‘Fond memories of the post-World War II prefabricated house’

Aug 01, 2020
Hundreds of thousands of prefab houses were erected in estates across the UK following World War II, providing housing to those left homeless from bombing raids. Source: Getty Images

How many of you remember the important piece of architecture that came along just after World War II? I’m writing about ‘prefabs’ — the temporary housing erected for families who’d been made homeless through the bombing raids. They were hugely popular in the United Kingdom! I was only 10 years old during World War II, but my recollection of these buildings is strong.

Former prime minister Winston Churchill is credited with the idea of mass-produced housing in 1944. The idea was that these houses should be made to a standard design so that various construction companies could build them, that they should contain all the basic amenities of what was then considered a ‘modern home’, and that they should be built to last for at least 10 years (which was when it was expected that the building and construction industry would have recovered from the disasters of war).

That was the idea, and it proved to be a good one! In all, nearly 200,000 prefabs were built in the post-war years between 1945 and 1950, and erected in pretty in almost every city in the UK. They were especially prevalent in those areas that had been heavily bombed, like London, Bristol and Coventry to name but a few.

Whole estates were created, as near as possible to the sites of the original house that had stood there, so the sense of a local community would not be lost; people would, to a large extent still be living next to neighbours they were familiar with.

The amazing thing about these little beauties was that they were so well designed and made that they just didn’t wear out, as they were supposed to. Ten years after they were created, most of them were still as good as new — in fact, there are still, 70-odd years later a few of them still standing, functioning as well as ever!

The basic construction of the prefab was precast concrete, reinforced with steel rods, very hard wearing, especially in the comparatively light use they were being put to. The one major setback, which no one knew anything about at the time when they were built, was the fact that the roofs and some interior walls were made of asbestos! This of course caused difficulties when it came to demolishing the places, but at the same time, as long as no one had bright ideas about smashing walls to create a different space inside, the asbestos didn’t cause any trouble — knowledge was a valuable commodity, if you were a prefab resident!

Many of the people living in these little homes, loved them so much that they actually bought the one they were living in, from their local council and — as far as I am aware — at very reasonable prices. I would guess that of those still standing they are now privately owned. The ones that were still owned by local authorities would have been demolished long ago, so that the land could be used for some more profitable purpose, I’m sure.

I suppose we now use a lot of the methods developed to construct these homes today, especially in the use of prefabricated materials. How often do you see tradies on a new house being built today, laboriously creating the wooden panels for the construction of walls? What about all those complicated looking roof members, specially formed triangles of timber to an exact size and angle to fit where they should? Never, as far as I am aware.

These days, the architect’s or building designer’s plan goes off to a specialist company (or if it is a large company building the house, they may have their own factory somewhere) where dedicated machinery creates all those wall units. All the blokes on-site have to do is make sure they’re working with the correct piece of the puzzle and then nail it all together … using a nail gun rather than the very old fashioned hammer and nails!

Some might say we’ve come a long way since the war, but just how far have we come really? Builders really knew a thing or two and had some very special skills in those days, didn’t they?

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