A timely and affectionate study of how an earlier UK government set about solving the country’s housing crisis
‘Prefabs: a social and architectural history’
Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova
Historic England, 212pp £30
An engaging study of mid-twentieth-century prefabs from Historic England sets a useful context to the renewed interest in prefabricated construction while indulging in a certain nostalgia for the communities these ‘people’s palaces’ fostered. In the foreword, former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock contrasts his experience of growing up in a rat-infested terrace house where “the wallpaper moved as hordes of beetles scuttled across” with the “paradise” of the AIROH (Aircraft Industries Research Organisation Houses) prefab allocated to his family in 1948, his mother being a keyworker nurse – “relatives and friends from miles around came to inspect and admire this science fiction come to earth”.
Written by Prefab Museum-founder Elisabeth Blanchet and journalist Sonia Zhuravlyova, ‘Prefabs’ tells the tale of how the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act 1944 – intended to tackle the housing crisis after the second world war by repurposing the wartime industrial machinery to peacetime dividend – came to be the only occasion that the UK government has taken control of the design, manufacture and supply of homes. Much appreciated for their amenities – not least hot running water, fridges and inside toilets – and their modern design, more than 150,000 prefabs (of an intended 500,000) were built from 1945-48. Among them, however, was a wide range of experimental types that employed different materials, structural systems and manufacturing methods, including 5,000 homes, mostly destined for Scotland, made from Swedish Baltic pine. Many lasted well beyond their ten-year design life, but outmoded by increasing energy costs, comparatively few survived later urban renewal programmes.
While the authors’ forays into the pre-history of prefabrication, ‘Vertical Cities’, examining system-built highrise, and the recent trend to modular housing, provide context, these areas are covered in more detail elsewhere, and it is the core area of their book that will be of most interest and should provoke further studies, aided by the Prefab Museum’s online directory. The layouts of the prefab estates, for example, at times suggest the preoccupations of the Garden City movement, and at others simply reflect factory production lines – and the presumption that tenants wouldn’t own cars seems to have been intriguingly liberating. The capacity for prefabs to be adapted and repurposed might also invite examination, along the lines of Philippe Boudon’s post-occupancy study of Le Corbusier’s Pessac housing.
The contemporary relevance is clear. Kinnock treads where the authors couldn’t in calling for “action on housing to meet a basic need for the nation”, citing the prefabs as an exemplar of “what a national and local government attack on bad and unaffordable housing really means”.