The home, household goods & services

Why grey is the new black?

Have you noticed the grey? Not just 50 Shades in publishing (the topselling book of the decade), but in car parks, on Pinterest, in Elle Decoration and on the catwalk. There is a theory (which we probably shouldn’t take too seriously) that major fashion trends only become obvious at the halfway point of each decade, so now might be a good time to make the call.

Sales of grey t-shirts have risen by 30% on Asos, the online fashion retailer, while sales of grey paint have risen by 4.1% according to Dulux. This isn't much, but you have to remember the size of the market. For specialist paint company Farrow and Ball, the increase is 10% over the past 7 years and of Farrow and Ball’s 132 colours, around 20 could be classified as shades of grey. Don’t forget the colour of that Apple Mac you might be reading this on, your grey woollen suit, grey underwear or silver watch.

So what’s the story? According to Oriole Cullen, a senior curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, grey was historically associated with half-mourning. If a family member died, you traditionally wore black but, if someone more removed died, the colour of choice was always grey. So are we in some kind of collective mourning? Are we mourning the loss of something back in the day? (a phrase that seems to have popped up out of nowhere recently).

Perhaps not. In fashion terms, grey sits well with other colours. It’s also an ideal colour to showcase expensive fabrics (cheaply produced materials and fast fashion can handle whites and blacks but not greys, which wash out quickly if the garment is not well made).

The most likely explanation for the rise of grey and silver tones is anxiety.These colours cocoon you, either as paint on the wall at home, as materials we wear or as car exteriors. Silver subconsciously represents armour and is protection against rapid change and deep uncertainty. Grey, similarly, represents granite or other types of stone – and concrete - and stands for stability. Alternatively, it could just be the whims of the fashion industry, obsessed with finding trends at the midpoint of each decade where none really exist.

Ref: The Guardian (UK) 16 April 2014, ‘Grey: the colour of the decade’ by H. Marriott.
Search terms: fashion, interiors, grey, fabric, stone, anxiety, stability.
Trend tags: Anxiety

Bricklaying robots

ROB Technologies, an offshoot of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, recently built a winery outhouse using a bricklaying robot. Each of the 20,000 bricks was precisely laid using a robotic arm, which picked up the bricks, applied an epoxy resin and placed each one with typically Swiss precision. There are plans to build a 3,500 metre brick facade on another building and the floor tiling could well be done using a similar machine.

What’s interesting here is that human bricklayers like designs to be consistent, whereas robots are perfectly happy with complex designs, where every brick is laid slightly differently. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is similarly developing software and machines that can build a whole house autonomously. In the future we might see machines that self-drive themselves to a site and proceed to build an entire housing estate or factory without human interference.

Such machines might involve giant robotic arms to lay the bricks, robotic nozzles to extrude fast drying foam and battalions of smaller robots to do everything from the wiring to the plumbing. Add 3D printing into the mix and novel types of geometry might also be possible For example, off the coast of Bahrain, there is a 3D-printed reef and there is no reason why, in the future, such reefs could not be printed out of fast-setting limestone foam.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 20 April 2013, ‘Robo-builders deliver architects dreams’ by H. Hodson.
Search terms: robots, building, house, wiring, plumbing, bricklaying, 3D printing.
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Buy some candles and a generator

In 2003 a falling tree in Switzerland took out a single power line. When a second tree disabled another line, it tripped power connectors heading for Italy, which deprived more than 60 million Italians of electricity. In India, in 2012, 600 million people were similarly affected by a blackout, while in north eastern US and Ontario in 2003, 50 million people suffered a power cut which stopped ATMs from working, halted commuter trains and cancelled flights.

It’s estimated that in the US power outages cost the economy around $180 billion annually and it could get much worse.

Electricity powers modern life. It powers our fridges, our credit cards, our phones, our computers, traffic lights, transport systems and the pumps that manage water and waste systems. Without electricity, life more or less stops, especially in urban areas.

Between 1940 and 2001, average US electricity consumption increased by 1,300 per cent. Between 2008 and 2035, electricity demand is forecast to grow by a staggering 80 per cent globally and nobody is quite sure where this additional power is going to come from.

Demand is increasing rapidly (electric vehicles, for instance, are expected to represent 10 per cent of the total vehicle market by 2020, resulting in a 15 to 40 per cent increase in electricity demand). Demand for air conditioning in regions such as China is rising at a similar rate (up 300 per cent since 1997). Demand, especially that created by population growth and rising global affluence is one issue. Supply is the other, especially because fossil fuels are being depleted and restrained.

Renewables are one answer, but supply has been unreliable and vulnerable to volatile weather caused by climate change.Neither growing demand nor declining supply is the real issue. As demand increases, alternative energy sources will continue to be sought and applied. The issue is not supplying energy, but transmitting and storing it.

In many countries power grids are old and not suitable for current demand, let alone future demand. Deregulation and privatisation have created additional weaknesses because there is little if any incentive for a single company to renew or improve the entire grid.

