The bombing of towns and cities in Britain during the Second World War resulted in a desperate need for housing. Over 200,000 homes were destroyed by aerial bombing raids from Wallsend in the north to the Isle of Wight in the south.
What does ‘prefab’ mean?
Prefabricated houses, known as ‘prefabs’, were an interim solution until the country could return to constructing permanent homes with traditional building materials. They were intended to last no more than a decade.
Their progressive designs and modern appliances often offered their occupants an improved standard of living, resulting in long-lasting affection.
What were prefabs made of?
Early temporary prefabs were constructed using a timber frame and asbestos cladding or cement, while some later buildings used aluminium.
Later, permanent prefabs were made using precast reinforced concrete or steel frames clad in asbestos panels.
Do people still live in prefabs?
Although initially planned as a temporary fix, many prefabricated homes have lasted far longer than originally intended.
Those that have survived are often well-loved and defended against the threat of redevelopment.
In total, 156,623 prefab bungalows were built between 1945 and 1949.
According to the Pre-fab Museum, around 8,000 are left in the UK today, with about 30 listed. People still live in them today.
The history of prefabs
As well as the interruption to traditional house building and damage from bombing, the war years also witnessed a dramatic increase in population growth.
In 1942 the government set up the Burt Committee to ‘consider materials and methods of construction suitable for the building of houses and flats, having regard to efficiency, economy and speed of erection’.
It led to the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act of 1944 and the Emergency Factory-Made Housing Programme, known as the Temporary Housing Programme.
The Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act authorised the government to spend up to £150 million on temporary houses. The act set out to construct at least 300,000 homes in two years. It provided for the construction of temporary, prefabricated housing.
In the first decade after the Second World War, nearly 500,000 permanent homes were built using some form of prefabrication.
Prefab housing estates were often built on bomb sites, some of which were cleared and prepared by Italian and German prisoners of war.
In 1942, the government introduced the Utility Furniture Scheme, established to create good quality standard furniture when there was a shortage of raw materials and increased demand due to wartime bombing.
Prefabs at the Tate Gallery
In May 1944, an exhibition was held at the Tate Gallery to display prefab designs, including the Portal’s Palace, the Arcon, Uni-Seco and Trarran bungalows.
The Phoenix Type
- Designed by: John Laing, McAlpine and Henry Boot Ltd
- Construction: timber frame with asbestos cladding
- Built: 2,428 throughout Britain
These prefabs were constructed using a timber frame and asbestos cladding. Each unit cost £1,200.
16 surviving examples in Moseley, Birmingham, were given listed building status in 1998.
The Uni-Seco was one of several prefabs displayed at the Tate Gallery in 1944.
- Designed by: George Fejér for the Selection Engineering Company
- Construction: Timber frame and asbestos cement cladding
- 28,999 units built all over Britain
The Uni-Seco prefab estate in Catford was built by German prisoners of war who were billeted nearby.
The Uni-Seco was a highly versatile prefab. The building was designed in a kit and could be assembled in various combinations to suit its location.
The Uni-Seco’s designer, Hungarian émigré George Fejér introduced streamlined kitchen design and appliances. This Uni-Seco kitchen features integrated shelving, fitted cupboards, a fridge and a fold-away table.
The AIROH House
- Designed by: Morrisons Engineering Company
- Construction: Aluminium
- Built: 54,500 units
Also known as the Aluminium Bungalow, AIROH stands for Aircraft Industries Research Organisation for Housing.
The AIROH brought together several aircraft manufacturers to diversify their product lines in the immediate post-war period. With the capacity to produce vast quantities of aluminium, the AIROH was made in large numbers.
The UK100 or American
A Burt Committee delegation of engineers sent to the United States recommended a temporary prefab design created by the Federal Public Housing Authority. 8,150 arrived in Britain in 1945.
- Designed by: US Federal Public Housing Authority
- Built: 8,150
It was initially planned for 30,000 UK100s to be imported from the United States. However, the end of the Lend-Lease Act reduced the number to 8,150.
