Prefabulous!

Historic England

The bombing of towns and cities in Britain during the Second World War resulted in a desperate need for housing. A speedy and economical solution was the manufacture and installation of prefabricated homes. Planned to be a temporary fix, many prefabricated homes have lasted longer than originally intended. Those that have survived are often well loved and defended against the threat of redevelopment. This gallery of images from the Historic England Archive celebrates the fabulous prefab.

Dignitaries pose in front of the 100,000th temporary house to be erected in Great Britain since the Second World War, Wandsworth, Greater London, Ministry of Works, 1947-01-29, From the collection of: Historic England
Prefabulous!
Over 200,000 homes in Britain were destroyed by enemy bombs during the Second World War. One solution to the housing crisis was to build temporary, prefabricated houses. They were intended to last for no more than a decade - an interim solution before the country could get back to constructing permanent homes with traditional building materials. Their progressive designs and modern appliances often offered their occupants an improved standard of living, resulting in a long-lasting affection. Our selection of images illustrates the variety of wartime and post-war temporary and permanent prefabs and their place in England's recent architectural and social history.
A Universal House, Wandsworth, Greater London, Ministry of Works, 1946-11-02, From the collection of: Historic England
The Temporary Housing Programme
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 1944 and the Emergency Factory Made Housing Programme, and which became known as the Temporary Housing Programme. The Act set out to construct at least 300,000 homes during a two-year period and provided for the construction of temporary, prefabricated housing. 
A UK100 or American prefabricated house in in the grounds of the Tate Gallery, Bulinga Street, Millbank, City of Westminster, Greater London, Ministry of Works, 1945-07-14, From the collection of: Historic England

Prefabs at the Tate Gallery

As well as the interruption to traditional house building and damage from bombing, the war years also witnessed a dramatic increase in population growth.

The Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act authorised the Government to spend up to £150 million on temporary houses. 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.

This photograph shows a UK100 or American adjacent to the Tate.

Phoenix Type temporary bungalows in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, Ministry of Works, 1946-11-12, From the collection of: Historic England

The Phoenix Type

The phoenix Type was designed by John Laing, McAlpine and Henry Boot Ltd. 2,428 of these temporary bungalows were built throughout Britain. 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.

Uni-Seco prefabricated houses, Lyham Road, Brixton, Lambeth, Greater London, From the collection of: Historic England

The Uni-Seco

The Uni-Seco was one of a number of prefabs put on display at the Tate Gallery in 1944. Made by the Selection Engineering Company, the Uni-Seco was constructed using a timber frame and asbestos cement.

Prefab housing estates were often built on bomb sites, some of which were cleared and prepared by Italian and German prisoners of war. The Uni-Seco prefab estate in Catford was built by German prisoners of war who were billeted nearby.

A young girl in the kitchen of Mrs Tinsley's Uni-Seco prefabricated home, 29 Lyham Road, Brixton, Lambeth, Greater London, Ministry of Works, 1945-09-22, From the collection of: Historic England

The Uni-Seco

The Uni-Seco was a highly versatile prefab. Designed in a kit, it could be assembled in a variety of combinations to suit its location.

The Uni-Seco's makers, the Selection Engineering Company Ltd, employed the Hungarian émigré architect and designer George Fejér who brought with him ideas about streamlined kitchen design and appliances.

This Uni-Seco kitchen features integrated shelving, fitted cupboards, fridge and fold-away table.

An AIROH House being assembled in the grounds of the Tate Gallery, Millbank, London, Ministry of Works, 1945-06-22, From the collection of: Historic England

The AIROH House

Also known as the Aluminium Bungalow, the AIROH was designed by Morrisons Engineering Company. There was a need for aircraft manufacturers who used vast quantities of aluminium to diversify in the immediate post-war period. The Aircraft Industries Research Organisation for Housing brought together a number of aircraft manufacturers, and as a consequence, the AIROH was made in vast quantities, with 54,500 being built in Britain.

An construction team erected an AIROH in just 41 minutes at Whitehawk, Brighton in November 1946!

Utility Furniture in the best bedroom of a prefabricated US House in the grounds of the Tate Gallery, Bulinga Street, Millbank, City of Westminster, Greater London, Ministry of Works, 1945-07-19, From the collection of: Historic England

The UK100 or American

A Burt Committee delegation of engineers sent to the United States recommended a temporary prefab design that was created by the Federal Public Housing Authority. 8,150 arrived in Britain in 1945. The example shown in this photograph was built in the grounds adjacent to the Tate Gallery in London.

