Dezeen Magazine

Dan Hill opinion column

"We need a Prouvé of plumbing, a Rogers of rewiring, an Utzon of U-values"

Opinion: Nest's intelligently connected thermostat is a surface solution for a much deeper problem in cities like London – we need innovation in services not surfaces, says Dan Hill.

I have an image in my head I can't shake. It's a 3D model of all the pipes, cables and wires in London, from the Tube and sewers up to every single bit of piping, cabling and wiring in every single building, from homes to offices, stadia to stations. Millions upon millions of metres of the stuff.  Some pristinely wrapped in recent plastics, threading fibre-to-the-node; some centuries-old husks of sewage ducts, most somewhere in-between, held in suspension in the London Clay.

With that solid mass lifted into the air, with a Minecraftian weightlessness, the clay can be hosed away and the cables, pipes and wires would hang there, glistening and shimmering like an early computer graphics wireframe model, a form to be pawed and swiped, rotated and revolved.

It feels like this is what a city like London really is, the accretion of infrastructure over time, a physical diagram of flows of resources in and out.

Most of the structure is mile after mile of domestic services, each culminating in the enclosed cul-de-sac of a house, fingers creeping upwards through walls and floorboards, virtually each of London's innumerable houses with its own wiring, its own immersion heaters, its own boilers. It’s all physically connected, yet it’s all functionally disconnected. All those individual decisions by homeowners, each one with their own power plants, effectively, also feels like London — a triumph of diversity and individualism, for better or worse.

The model is entirely possible to imagine, but impossible to draw due to its scale and complexity — and also as it's constantly changing. While the fatter, deeper pipes don't change much, on the end of the domestic circuits are armies of home renovators, some of whom are rewiring, re-plumbing, uninstalling and upgrading.

Yet while those individual connections are more open to change than the deeper layers, they don't change enough. And this lack of change has never been more clearly highlighted than right now.

For a few of the tendrils on the mud-encrusted hulk now have a different kind of punctuation point: shiny objects, curved of edge and perforated of skin in the contemporary injection-moulded manner, and connected to the internet. These are Nest Learning Thermostats, just hitting the UK's shores after the solidly successful US launch a few years ago that convinced Google to drop $3.2bn on Nest Labs Inc.

Nest "reinvents the product category", as folks say, by folding the dynamics of contemporary services — the personally responsive, vaguely sentient, lifestyle-integrated, refined user interface people increasingly expect of all systems — into the humble idea of a thermostat, which is, after all, a device for turning your heating on and off.

It's a great product in many ways, and like a few other recent devices, sketches out a new domestic landscape of connected products that might begin to make clear the promise of the much-discussed but still little-materialised "internet of things". The other thing it does, though, is highlight the individual nature of decisions about this service layer in countries like the UK.

For while it is indeed a "connected product", with the crystalline code structures of the Internet on one end, the other end is connected to that enormous soggy mass described earlier. Even the first few centimetres of that physical connection might be hitting wiring from the 1970s, addressing a boiler from the 1980s connected to Edwardian pipes sitting within a Victorian wall. While that palimpsest of domestic services might have an organic quality befitting an early Will Self short story, it does not make for what Reyner Banham once called a "well-tempered environment".

The UK has the oldest building stock in Europe. Yet within it, we only ever replace the Nest end of things. The property market incentivises repainting but not rewiring. We knock out interior walls and install vast sliding doors leading out the garden; but we tend not to properly address the inner space of heating and cooling, the insulation and seals, the wiring and pipes. Estate agents will say that "spending money in the walls" might be "overcapitalising" (which is an odd notion to apply to somewhere to live). The property market places a valuation on the bleedin' obvious, the exterior aesthetics, with little regard for what might be described as performance.

And in terms of performance, Victorian and Edwardian houses are almost entirely inappropriate for contemporary and near-future lifestyles. That's a point worth unpicking at another time, but let's just note the sheer amount of effort, energy and equity spent in renovating them so that they are broadly habitable today, in an age with a predilection for things like personal possessions and indoor toilets.

In terms of environmental performance, insulation in those primitive constructions is often appalling given the climate, and choosing to replace fireplaces with radiators piped to individual boilers leads to vastly expensive and carbon-intensive heating bills, as well as London's deathly air-quality. These combine to generate a rather bad-tempered environment.

I suspect what we really need to do is knock down a good chunk of the housing stock in cities like London and start again. That would be a totally serious suggestion — we should probably lose half of it — were it not for the fact that it never could be a serious suggestion. We can barely touch them. They are locked into an idea of what a British streetscape looks like — and so, how it performs. The dynamics of the property sector, and the politics that shapes it, revolves around the notion that they are intrinsically good buildings because they are old, as if their age can simply substitute for any other quality criteria.

Could we find a way of building change into those otherwise homogenous suburbs? There are many alternate built forms that could inhabit the same volume as those old houses, and similarly achieve, or even enhance, qualities like neighbourliness, interaction at human scale, warmth, adaptability, across a more diverse spectrum of possibilities. And, crucially, they might open up the possibility of a much, much 'better-tempered' performance, via rethinking that service layer.

