Postwar Prefabs: Britain's Factory-Made Palaces

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After the financial crisis of 2008, much of Great Britain's construction industry capacity was wiped out. Now, in 2012, there is much fear that the “traditional” construction industry is too weak to rapidly increase the rate of housing production, even if the administrative planning system wanted it to. Which it doesn’t. Yet there is also no suggestion by Local Authorities or the national government that the present lack of construction capacity could be addressed by the manufacture of housing by new businesses in other industrial sectors — the creation of factory made homes — as was done post-World War II.

Between 1944 and 1949 the British Government organised the production and installation of two bedroom prefabricated bungalows as emergency housing. The Prefabs were a popular success, but have never been repeated.

As the Second World War was concluding, Clement Attlee, the Labour Party’s Deputy Prime Minister in Winston Churchill's wartime coalition Government, told the House of Commons,
‘The Government have reviewed the potential building capacity of the country, and have come to the conclusion that it will not be possible, for some years, to build enough permanent houses to meet the urgent demands for separate homes. We shall therefore need, in addition, emergency factory-made houses.’

A budget of £150,000,000 was sanctioned in the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act, 1944, and increased to £220,000,000 by 1947. By the time the financial account was closed in 1957 a total of 156,623 prefabricated bungalows of a few types were built on Local Authority Land for £207,309,000. They were all rented out by 1949, popular as suburban “prefabs”.

Many of of the Prefabs were manufactured by the aircraft industry using aluminium as the production of war-planes wound down. Others were constructed with steel and timber. The aluminium bungalows were road-delivered as sectional buildings. All the Prefabs were built round a central core of a kitchen, toilet and bathroom. The fitted kitchen had a fridge and cooker, running hot water, and a wash (laundry) boiler There was built-in storage, electric lighting, and sockets. For many residents the Prefabs offered a huge advance in their quality of life.

They were supposed to last 10 to 15 years, but many were so popular that their residents successfully campaigned to save them from demolition. They proved as permanent as any other housing.

A few of the Prefabs still exist today, but they are gradually being cleared by Local Authorities keen to arrange the redevelopment of the often well-located land that can now be occupied with far denser housing, mostly for a lucrative sale. In today's model, space inside and outside the home are both sacrificed. Buyers hope that expensive mortage payments might result in equity in an inflating housing market, where rents have also become unaffordable.

Of course, new housing is needed, but it begs the question of who can afford it. Not the residents of the homes that are being demolished, that is certain. The Prefabs were built during a time when the aim was to keep rents low, while producing spacious homes with gardens for working class people.

The best example of this Prefab demolition is to be seen at the Excalibur Estate in Catford, South East London, which is Britain’s largest and last surviving post-war prefab estate. It consists of 186 homes built by Italian and German prisoners of war in 1945 and '46 to house returning servicemen and their families. For many years, a long and bitter battle between the residents and Lewisham Council has continued. The Council plans to develop the site with up to 400 new homes. Some residents continue to fight against the plan. Six Prefabs are listed by English Heritage and saved from demolition; 180 are to be pulled down in phases within the next few years, starting this month.

Photographer Elisabeth Blanchet has long studied the way these surviving “Palaces for the People” have been lived in by residents. She was struck by the way the Prefabs did not look like British brick, semi-detatched or terraced houses, but more like American homes, with a garden and more space and privacy. “Prefab estates around the country were designed with a sense of community,” says Blanchet, “… sometimes around a green and connected by footpaths, giving them the feel of holiday villages.”

Speaking of the way the Excalibur Estate has been lived in over the many decades after it was supposed to be demolished, she says, “Apart from slight modifications, the Catford Estate remains virtually unchanged. Some residents have added new doors and windows, painted walls… Some have even given their home mock-Tudor makeovers, or added fake beams to the outside. The sense of community, a rare thing in today’s society, is in danger… I met wonderful people, mainly in their 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s." One resident, Eddy, who had been living there since 1946 told Blanchet, “I wouldn’t swap the place for Buckingham Palace, even if it included the Queen!”

Over more than a decade Blanchet collaborated with Greg Stevenson on a book, Palaces for the People, that includes her unique archive of photographs and interviews with residents. She is now recording stories from people who once lived in the Prefabs, and planning a documentary film, all aiming to answer a simple question: Why do people love these homes so much?

It is almost impossible to imagine any British Government initiating such an ambitious and popular manufacturing effort today. Even while the rate of “traditional” house building is at an historic low, there appears little willingness by the planning system to increase construction industry capacity. No one is arguing for it in Parliament, but Prefabs 2014-2019 would be great for the public, and a boost to the construction and manufacturing industries.

Photos by Elisabeth Blanchet

Ian Abley is a Project Manager for audacity, an experienced site Architect, and is co-author of Why Is Construction So Backward?, as well as co-editor of Manmade Modular Megastructures. He is planning 250 new British towns. Elisabeth Blanchet's current project, “The Prefabs Tour of the UK”, will show how the homes produced in an emergency turned out to be enduring and well liked. You can get involved here.

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