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. Introduced in 1942, the scheme was established to create good quality standard furniture at a time when there was a shortage of raw materials and increased demand due to wartime bombing.

A British Iron and Steel and Steel Federation prefabricated house at the Ministry of Works' testing ground, Edward Road, Northolt, Ealing, Greater London, Unknown photographer, 1939/1945, From the collection of: Historic England
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. Wartime and post-war shortages and austerity meant that designers and builders were encouraged to come up with 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.
Orlit houses, Kingfield Estate, Poplar, Tower Hamlets, Greater London, Ministry of Works, 1946-08-28, From the collection of: Historic England

The Orlit House

In order to help solve the housing crisis in the London borough of Poplar, the building firm Orlit Ltd proposed a two-storey prefabricated house. Designed by the émigré Czech architect Ervin Katona, the Orlit was made using precast reinforced concrete. The homes in Poplar were built by the Ministry of Works on a site that had been cleared by German prisoners of war.

A Howard House under construction, Windsor and Maidenhead, JW Spearman, 1944/1945, From the collection of: Historic England

The Howard House

Designed by the architect and town planner Frederick Gibberd, the Howard House was suitable for mass production in factories. It had a steel frame and was clad in asbestos panels. The house only took a few days to construct. It was named after its manufacturer, John Howard & Co. 1,500 were built.

Airey Houses under construction, Chingford, Waltham Forest, Greater London, Ministry of Works, 1946, From the collection of: Historic England

Airey Houses

One of the most prolific permanent prefab houses,around 26,000 were built up to 1955. The concept was conceived in the 1920s by the Leeds industrialist and builder Sir Edwin Airey. The houses were made using precast concrete blocks that were small and light enough to be handled by one or two workmen. A pair of houses could be built in two weeks, and required no skilled labour or specialist equipment.

A prefabricated Swedish House in an unidentified location in England, Ministry of Works, 1945, From the collection of: Historic England

The Swedish House

In the early 20th century Sweden had a skilled prefab industry. At the end of the Second World War, 5,000 timber prefab homes were exported to England. The houses were two-storey, had two or three bedrooms, living room and bathroom. The first were built at Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire in January 1946.


Wates Houses, Tulse Hill, Lambeth, Greater London, Eric de Maré, 1945/1980, From the collection of: Historic England

The Wates House

During the Second World War, the construction company Wates Ltd developed and built a number of concrete structures, including parts of the Mulberry Harbours used during the Normandy invasion. After the war, Wates used its technology to construct over 60,000 houses and flats using a cast concrete modular system.

Cornish Unit houses, Marley Road, Hoo St Werburgh, Medway, Pat Payne, English Heritage, 2015-08-14, From the collection of: Historic England

The Cornish Unit

Over 40,000 Cornish Unit homes were built between 1946 and 1956. They were created by the Cornish firm the English China Clay Company. The concrete panels used in their construction incorporated waste material from china clay pits. Bungalows, and two-storey and terraced house versions were made.

The occupiers of a Phoenix prefab, 423 Wake Green Road, Moseley, Birmingham, James O Davies, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, 1999-02-11, From the collection of: Historic England
Listed Prefabs
Despite the temporary nature of many of the country's wartime and early post-war prefabs, a number have survived. This has sometimes been as a result of 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 sixteen prefabs in Birmingham were listed Grade II, and in 2009 when six were listed in south-east London.
Phoenix Prefabs, Wake Green Road, Moseley, Birmingham, James O Davies, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, 1999-02-11, From the collection of: Historic England

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 that had been 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.

Sixteen Phoenix prefabs were listed Grade II in 1998 for their architectural and historical significance.

Read the list entry for 427 Wake Green Road

Protest banners outside prefabricated houses, Excalibur Estate, Catford, Lewisham, Greater London, Derek Kendall, English Heritage, 2005-03-14, From the collection of: Historic England

Excalibur Estate, Catford, Greater London

In total, 156,623 prefab bungalows were built between 1945 and 1949. By 1975 around 10,000 had survived, and by 1991 only 300 were left in London.

In 2009 six surviving prefabs at the Excalibur Estate, Catford in the London borough of Lewisham were listed Grade II. As part of the largest surviving post-war prefab estate in England, 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.

Read the list entry for the Excalibur Estate prefabs

Credits: Story

Much of the information used in this exhibit has been sourced from entries in the National Heritage List for England and the Historic England publication Prefabs: A social and architectural history, written by writer and photographer Elizabeth Blanchet and journalist and historian Sonia Zhuravlyova.

Historic England is the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England's spectacular historic environment, from beaches and battlefields to parks and pie shops.

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Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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