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Thursday, June 18, 2009

What will houses and buildings look like in the future?

Ten years from now, we will probably be eating food that has yet to be invented. Even if it’s green gunk cultured in a petrie dish, we will eat it with gusto, knowing that we are helping to save the planet.

Similarly, after a hundred years under a rock, the motor vehicle industry is beginning to evolve, despite the design of the latest Proton Saga which looks like something my father would have been proud to own. In 10 years, we may all be driving hybrids or electric cars.

The traditional rowdy Mat Rempits may have given way to a new generation who will steal up behind old ladies in their silent electric MPVs and flatten them before they have a chance to look round. Nevertheless, this will all be accepted as the price of progress.

A fight for survival is the most powerful incentive to evolution, whether you’re a microbe or a personal financial consultant. Sadly there is a complacency pervading the housing industry which has produced little innovation in the last 30 years.

Arguably, those who live in link houses will only aspire to bigger ones. The more fortunate in life will buy a bungalow with lots of roof, windows from Alcatraz and corinthian columns framing the entrance portico.

But there is little experimentation. Cluster houses were a flop, timber is passé, and “modern tropical” has become a catchphrase for koi ponds and bathrooms for exhibitionists.

Even though speculative housing needs to have broad appeal, niche developers have been slow to emerge with a response to the fundamental changes in the Klang Valley demographics. A younger middle class may not be so obsessed with the ownership of landed property and may focus more on lifestyle. The Verve Suites in Mont Kiara are a rare and successful example of this philosophy.

Britain has seen an interesting response to changing demand patterns. The high divorce rate has produced a huge band of middle-aged singles looking for companionship, but blended with a desire for some privacy. The emergent real estate solution is a small group of separate living units, linked to a communal lounge and recreation area. This sounds to me a lot like my student digs of the 1960s. I’m sure it’s much more sophisticated although it doubtless shares the same cherished objective of mindless bonking.

If one is looking for a single major evolutionary shift in global real estate markets, the buzzword is probably ‘sustainability.’ Exactly what comprises sustainability is well illustrated on this chart.

Phrases such as “best practice” and “diverse and flexible workplace” may sound alien and idealistic but they are objectives which are rapidly becoming the expectations of any multinational company. This year’s expectations are next year’s demands, so we need to be aware of these changing standards and plan for them.

In practical terms, the “triple bottom line” involves three elements: high technical specifications, environmental responsibility and financial viability.

A need for high technical specifications now applies to practically any new office development. Few businesses can now operate without IT. Even suburban buildings which are traditionally the refuge of the cost-conscious, now have to meet minimum technical requirements.

Environmental responsibility encompasses the provision of a pleasant workspace and office buildings with in-house facilities such as a gymnasium, senior staff canteen and even a swimming pool are becoming popular.

Equally importantly, energy-saving is becoming and will remain a major issue, particularly with the introduction of internationally accepted “green” standards by which buildings can be graded.

Finally of course, financial viability is paramount. “Green” buildings with attractive facilities are not cheap to develop and so far, the only incentive to incurring this additional cost is the belief that sustainability will become crucial to lettability. Over time, I believe this extra cost will be accepted as inevitable and capital values will rise, like social values, to meet the market.

● Chris Boyd is executive chairman of Regroup Associates Sdn Bhd property consultants. We welcome your feedback on this article. Please write to

By The Star (by Chris Boyd)

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