Monday 20 May 2019

Home truths: Setting phases to stun with 'sci-fi' homes

To boldly go where no one has gone before: Homes of the future as imagined in the 1970s
To boldly go where no one has gone before: Homes of the future as imagined in the 1970s
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Late on Saturday night I'm sprawled on the sofa with the sprogs. Everyone has conked, bar myself and the 16-year-old tech insomniac who is scrolling Netflix. So he asks me what we watched on TV when I was a kid. That was the 1970s I told him. We had RTE 1 - which started at 6pm and ran lots of old American productions, and BBC1, BBC2 and UTV - which had some of their own productions thrown in. Outside the east coast there was only RTE. He is appalled. I try to explain the colour TV revolution. He doesn't get it. "Yes, before colour it was indeed a bit like Charlie Chaplin, but with voice."

I tell him that way back in the last millennium, during the early Star Wars period, kids watched a hell of a lot of sci fi. In 1978 we all had a subscription to a comic called 2000ad - about life in the distant future (please don't laugh).

Saturday morning meant reruns of the 1936 Flash Gordon series set on the Planet Mongo with Ming the Merciless (the real one) and starring Buster Crabbe.

In the afternoon on four channels you got the 1960s' Lost in Space with Dr Smith and B9 - a robot with tyres for arms, followed by Dr Who. To watch this my kid brother and I got into our Dalek-proof zone - the crawl space between the wall and the back of the sofa. It scared us that much. Then Blake's Seven, BBC's attempted high-brow anti-Thatcherite space dystopia. This had Blake, Orac the talking computer and crew, battling British space fascists and appalling special effects in a spacecraft with Smiles Dental interiors.

And of course we had the original Star Trek, with loveable ham William Shatner as Captain James T Kirk forever boldly going to unexplored planets with a crew kitted out for a North Korean cultural display. And that distinctive vocal delivery that EMPH-asised all THE WRONG words.

On Netflix I found season one to show him exactly what I was talking about. We chuckled at bulb-headed aliens with glitter capes, phasers set to stun and incoming photon strikes implied by everyone running back and forth and hanging on to stuff. I duly impressed my oldest with my infallible galactic predictive powers - pointing out exactly which crew members weren't coming back from planetary beam-down.

When your childhood sci fi looked forward to the year 2000, there's a fair chance that a lot of it has come true by now. And it has, without us much noticing. We already have the all-knowing talking computer that goes bonkers now and again (Siri and Alexa). Kirk's hand-held communicators are today a plague.

But the kid who read 2000ad in 1978, just might not believe that by 2018 the hand-held device (phone?) can also guide you using satellites, access practically every song ever recorded, provide a library of most books, enable tv watching, enable tv production (my seven-year-old has his own YouTube channel), computer games, buy anything you want, bank, take photos, send post around the world for free, play radio, calculate the steps you walk, be a flashlight, make phone calls and spy on you - all in one device. James T would be aghast. The automated cars of Blade Runner (1982) are being tested live in crowded cities and next week Google launches Google Home for Ireland with which you will be able to ask a box in your home pretty much anything and it will answer. So I'm told.

Less glamorous but perhaps just as portentous are advances in house-building technology.

A decade ago I walked through a house which I was told needed no heating. Quite simply I didn't believe it. But there it was - one of Ireland's first ultra energy-efficient Passive Houses (or Passivhaus, from the exacting German insulation standards). Back then the technology cost perhaps a third or more higher than the standard. So it was largely cost prohibitive to the average punter, despite more than making the money back in future savings.

But now that technology has gone mainstream and with little extra cost and a comparable build time. Developments in the last five years in materials, methods and factory construction have been rapid.

This month Sisk completed a scheme of 12, mostly two-bed, new homes for social housing at George's Place in Dun Laoghaire in Dublin. These are being flagged as 'near' Zero Energy buildings (the amount of energy used in a year is roughly equivalent to what it generates). All come with an 'A' rated BER. They costed roughly €245,000 ex site, which the builders say is around 5pc higher than a "regular" build.

Standards in 'regular build were hiked after the crash which mean that most 'regular' new homes now come to A2. Soon all new homes will be built to A1. Before long homes will be printed and delivered as they are doing in China. To borrow a much abused term (with houses for sale), the technological progress over a decade has truly been stunning.

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