5 things you didn’t know about prefabs

“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 our latest book ‘Prefabs: A social and architectural history’, Elisabeth Blanchet takes us through 5 things you may not already know: 

1. They were not slums

Prefabulous, post-war prefabricated homes in the UK
A Uni-seco prefab on the Excalibur Estate, 2003 © Elisabeth Blanchet

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.

Blueprint image of the
Blueprint of the “ideal prefab”, Burt Committee

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 Arcon MKV prefab at the Avoncroft Museum, Bromsgrove
The Arcon MKV prefab at the Avoncroft Museum, Bromsgrove, 2014 – © Elisabeth Blanchet

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.

Jim Blackender stood in front of his prefab on the Excalibur Estate
Jim Blackender in front of his prefab on the Excalibur Estate, 2009 – © Elisabeth Blanchet

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

Oblique view of the Excalibur Estate
Overview of the Excalibur Estate, 2005 © Elisabeth Blanchet

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

Women and children gather around a table with food
Queen Elizabeth II Coronation street party on the Treberth Estate, Newport; 1953 © Alan Page

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.

A woman stood in front of her prefab house
Thérèse Ofrette in front of her prefab in Larmor Plage, France, 2017 – © Elisabeth Blanchet

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

A man stands in a window with a sign on it that says 'save our bungalows'
Campaign to save prefabs in Redditch, 2002 © Elisabeth Blanchet

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.

Book cover for Prefabs

Grab your copy of Prefabs: A social and architectural history in the Historic England online bookshop.

Buy now

10 responses to 5 things you didn’t know about prefabs

  1. keithbracey says:

    Reblogged this on keithbracey and commented:
    #Birmingham had many fine examples of prefab housing but like another utilitarian form of Brummie housing the back to back housing of courts built for the Industrial workers of a growing city Birmingham’ s prefab only have one example left in Wake Green Road on the border between Moseley and Hall Green which is now a museum

    Like

  2. Marian Miller says:

    My aunt had one in Blackburn – so cosy. By the way it’s the Chiltern Open Air Museum.

    Like

  3. Jim Brettell says:

    There is a prefab at the Trolley Bus Museum Sandtoft near Doncaster.

    Like

  4. Brian Burford says:

    There are some Swedish houses in Sussex – donated by the Swedish government in late 40s and still lived in ….

    Like

  5. John Fletcher says:

    I remember seeing a photograph of a soldier returning home to his wife and child at the door of a prefab. It is in the Museum of London.

    Like

  6. Gregor Robertson says:

    They were great wee houses. With an efficient and economical central heating system operated from a stove in the living room. Then along came unenlightened local authorities who decreed smokeless zones, all heating by standard electric fires. Suddenly there were problems of condensation and inability to keep the prefab warm. That was their death knell.

    Like

  7. Colin Bridgeman says:

    My first five years of life was living in a prefab, and looking back, they were the most modern houses going, inside toilets and a bathroom in 1950 shear luxury and modern kitchen with gas fridge and ironing board that folded out of a cupboard, great days and a great community around you

    Like

  8. John says:

    We could do with them today. They are cost effective and not a political pawn to be obsessed with owning property,to pander to capialism.

    Like

  9. Martin Small says:

    I remember there being a prefab estate in Taunton when I was a child there in the 1960’s/70’s. I only have a vague memory of where it was but I do remember my Mum using them as a reference point as in “by the prefabs” or “walk through the prefabs”. They have fascinated me ever since, so that’s my Christmas present sorted !

    Like

  10. David Hunt says:

    The Somerset Historic Environment Record (HER) lists 5 “prefab” estates in Taunton.
    Visit http://www.somersetheritage.org.uk and search for ‘prefab’’ .
    The HER has excellent on-line mapping and also RAF post WW2 air photos showing these sites together with information about each prefab estate.
    There is also a mass of info about other historic Taunton sites and sites within the modern County i of Somerset on this brilliant website!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s