This UK100 bedroom features furniture designed under the Utility Furniture Scheme.
While temporary prefabs could help solve the nation’s housing crises in the short term, a supply of permanent houses was of utmost importance.
Wartime and post-war shortages and austerity meant designers and builders were encouraged to develop innovative solutions.
In 1943 the Ministry of Works established an experimental demonstration site in Northolt, London, which enabled new designs to be costed and shown to the public. In the first decade after the Second World War, nearly 500,000 permanent homes were built using some form of prefabrication.
The Orlit House
- Designed by: Czech émigré architect Ervin Katona for Orlit Ltd
- Construction: precast reinforced concrete
To help solve the housing crisis in the London borough of Poplar, the building firm Orlit Ltd proposed a two-storey prefabricated house.
The Ministry of Works built the homes on a site previously cleared by German prisoners of war.
The Howard House
- Designed by: architect and town planner Frederick Gibberd for civil engineering and building contractors John Howard and Company
- Construction: light steel frame clad with asbestos panels
- Built: 1,500
Named after its manufacturer, the Howard House was suitable for factory mass production and only took a few days to construct.
- Designed by: Leeds industrialist and builder Sir Edwin Airey
- Construction: precast concrete blocks
- Built: around 26,000
One of the most prolific permanent prefab houses, the Airey House could be built in two weeks and required no skilled labour or specialist equipment.
They were made of small concrete blocks that were light enough to be handled by one or two workers. Conceived in the 1920s, they continued to be built up to 1955.
The Swedish House
- Construction: timber
- Built: 5,000
In the early 20th century, Sweden had a skilled prefab industry. In the mid-1940s, 5,000 Swedish Houses were exported to England.
The two-storey houses had two or three bedrooms, a living room and a bathroom. The first was built at Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire, in January 1946.
The Wates House
- Designed by: Wates Ltd
- Construction: cast concrete
- Built: 60,000
During the Second World War, the construction company Wates Ltd developed several concrete structures, including parts of the Mulberry Harbours used during the Normandy invasion.
After the war, Wates used its modular cast concrete technology to construct over 60,000 houses and flats.
The Cornish Unit
- Designed by: Cornish firm, the English China Clay Company
- Construction: concrete panels
- Built: 40,000
The designs for the Cornish Unit were finalised in 1946. Over 40,000 Cornish Unit homes were built between 1946 and 1956 by local authorities.
The concrete panels used in their construction incorporated waste material from china clay pits. Bungalows and two-storey and terraced house versions were made.
Despite the temporary nature of many of the country’s wartime and early post-war prefabs, some have survived. This has sometimes resulted from a local protest against the threat of demolition and redevelopment.
Recognition of the architectural and historical significance of the prefab was eventually given in 1998 when 16 prefabs in Birmingham were listed at Grade II, and in 2009 when six were listed in South East London.
Wake Green Road, Moseley, Birmingham
Phoenix design prefab bungalows were built along Wake Green Road in Moseley, Birmingham, in 1945. The Ministry of Works constructed them on land and foundations supplied by Birmingham City Council.
Modelled on the prototype Portal bungalow exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1944, 2,248 Phoenix prefabs were built as part of the Temporary Housing Programme.
16 Phoenix prefabs were listed at Grade II in 1998 for their architectural and historical significance.
Excalibur Estate, Catford, Greater London
In 2009 six surviving prefabs at the Excalibur Estate, Catford, in the London borough of Lewisham, were listed at Grade II.
As part of England’s largest surviving post-war prefab estate, the Uni-Seco bungalows were built between 1945 and 1946 in one of London’s most heavily-bombed boroughs.
The prefabs are a mixture of Mark 2 and Mark 3 types and were locally known to have been constructed by Italian and German prisoners of war.
Prefabs: A social and architectural history
You can read more about prefabs on the National Heritage List for England and in our publication ‘Prefabs: A Social and Architectural History‘, written by writer and photographer Elizabeth Blanchet and journalist and historian Sonia Zhuravlyova.