In short, the future (for centralised power) isn’t looking especially bright. It is predicted that the US needs to spend around $100 billion to update its power grid, otherwise the system could collapse by 2020. In the UK, experts suggest the crunch could come as soon as the winter of 2015, although both forecasts assume that we fix the current system rather than replace it with something else.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 10 May 2014, ‘Dark Future’ by H. Byrd and S. Matthewman.
Search terms: electricity, renewables, blackout, storage, power grid, demand, supply, transmission.
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Prime property: the world’s reserve currency

In 2012 the investment bank JP Morgan issued a paper called The Realization, which argued that ‘real’ assets offered investors stable growth opportunities in a volatile and uncertain world. They suggested a partial shift away from stocks and bonds towards infrastructure, commodities, farmland, woodland and real estate. They were, in the case of property, behind what everyone else in the world’s great cities has been thinking for at least ten years.

Property fetishism is a well-documented trend on television and in magazines. Yet high-end real estate is where the world’s rich have been parking their money, often with an annualised return of more than 10 per cent, for some time. In cities like London and Sydney, which are globally connected, relatively safe, offer the rule of law and speak English, high-end property has become an alternative reserve currency of sorts. It has also become, according to some, the new immigration, which is either a blessing or a curse according to your worldview.

The negative assessment says that rich foreigners, along with cashed-up locals, are pushing out lower income households to the fringes of London and Sydney and to more distant parts of those countries. This creates a strain on essential infrastructure (nurses and teachers, but also street cleaners and dish washers) and turns these cities into theme parks.

The more positive assessment suggests that, while London’s population is growing (due to migration) this drives not only economic growth, but also entrepreneurship and innovation. By 2020 London’s population is forecast to reach 9m and hit 10m by 2039 (GLA figures).

The cost of homes in London, for example, is certainly increasing, especially as a ratio of average prices to earnings. In 1997, the median ratio was 3.98 in London and 3.54 in other parts of the UK. The numbers are now 8.57 in London and 6.74 outside.Naturally, this has created a boom in renting. Nowadays, only half of Londoners own their home and average household size is increasing too.

A 2013 Demographia survey found Australia ranks as the third most expensive country to buy property after Hong Kong and Auckland. It uses the “median multiple” (median house price divided by gross annual median household income) to rate housing affordability. Severely unaffordable is over 5.1; affordable is less than 3. Sydney has a median multiple of 9. No wonder more people are renting there too.

But you cannot blame the rich (or rich foreigners) for everything. The high cost of property in London is also due to lack of supply and legal restraints on use of land and what developers are allowed to do (go far upwards, for example). Thus, land use and planning will need to be liberalised.

As to whether London is becoming too dominant economically, the answer is yes, but it would be a mistake to constrain it. If anything London needs to be bigger and we also need to create more Londons. London is large economically due to history, geography, language and global flows of capital and people. Dragging London down economically to lift up other areas is almost certainly a recipe for disaster.

A better idea is to figure out how to make other cities more vibrant and international. One aspect of immigration into London is not discussed. Almost all migration rhetoric has been the supposed negative influence (almost certainly untrue) of migrants with low incomes. But what about the negative impacts at the other end?

It wouldn’t be too ridiculous to suggest than many, if not most, of the ultra-high net worth individuals moving to London could have made their fortunes through dubious means. If they are bringing dirty money into London, that’s bad enough, but what about their ethics, attitudes and behaviour? We hear a lot about trickledown economics, but what if a moral vacuum trickles down too?

Ref: Prospect (UK) December 2013, ‘The London Syndrome’ by J. McDermott.
See also: 10th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey
Search terms: property, affordability, ownership, renting, immigration.
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The new cold war

According to the UK government, average household energy bills have risen from 1,050 GB pounds per year in 1970 to 1,250 pounds in 2013. Average temperatures have soared too, with typical household thermostats set four degrees Celsius higher than in the 1970s. A typical setting is now 23C (73F), which is warm enough to sit inside in a pair of summer shorts during winter. In the 1970s, the temperature, especially on a winter morning, was often low enough to allow ice to freeze on windows inside the house. 12C wasn’t that unusual, especially as many homes didn’t have central heating.

But here's the interesting part. Apparently, men and women disagree as to how warm a house should be. In fact, control of the thermostat has become a 21st century form of conflict. Men (with higher Body Mass Indexes generally) prefer a cooler home. Many women like it hot enough to start a bush fire in the herb cupboard.

Government advice states that sitting rooms should be heated to 21C and the rest of the home 18C, but one home in 20 homes sets the thermostat to 30C throughout the house. That’s almost high enough to strip naked and have a sauna in the spare bedroom. But is it because men are bigger and hairier than women?

Apparently not. According to one expert, the blood supply in women is directed towards the reproductive organs making core body temperature higher. With men, reproductive parts must be kept cool. Meanwhile, Dutch research suggests suggest homes and offices that are kept cool keeps people thin, whereas warmer environments can contribute to obesity.

Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK) 30 January 2014, ‘A cold front is moving across my marriage’ by J. Woods.
Search terms: temperature, men, women, cool, thin, warm, fat, thermostat
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