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A Brief History of Prefabs

After thousands of homes in Britain were destroyed during the Second World War, temporary houses known as 'prefabs' were built.

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.

A man stands in the window of his prefab with a bright blue door.
Number 22, 1-37 Sunnyhill Prefabs, Stroud, Gloucestershire. © Historic England Archive BB96/08807.

What does ‘prefab’ mean?

Prefabricated houses, known as ‘prefabs’ were an interim solution until the country could get back to constructing permanent homes with traditional building materials. They were intended to last no more than a decade.

People pose in front of the 100,000th temporary house to be erected in Great Britain since the Second World War in Wandsworth, London.
Dignitaries pose in front of the 100,000th temporary house to be erected in Great Britain since the Second World War in Wandsworth, London. © Historic England Archive P/H00132/001.

Their progressive designs and modern appliances often offered their occupants an improved standard of living, resulting in a 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.

A view of a prefab bungalow, made of a timber frame with white panels.
Designed by the Selection Engineering Company Ltd, the Uni-Seco prefabricated bungalow was the third most common type of prefab built as part of the Temporary Housing Programme. They were constructed using a timber frame and asbestos cement. © Historic England Archive DP183945

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.

Colour photo of a man standing at his garden gate in front of a prefab bungalow.
An owner in front of their prefab in Moseley, Birmingham. © Historic England Archive DP220920.

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 around 30 listed. They are still lived in 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’.

A black and white photo showing a prefab behind a small brick wall.
This Universal House prefabricated bungalow dates from 1946. It was designed by the Universal Housing Co Ltd of Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. Constructed using timber or steel frames and asbestos cement cladding, each bungalow cost £1,218 to build. © Historic England Archive P/H00093/001.

It led to the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act 1944 and the Emergency Factory Made Housing Programme, which became 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 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

A black and white photo of an American prefab. A person looks out of the window.
A UK100 or American prefabricated house in the grounds of the Tate Gallery, Bulinga Street, Millbank, London. © Historic England Archive P/H00050/001.

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

A black and white photo of Phoenix Type prefabs. In the foreground is a fence and garden with a small tree.
Phoenix Type temporary bungalows in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. © Historic England Archive P/H00099/003.
  • Designed by: John Laing, McAlpine and Henry Boot Ltd
  • Construction: timber frame with asbestos cladding
  • Built: 2,428 throughout Britain

The prefabs were constructed using a timber frame and asbestos cladding. Each unit cost £1,200. Sixteen surviving examples in Moseley, Birmingham, were given listed building status in 1998.

The Uni-Seco

The Uni-Seco was one of several prefabs on display at the Tate Gallery in 1944.

A black and white photo of Uni-Seco prefab houses in Brixton, London.
Uni-Seco prefabricated houses in Brixton, London. Designed by the Selection Engineering Company Ltd, the Uni-Seco temporary prefabricated house was made of asbestos cement on a timber frame. One of the most numerous prefabs of the post-war era. © Historic England Archive P/H00049/005.
  • 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.

A black and white photo of a young girl in the kitchen of a Uni-Seco prefabricated home in Brixton, London. The kitchen is on the left and a table and chairs in the right. The girl stands at the sink.
A young girl in the kitchen of a Uni-Seco prefabricated home in Brixton, London. © Historic England Archive P/H00049/007.

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

A black and white photo of an AIROH prefab being assembled. Several people help manoeuvre the prefab into place, supported by a crane.
An AIROH House being assembled in the grounds of the Tate Gallery, London. © Historic England Archive P/H00042/003.
  • 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 production lines in the immediate post-war period. With 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.

A black and white photo showing the bedroom of a prefab, with a bed to the centre left.
Utility Furniture in the best bedroom of a prefabricated US House in the grounds of the Tate Gallery, London. The British government set up the Utility Furniture Scheme in 1942 to standardise the design and materials of new furniture during the Second World War. © Historic England Archive P/H00050/006.
  • 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.

Permanent prefabs

While temporary prefabs could help solve the nation’s housing crises in the short term, a supply of permanent houses was of utmost importance.

A sepia photograph showing people working on a permanent prefab house.
A British Iron and Steel Federation prefabricated house at the Ministry of Works’ testing ground, Northolt, London. © Historic England Archive OP33577.

Wartime and post-war shortages and austerity meant that 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

A black and white photo of the Orlit houses in Tower Hamlets, London.
Orlit houses, Kingfield Estate, Poplar, Tower Hamlets, London. © Historic England Archive P/H00060/001.
  • 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 homes were built by the Ministry of Works on a site previously cleared by German prisoners of war.

The Howard House

A black and white photo showing people constructing a Howard House prefab. People are climbing three ladders across the front of the building.
A Howard House under construction in Windsor and Maidenhead. The prefabricated Howard House was designed by architect Frederick Gibberd and produced by John Howard & Co. Constructed using a light steel frame clad with asbestos panels. © Historic England Archive OP33568.
  • 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 it’s manufacturer, the Howard House was suitable for factory mass production and only took a few days to construct.

Airey Houses

A black and white photo showing Airey Houses under construction in Chingford. In the foreground to the right, a person works close to the ground underneath scaffolding.
Airey Houses under construction in Chingford, Waltham Forest, London. © Historic England Archive P.H00005/004.
  • 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

A photo of a Swedish House prefab.
A prefabricated Swedish House in an unidentified location in England. In the mid-1940s, 5,000 prefabricated two-storey houses were imported from Sweden. © Historic England Archive P/H00002/004.
  • 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 houses were two-storey and 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

A black and white photo of prefab houses in Tulse Hill, London.
Wates Houses, Tulse Hill, London. © Historic England Archive AA98/06364.
  • Designed by: Wates Ltd
  • Construction: cast concrete
  • Built: 60,000

During the Second World War, the construction company Wates Ltd developed and built 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

A photo of Cornish Unit houses in Hoo St Werburgh.
Cornish Unit houses in Hoo St Werburgh, Medway. The designs for the Cornish Unit were finalised by 1946. In the following ten years more than 40,000 were built by local authorities. © Historic England Archive DP172145.
  • 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.

Protected prefabs

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.

Two people with crossed arms stand outside a Phoenix prefab in Moseley, Birmingham.
The occupiers of a Phoenix prefab in Moseley, Birmingham. 16 Phoenix prefabs in Wake Green Road were listed Grade II in 1998. © Historic England Archive BB98/21731.

Recognition of the architectural and historical significance of the prefab was eventually given in 1998 when 16 prefabs in Birmingham were listed 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. They were constructed by the Ministry of Works on land and foundations supplied by Birmingham City Council.

A photo of the Phoenix Prefabs on Wake Green Road, Moseley, Birmingham.
Phoenix Prefabs, Wake Green Road, Moseley, Birmingham. © Historic England Archive BB98/21734.

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

A photo of prefab hoses in Catford. There are protest signs on the fence, with the most prominent reading 'LEAVE THE ESTATE ALONE.'
Protest banners outside prefabricated houses, Excalibur Estate, Catford, London. © Historic England Archive DP021327.

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.

8 comments on “A Brief History of Prefabs

  1. Kay talbot

    I live in one now and would love some more information about them in the Doncaster area like what was was on the land before the house was put up

  2. michael gurney

    I lived in one as a small boy and I remember they suffered from damp.

  3. I really enjoyed this article and was thinking along the lines of why this isn’t being done today to provide affordable housing when I saw that the Elizabeth Blanchet book addresses that. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to buy so that’s a good reminder. Love these houses; I had a schoolfriend who lived in one and I always enjoyed visiting her.

  4. Kate Booth

    What were the implications of asbestos being involved in their manufacture please?

  5. Beeches Road, in Chelmsford, is another fine example of prefabs. There must be 100 in total. All seem to be loved and look to be of the Phoenix design.

  6. I was born in a ‘double decker’ prefab 1950’s in Leicester. My grandparents were bombed out and were rehoused in the prefab in the suburbs. The houses are still standing and lived in. They were well proportioned with large gardens but quite cold in the winter with regular indoor frost on the windows. Granny always had a good fire in the grate so the downstairs was always cosy

  7. B mercer

    Would like to buy my family members house who sadly passed away .but can’t get a mortgage only cash buy

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