Still, despite the Cedric Price-inspired havoc imagined above, it's likely that 80 per cent of houses we'll be living in in 2050 have already been built. So in reality — and to be honest, I like a good Victorian house as much as Dan Cruickshank does — we are talking retrofit not wrecking ball.

And we have enough drivers to do that: 57% of the UK's energy load is heating-related, yet a PassivHaus indicates that, domestically at least, energy loads could be almost zero. Nest themselves point out two-thirds of domestic British energy bills are heating-related. Sadly, their approach is to deploy Stanford PhD-level intelligence only at the interface, rather than figuring out new products inside the walls. That hot, damp air is still leaking out of sash windows to be reunited with the effluent from all those boilers' exhausts.

To warrant getting into the walls means an understanding of change beyond redecoration, moving well beyond covering up the cracks with a kind of nationwide Farrow & Ball sticking plaster, or applying weapons-grade interaction design to the dial controlling an old boiler.

Equally, it means applying insightful thinking to the scale at which we make decisions.

Making individualistic decisions about services means they remain trapped within that old building stock — the shape of the decision-making itself means it's uneconomic to touch them, en masse.

What if we could reconceive the Victorian terrace, or the street of densely packed Edwardian semi-detached houses, as a series of connected dwellings arranged horizontally? With an apartment block, there is a huge advantage to having shared services across multiple dwellings, to having a common boiler, local generators and transformers, shared service corridors, vacuum waste removal systems, and so on. Such systems, at smaller scale even than the highly effective district heating and cooling plants seen elsewhere, can shuffle power around as required, balancing loads across the domestic networks with other civic infrastructures, such as electric bike and car-charging points, or local waste-to-energy systems.

Intriguingly, the interoperable data that would facilitate such a system is currently only becoming available to one player in the market. The process of acquisitions means that Google have just bought their way into our houses via Nest. They have just taken over an already installed bit of domestic equipment, as if Apple suddenly owns your cooker, or Samsung your toilet. I'm not sure there's any precedent for this — apart from a feudal system, in which an incoming baron might suddenly own you and your home. However, unless Google has a desire to get into waste-to-energy plants, district CHP and electric vehicle chargers, this data is lost to the individualist dynamics of their systems.

The "terrace as a tower on its side" suggests shared service infrastructures, a form of both distributed and decentralised infrastructure, enabling coherent efficiency under the ground, whilst still facilitating a joyously inefficient diversity above.

But we need a different form of architectural design to enable that: one that redesigns the dynamics of the market itself, and within that, genuinely integrates innovation in service infrastructures. Banham suggested that there was a false division between architecture and services almost a half-century ago, but we still don't get it.

In his The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, Banham wrote "If there is any division at all that can be tolerated in a humane consideration of architecture, it might be between those parts of structure that combine with certain mechanical services to provide the basic life support that makes a viable or valuable environment, and those parts of structure that combine with certain other mechanical services to facilitate circulation and communication — of persons, information and products."

Nest is really a sketch of a product that unites these aspects, facets of architecture that even the forward-looking Banham saw as disparate — it both concerns "life support" and communication of persons, information and products.

Banham often quoted Marcel Breuer's 1934 statement that "what the new architecture did was to civilise technology." We might now find that the new technology is about to civilise architecture, by entwining information, people and services. But will this drive come from architecture, or the likes of Google/Nest?

Though it once seemed unlikely that we would have a Steve Jobs of thermostats and smoke alarms, it turns out that's the culture Nest emerges from. And perhaps it suggests that we also need an Isozaki of insulation, a Foster of fenestration, a Prouvé of plumbing, a Rogers of rewiring, an Utzon of U-values... and more importantly again, a development or investment model that enables service retrofit within a market shaped to value that.

This might be a better use of government money around housing than simply generating more mortgages, for example. How about similarly high-profile schemes for transforming the insides of Britain's walls? Help To Fix, rather than Help To Buy? It's not as if there's no design invention or financial value in things like Nest — when was the last time a three year-old built environment company was acquired for $3.2bn? Yet sadly, and bewilderingly, you'll find little or no reference to any of these issues in the recent Farrell Review of architecture.

I like to think an optimist like Banham would have been intrigued by innovations such as Nest, yet upon a second glance, perhaps dismayed at our ongoing obsession with surfaces — either with that Learning Thermostat, or with the buildings that they are being installed in, or within architectural practice itself — masking a real task at hand, given climate change; ensuring that the inner space of services can truly sing. Nest pulls focus onto the service layer of housing, but still only digs into the walls a few centimetres. There is still little incentive to care about the vital "life support" systems it's connected to. My thoughts turn back to that imagined model of a hulking soggy mass embedded in the dank clay of the Thames valleys, marshes and plains that comprises London. How to rewire that?

Dan Hill is executive director of futures at Future Cities Catapult. He is an adjunct professor in the Design, Architecture and Building faculty at University of Technology, Sydney, and his blog City of Sound covers the intersection between cities, design, culture and technology.