‘Prefabs’ were temporary homes built in the factory at the close of the Second World War.
They were built to rehouse those who had lost their homes during the Blitz or servicemen coming back from the war and their young families. More than 156,000 were erected in no time all over the country in 1946 and 1947.
Prefab expert and author of ‘Prefabs: A social and architectural history’, Elisabeth Blanchet takes us through 5 things you may not already know:
1. They were not slums
To some people prefabs were and still are synonymous with tin boxes, cardboard houses or slums. Well, they are wrong! Prefabs were planned as early as 1942, three years before the end of the Second World War and in March 1944 when D-Day hadn’t even happened, Winston Churchill declared in a speech: “The first attack must evidently be made upon houses which are damaged, but which can be reconditioned into proper dwellings…the second attack on the housing problem will be made by what are called the prefabricated, or emergency, houses.’ ’
In 1942, Churchill’s government had created the Burt Committee named after Sir George Burt. Its aim was to come up with a quick, efficient and modern answer to the looming housing crisis.
The Burt Committee took inspiration from the USA, especially from the Tennessee Valley Authority which had very advanced and modern temporary prefabricated houses for the workers and their families, who were working on huge dam construction projects. They came up with a sort-of ideal floor plan of a one-storey bungalow with two bedrooms, inside toilets, a fitted kitchen, a bathroom and a living room. The prefabs would be detached houses, surrounded by a garden to encourage dwellers to grow fruit and vegetables and would have a coal shed. The Temporary Housing Programme was born.
2. More modern than modernity
The public was impressed. A lot of people who lived in big cities like London, which had been heavily bombed, were used to living in shared flats or houses with toilets outside and no hot water. Suddenly they discovered little houses with all the mod cons, which also enjoyed a lot of light and offered the possibility to have a garden all around. Young families mainly coming from working-class backgrounds would have the opportunity to live in a detached house, with a fitted kitchen with a fridge!
The kitchen and heating system was actually a piece of brilliant engineering: the kitchen and the bathroom came in one piece with a wall in between, which contained the piping for both rooms. Some prefabs had flat roofs, an architectural style people were not used to, and some had wrap-around corner windows that allowed the living room to enjoy as much light as possible.
Not only was the inside design well considered, the way they were erected was clever too. While some were only filling in bomb sites between traditional houses, most of the 156,000 prefabs were laid out on estates, some reaching more than 1,200 units like Belle Vale in Liverpool. The prefab estates had foot paths and greens and children could play outside –– most people knew each other so everyone felt safe and cared for.
3. They created a strong sense of community
The Temporary Housing Programme worked as a social scheme. Priority was given to families with young children or to servicemen and their families, creating strong communities. Most people were from the same generation, with working-class backgrounds, raising young children. They were all starting afresh with exactly the same type of house. No wonder then that the prefabs lasted many more years than they were supposed to. Some people still live in prefabs today, some 70 years after they were built with a supposed lifetime of just 10.
4. There were prefabs all over the world
The UK was not the only country to use prefabs as a temporary solution to house people after the war. France did too: more than 150,000 temporary houses were built mainly in Brittany, Normandy and Hauts de France – the regions that had most suffered from allied bombing during and after D-Day. In France, although there were French wooden types of prefabs, most of the emergency houses were imported from Sweden, the USA, Finland, Switzerland, Austria and Canada.
Other countries that suffered from the war like Germany, the USSR, Belgium and Japan used prefabrication too.
Some of the UK prefabs had a second life and were sent to other countries like Egypt and the colonies. So keep your eyes open wherever you are in the world!
5. Some prefabs became permanent housing –– and even museums
People loved prefabs so much that they fought to save them, while local authorities wanted to replace them with permanent and more profitable dwellings with a higher density. Some campaigns succeeded but most failed. Another way to save them was to buy them through the Right to Buy scheme. From the 1990s, architects and urbanists started to recognise the historic value of prefabs. Historic England – then English Heritage – started to list some that were best preserved. Today 17 are listed in Birmingham and six in Catford, South London.
Some museums also started to look at prefabs as valuable and interesting pieces for their collections. There are six museums in the UK where you can see a prefab: a Tarran type at the Eden Camp in Yorkshire, an Arcon MK 5 at the Avoncroft Museum in Bromsgrove, another Arcon MK 5 at the Rural Life Centre in Farnham, a Universal at the Chiltern Air Museum, an AIROH at the Wales Museum in Cardiff and a Uni-Seco at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford.