Home Design's House of Clues

To determine optimum layout, a British builder tracks the activities of a real family in a test residence using electronic tags

By Beth Carney

Sue Parnell, a 42-year-old schoolteacher, has no architecture or interior-design experience. Neither does her husband, Nick, 42, who sets up call systems for a bank. Their two daughters, Lucy, 16, and Hazel, 13, have no such background, either.

But the family from Sheffield, England, is influencing the design of future British homes. They're exerting their power by watching television in the living room, sitting outside on the deck, and playing Ping-Pong in the garage -- all while a computer records their every move.


  The Parnells are guinea pigs in an unusual experiment set up to determine exactly what a modern family wants in a home. The project entails the family living for six months in a "concept home" built by David Wilson Homes, a division of one of Britain's national publicly listed builders, Wilson Bowden.

The Parnells and their guests have agreed to wear bracelets embedded with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags at the beginning, middle, and end of their stay, for two weeks at a time. The tags transmit signals to 26 sensors throughout the house tracking each family member's location.

When the Parnells' stay ends in November, researchers from the University of Nottingham's School of the Built Environment will analyze the data, and a consumer-research specialist from the University of Leicester Management Centre will conduct extensive interviews with the family.


  The experiment aims to determine which features of the new house get used and how often. Specifically, the researchers hope to answer such nagging design questions as: Do today's families ever eat in the dining room? Do people tend to congregate in open rooms with high ceilings, or smaller, cozier spaces? And do eye-grabbing features such as hot tubs and sunken baths that impress buyers on house tours ever actually get used?

James Wilson, David Wilson Homes development director and the son of the original company's founder, says the house was built to reflect his belief that the home is a sanctuary and to test as many design features as possible. In addition to conducting interviews and collecting RFID data, the researchers are employing energy meters to monitor the use of all appliances.

"It's a collection of ideas and influences based on consumer feedback and demographic trends as to where house design could go in the future," Wilson says, adding that the purpose of the data collection is to find out "what's relevant and what isn't."


  Last year, David Wilson Homes built about 5,400 houses in Britain, the average price of which was £200,000 ($360,229), somewhat higher than the national average of £160,000 ($288,183) for a new house in Britain, according to HBOS, the country's biggest home lender.

The house the Parnells are occupying -- known as the Project: LIFE house -- is not typical. To begin with, at 3,500 square feet, it's about twice the size of the average British home. When it goes on sale after the experiment, it's expected to fetch close to £1 million ($1.8 million). Spread over four floors, the four-bedroom house has a basement, a rarity in new British residences. It features a furnished attic, also unusual, and a boot room for extra storage near the front entrance.

Special interior features include a bathroom with a sunken tub facing a flat-screen TV. The house is also fully wired, with every room connected to the Internet and a sound system hooked up to the TV and an MP3 player.


  Though not overly gadgety, the house has top-of-the-line appliances. The most unusual, a £999 ($1,798) automated shirt-ironing device made by Siemens (SI ), presses shirts by inflating them with hot air until the wrinkles smooth.

Set in a newly developed residential neighborhood just around the corner from the Parnells' real home, the Project: LIFE house has been laid out to interact with the South Yorkshire countryside that it borders. A deck and three balconies, including one with a hot tub, extend the living space outdoors, while a wall of self-cleaning windows that takes up half of the back of the house offers views of the nearby hills.

Though the test house is much bigger than a typical family home, Wilson says the information gleaned from the experiment will ultimately inform the design of ordinary new residences.


  Space is tight in Britain, thanks to restrictive construction laws, and builders tend not to include basements because of they are costly. That may change, however, if research shows the additional space is useful, Wilson says. Balconies and decks are another way to add living area, and the study could gauge their effectiveness.

While the company may profit from knowing which high-end add-ons excite buyers, the most interesting aspect of the study from a design perspective is the attempt to clarify how people spend their time, says David Birbeck, chief executive of Design for Homes, a London nonprofit design-research body. Birbeck also sits on an informal committee monitoring the project.

The standard layout of British houses derives from what people's needs were in the days before TV and 50-hour work weeks, Birbeck points out. "If it's true that today adults are only in the house and consciously awake three hours a day and that they spend half that time pampering themselves in the bathroom, what's the point of a huge living room?" he asks.


  From an academic perspective, the test of the technology is as important as the results of the study, says Mark Gillot, who is a lecturer at the Nottingham School of the Built Environment and is supervising the research. The study uses "active" RFID -- chips equipped with a battery so that they transmit information, rather than working like a bar code that only registers information when physically passed under a reader.

In theory, such RFID tags could be used to develop "intelligent buildings" -- such as offices that respond to how people are inhabiting the space by, say, automatically adjusting temperature to respond to the number of occupants in a room. "The applications are endless," he says.

The Parnells, selected from 70 families who applied to participate in the experiment, volunteered because they took to the idea of having an influence on future homes and they liked the look of the project's house. More than halfway through the six-month stay, family members say they have not been disappointed.

Although the researchers won't reveal the results of the study until publication in February, the Parnells have come to some of their own conclusions. The balcony hot tub tops Nick's list of favorite features, while Sue's is the sunken bath facing the TV. The family is already planning to upgrade the showers in their own home with high-pressure water jets -- something they've gotten accustomed to in the last three months.


  The value of other elements of the house is less obvious. While the couple enjoys the deck and backyard, Nick admits that when Sue threw a cookout for colleagues, guests did not linger outside.

"Everyone gathered in the kitchen," he says. The dining room came in handy last spring when daughter Lucy was studying for exams, but other than for those few weeks, it hasn't seen much use. The family prefers to take meals in the informal eating area near the kitchen.

"If it were our house, I don't think we'd have a dining room," says Sue. If the experiment has any impact, other future British homeowners might not have one, either.

Carney is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in London

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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