Sunday, November 17, 2013

1940’s Prefab Houses – Simple but effective!

Despite a desperate need for housing it is interesting that a planned, strategic approach was taken to the design and functionality of prefabricated housing in the 1940’s  
Prefab at Avoncroft Museum - Source: Own

A number of years ago I visited Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings, which is situated near junction 1 of the M42 in Bromsgrove in the West Midlands.  The Museum currently has over 27 different structures which have been rescued and re-built over the last five decades including a timber framed merchant’s house, a windmill, a church and a granary to name but a few.  Although these and other buildings are absolutely fascinating, the building that really interested me was the 1940’s prefab.  There was something about the speed of construction and the simplicity and layout of the structure that made the building stand out from the rest.  For those reading this article who are unfamiliar with prefabricated buildings, these are basically factory built components that are assembled (put together) on site.

Kitchen within Avoncroft Prefab - Source: Own
Nowadays, prefabrication is something that is commonly used for new build construction, and offers efficiencies in terms of thermal performance, speed, improved quality as well as cost efficiencies. In the 1940’s very little consideration would have been given to any of these factors, with the exception of speed of construction.  Originally designed as temporary structures with a maximum lifespan of 10 years, prefabs were identified in the 1944 Housing Act as a means of providing accommodation quickly in towns and cities that had been bombed heavily by the Germans in World War II.  Prior to the introduction of the Housing Act in 1944 the UK Government identified the need to provide temporary houses and set about achieving this through an initiative called the ‘Temporary Houses Programme’ (THP).  The summary below from explains the planned approach to housing shortage and how design played a key part in its success.

'As early as May 1943 the Government decided to invest in a prototype, temporary steel bungalow, which became known as the ‘Portal Bungalow’, named after the then Minister of Works, Lord Portal. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, promised 500,000 temporary new homes, although only 156,623 were actually produced  (between 1945 and March 1949). The houses would be prefabricated in sections, in factories no longer needed for war production, transported to where they were needed and ‘bolted’ together on site, in a fraction of the time it would take to build a conventional house.

As steel was needed for the war effort, and therefore in short supply, no steel prefabs were actually made. Nevertheless, the steel ‘Portal’ prototype, used as a starting point, provided inspiration to private firms who were then commissioned to design and produce their own versions, but within specific guidelines.

All were to have two bedrooms, the floor area was to be 635 square feet, and to allow transportation from the factory, each component part could be no bigger than 7½ feet wide. The most important stipulation was that they all had to make use of the government-approved ‘heart-unit’. A back-to-back kitchen, bathroom, fire place with back boiler, airing cupboard and toilet. The design of the unit kept plumbing to a minimum. Only the relatively few imports (8,462) from the USA did not use the ‘heart-unit’. 

There were thirteen types from eleven different manufacturers (one from the USA). Although they were all based on the same concept, each manufacturer had their own detailed designs, and decided which materials they would use. The materials were chosen from concrete, asbestos-cement, steel, wood and aluminium or a combination of several, as decided by each manufacturer'

Bedroom within Avoncroft Prefab - Source: Own
Despite a desperate need for housing it is interesting that a planned, strategic approach was taken to the design and functionality of prefabricated housing in the 1940’s.  If you ever have the privilege of visiting a 1940’s prefab you will be able to see for yourself how this speedily constructed dwelling was able to provide a functional layout incorporating basic facilities for a family at that time.  Granted, there would not have been the level of thermal comfort or possibly space that most modern houses can offer however, I am sure that those who lived in prefabs in the 1940’s would have been more than happy with their living conditions. 

Although many prefabs have long since been removed and replaced with more modern structures there are still many of examples of prefabs that remain, of which many are now listed (protected).  This really stands as a testament to a well thought out approach to meet an urgent need for housing at the time.  Given our current need for new housing I wonder if our current decision makers could learn any lessons from such an approach?

Second Bedroom within Avoncroft Prefab - Source: Own
Bathroom within Avoncroft Prefab - Source: Own
Iconic World War II image - Source:
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  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Really interesting article thank you.

    As history starts to repeat itself and the demand for housing grows, I wonder if we learn the mistakes of rapid building techniques.

  3. There are still about 160 prefabs on the Excalibur Estate, Catford; in the London Borough of Lewisham.
    The land was loaned to the then LCC for temporary housing on the basis that is it was no longer required for that purpose it would be returned to he Forster Family. No one seems to know where that family are now but if a family member turned u he/she could possibly claim the land back - worth a great deal of money now.

    The Lewisham Council wish to demolish the prefabs and build a high rise block - about five stories high.

    Please contact English Heritage to ask for the prefabs to be "Listed" and kept for the Nation as historic buildings.

  4. Looking back almost 40 years I realise that the bungalow I bought for £40,000 was a bricked around prefab. A great bungalow outside but inside not so great, so I demolished the inside and rebuilt it to modern standards. If only I had realised the history that I disposed of down the local tip. I did manage to save some and the garage I built with materials from the demolished bungalow, stands to this day with crittal windows and metal cabinets from the kitchen and its rear door is the original front door of the bungalow.

  5. I was born and lived in one till nearly seven years old, in London, during the 50's. The nostalgia of actually going in this 'replica' one was overwhelming for me. Seems like another world when I think back. Ah, lovely memories!

    1. I would like too live in one.

  6. I was brought up in a prefab and still own it. They are beautifully designed and are cosy and comfortable.
    The huge problem I am having is finding a builder with detailed knowledge to undertake repairs.
    There are very few prefabs in Greater Manchester and it is almost impossible to find someone to do sympathetic repairs.