are levied; it's going to impact the way we fund public schools.

The one thing that we have going for us is immigration. The thing is you don't need to wait [until 2050] to really start to see the impact of how much diversity we're going to have. You're going to see it in our cities now, in 2010, 2015, 2020. When you walk into a gas station, listen to the music that's being played. This is where you find out how culture is changing. Pay attention to the kinds of combinations of restaurants that are coming up in your community, the sort of Mexican/Italian restaurants.

It's about opportunity, [and] people remaking America all over again.

Nat Irvin II is founder and president of Future Focus 2020, an urban-issues think tank, and a professor of future studies at Wake Forest University.

What factors will consumers consider as they approach the designing and purchasing of homes in 2020?

People are going to recognize that the McMansions ... of today are going to be traded in for something that's more tailored. It will be a little smaller, because people are already really "getting" that square footage doesn't make them feel better.... It's [about] adapting to lifestyles, eliminating rooms we don't use anymore.

Technology in the house of the future is going to be beautifully integrated, but it's not going to be the selling point, per se. If you think about some of the things you've seen at Disney World or Disneyland, they always are visions [out] of the Jetsons. But I don't believe that's what's going to happen.

The thing that's going to be the most different is the way we go about "delivering" houses. In 10 to 15 years it will be a thing of the past to have a house built on the lot, stud by stud. It will be a more manufactured product. [As with cars] it will be the design quality that will be why people purchase houses. And they will be delivered in component parts that can be assembled, probably within a week. Through the tools of virtual reality, we will actually be able to "try on" our houses as a family before we build them. And there will be ... architect franchises, if you like, that will assist people in selecting the appropriate house for their site.

When we think of "manufactured" we think of limitation, but today you can manufacture anything and have a very wide array of options. The problem right now is that there is sameness.

In most houses today people are building a floor plan, and extruding [it] up to the ceiling plane. So it's a two-dimensional idea that gets forced through to an eight- or nine- or 10-foot ceiling. What architects do is design the third dimension, so the heights of everything vary, depending on the activity going on below it. You end up with these cozier places that look out into more open, wider spaces. Like a road map, a [traditional] floor plan tells you how to get ... from one place to another, but it doesn't tell you about the shape of the space. For that you need information about the third dimension. The tailoring of three-dimensional space is what's going to distinguish what we're doing tomorrow from what we're doing today.

Sarah Susanka is an award-winning architect and author of the books 'The Not So Big House' and 'Home by Design.'

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