This time last year, not many of us would have thought about getting either a puppy or a Peloton bike, let alone both. But then 2020 was that kind of year.

It forced us back into our abodes, evaluating them like never before. We’ve acquired office chairs for home use, breadmakers and Netflix subscriptions in unprecedented numbers.

We’ve upgraded laptops and broadband. It will come as no surprise to hear that demand at John Lewis for outdoor heaters went up by 331 per cent at the end of last year, as we started to use gardens as social spaces even in winter. Or that sales of its £99 ‘Mix It’ dressing table, which doubles up as a desk, are up by 400 per cent.

Covid-19 has fast-tracked many things apart from vaccine development, and among them is a dramatic reappraisal of our homes, not just as spaces for domestic life, but also for work and exercise. If we want to future-proof them, how best can this be done?

London-based architect Alison Brooks has been ahead of this curve for a while. At the 34-storey residential tower she started designing for IQL (the International Quarter London) in Stratford in 2018, the foyer has already been designated as a carefully planned, fully functioning co-working space – not an afterthought with some random tables and chairs. ‘People who live in towers are pretty trapped,’ she says. ‘And if residential buildings are now going to be where we are all day, then we need to make them more suitable for both living and working. They need to be places where you can invite people for meetings.’

‘Work has only been done out of the home for 150 years, as a result of the industrial revolution’

Brooks showed even more foresight back in 2007, when designing homes at Newhall Be, a new development in Harlow. ‘Even then I wanted to reintroduce the idea of the home as the workplace,’ she says. As she points out, work has only been done out of the home for 150 years, as a result of the industrial revolution. We used to live above the shop or the pigpen or underneath workshops which occupied the top of buildings to get maximum light. Mass commuting to offices only began after the first world war.

At Newhall Be, every house has a 7x7m study next to the front door. ‘You can look out to the street. You could even put a sign for your business in the window,’ says Brooks. ‘I wanted to reimagine the suburbs as economically dynamic and active.’

Well, she wasn’t wrong there. It’s looking very likely that, as people decline the daily commute, the suburbs will certainly change from being dormitory-only to daytime lively. And in that case, we will need to reconfigure so much of the interior.

Having lost rooms one by one – first the separate dining room, and then the separate kitchen, as all living space has been merged into one – new zoning will become increasingly important. It could be as simple as turning a sofa round to form a barrier, or introducing a shelving unit to create a defined space. ‘There will be a renewed interest in movable soft partitions,’ says Brooks, ‘with acoustic linings. We’ve removed our carpets, curtains and any other sound-absorbing materials, and we live in interiors full of hard surfaces.’

Personally, what I’ll be looking to install as soon as I can is a bigger TV screen – something I never thought I’d say. It’s not about watching more films at home, I’m walking through art exhibitions and art fairs on screen, attending Zoom meetings, following exercise classes online... all of which would benefit from more screen space. The Samsung QLED, launched in 2020, is all but invisible – a life-changer, for now, but marking me out as a conventional Luddite.

‘Most people’s ideas of the future are based on the present’

In the fairly near future, the screen will not exist, passing from VR and AR to, according to Sensulin CEO Mike Moradi’s report at the World Economic Forum, Light Field Displays which ‘project 4D images directly to the retina from a point of focus that could be as unobtrusive as a pair of sunglasses’. It sounds like my big screen will be redundant very soon.

‘Most people’s ideas of the future are based on the present,’ says Jack Mama, one half, with Clive van Heerden, of vHM DesignFutures, who consult for big technology companies on progressive solutions. ‘For example, this idea of the touchless world. It’s just a Band-Aid for what’s happening now. Or car companies, who show a four-seater sedan with the steering wheel removed and a family in the back playing cards.’

It’s worth listening to them. In 2010 – yes, 10 years ago – they published a project called The Microbial Home, which warned of the dangers of unbalancing our ecosystem so dramatically that benign bacteria becomes pathogenic. Since this has come to pass, let’s at least pay attention now. In a world that will soon be 75 per cent urbanised, their concept highlights a system where what we see as waste – sewage, effluent – is kept in the home and filtered, processed and recycled to create drastic improvements in emissions, using natural biological processes that are less energy-consuming and more efficient.

This message, of course, is not new. But if anytime is right to put it into action, that time is now.

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration February 2021

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