Designing For The New Urban Environment [Future Of Home Living]

Designing For The New Urban Environment [Future Of Home Living]

The founders of industrial firm Billings Jackson Design discuss how adaptability is the most important factor weighing in on contemporary urban living.

  • 11 august 2013

As part of our Future of Home Living Series, PSFK Labs reached out to experts to get their take on the changes we’ve identified that are driving the evolution of the home. We recently caught up with Duncan Jackson and Eoin Billings, founders of industrial design firm Billings Jackson Design. Read our chat with Duncan and Eoin below to learn more about how new design solutions are delivering greater functionality in less space.

We’re interested in the idea of adaptability as it applies to urban lifestyles. How can reconfigurable and flat pack design be used to accommodate a wider range of living styles? What are the key challenges/considerations?

Lets separate “flat pack” and “reconfigurable”. Flat pack is simply a storage and delivery solution, but considering reconfigurable spaces is really interesting.

As a student, Duncan developed an ingenious timber folding table which he went on to build and sell himself. He was “the ultimate” designer-maker back then, sewing his own clothes, making all his own furniture. He still has a sewing machine.

He took his CNC machined, super flat, fold-up table to Milan and presented to the great and the good in the hope that he could sell the idea. Upon seeing it, an executive told him that her clients would never buy a folding table and sent him on his way. Was she right? Perhaps. But times have moved on.

We are better informed. We have more choice and our lives are richer. We are learning more about our health and our wellbeing. We are taking better care of ourselves.  We are demanding more of the spaces we live in. We live there, work there, feed our friends and share our passions there.

The consequence: there is a deeper interest now in elegant solutions such as Duncan’s. We are looking for objects that allow us to adapt our spaces to suit our needs. A dining area becomes a yoga space. A bed folds away to create a meditation room. An office folds out of our wall. A cinema drops from the ceiling.  Lighting, surfaces and scent can be adapted to reflect our mood and our purpose.

Space is at a premium in our US cities. The numbers wishing to live in major urban centers, increases in housing densities and the desire to live a healthier, richer life combine force us to look for solutions. We should look to the past and examine other cultures as well as looking at the latest developments.

The Japanese have been creating reconfigurable spaces for centuries. Not only are they reconfigurable, the solutions are often ingenious and extremely elegant.  They are built on a strict dimensional module and derived from a set of strong traditions. This combination of practicality and sensitivity is worth study.

The realtor-driven ‘closet culture’ in the US inhibits flexibility by giving priority to the number of bathrooms and closets rather than the quality of the living space. Arguably, a new generation of home-owners is challenging this conventions and looking for space to give them more (rather than more space, which is limited to the affluent few). We think this ‘more’ is only achievable through smart, flexible, design.

How can design and material choices be used to combat the challenges that noise and air pollution pose for urban lifestyles?

Much can be done in the USA.  New York is an incredibly noisy city not because of traffic, or the throngs of people in the streets, but because the teams designing the plumbing, heating, cooling and power solutions for buildings have not taken account of acoustics. Pipes have trapped air, air-con units rattle away and power centers “hum”. This could be addressed within the building process by using an integrated approach, rather than allowing the disparate trades to populate a space after it is built.

There is a lot of “visual” noise in our urban spaces also. Here’s a challenge:  turn off all of the lights in your apartment and imagine you are holding a baby and trying to get it to sleep.  Look around, and you will see an ocean of little blinking LED lights, all announcing their host’s status. Do we need all this information?  I know the phone is charging, I will see the message when I need to, I do not need to know my Mac is asleep, delighted to see the WIFI is working hard… do we really need all of this? When was the decision made that we need a blinking LED on everything? I see a future of quiet tech objects populating our homes.

As far as air pollution goes, we should be going deeper into how organic systems can clean our air.  Plant life built into our environments has obvious aesthetic benefits but several studies point toward key plant types improving our health.

In short, we should consider the integrated whole and concentrate on designing solutions rather than stage sets.

How important is light to the way people experience a physical space? What technologies are driving innovation within this area of design?

Our spaces are carved out of light. It is THE defining means by which we experience a space.  This is an often forgotten truth, a simple and banal fact, we can’t see without light.

It is also the key factor in defining the mood of a space. The Japanese built golden interior walls to reflect natural light and create a warm glow.  They could be slid away to change the reflected light color and so reflect the desired mood.

Artificial lighting is a great consumer of power and we all know that LED is helping solve that problem. Less known is the remarkable, tunable quality of Solid State Lighting. As we fully embrace the potential of the technology – by recording and replaying a beautiful sunset, for example – the impact on daily life is going to be profound.

What do you see as the next big trend(s) urban living and why is this important?

One trend is health and wellbeing as central to living. Going back to the sea of blinking LEDs in our homes mentioned earlier, we can envisage the opposite – a reduction of tech clutter and replacement with natural materials and objects that enrich our lives rather than distract us and detract from our concentration.

At the city rather than personal scale, a worrying trend is economically inaccessible cites.  If innovators cannot afford to live and work in our major cities, they will cease to be catalytic and will only consume.

What are three things you’d put in your perfect home or apartment?

Duncan’s folding table, soft OLED lighting and intelligent objects. We also have a soft spot for natural ceramic surfaces. An ancient technology that is perfectly suited to modern living with low energy production, zero post-production emissions, simple maintenance and 100% recyclability as hardcore. Very beautiful, too.

Billings Jackson Design

Thanks Duncan and Eoin!

PSFK has announced the latest in a series of trend reports. Following studies into retailsocial mediagamingwork and mobile, the PSFK Labs consulting team have generated the Future of Home Living report. That report manifests as a free summary presentation, an in-depth downloadable PDF and an exhibition in New York City that runs to August 16.

RSVP below to take a tour of the exhibition at 101W15th.



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