architecture

The least visited bit of the Imperial War Museum

I’ve been on holiday last week and this week – sort of. I’ve been doing some school assemblies and events at libraries, as part of the second career as a children’s author that I seem to have made for myself while I wasn’t looking. We’ve also been visiting family, and yesterday were at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford to see my brother-in-law fly a Spitfire for his birthday.

While there, I was browsing the map of what is a very extensive site. You can walk through the supersonic Concorde, see the largest collection of WW2 planes that are still air-worthy, and look at a whole range of iconic military planes from the Gypsy Moth to the Blackbird. But in my commitment to the overlooked and the boring, my eye was caught by a small feature on the map that was marked ‘prefab bungalow’.

And sure enough, there it is: a drab little home with flaking paint and no visitors. You can wander around it and peer through the glass at the period furnishings, and ponder how horrendous it would be to heat. But there is obviously an interesting story here.

During the Second World War, 450,000 homes across Britain were lost to bomb damage. Those needed to be rebuilt, and those who had been displaced needed new homes. At the same time, the return of soldiers at the end of the war prompted a boom in demand for starter homes for young couples.

Faced with a major shortage estimated at one million homes, the government’s response was to launch a national programme of emergency home-building. This included social housing, subsidies for construction, and a lot of pre-fabricated temporary homes to meet immediate demand. 156,000 temporary pre-fabs were built between 1944 and 1948, intended as a stop gap measure and designed to last ten years. This particular one was occupied until 1978 though, before it was bought for posterity and relocated to the museum. Apparently a handful of ‘temporary’ dwellings of this type are still lived in today.

The legacy of post-war construction is mixed, to say the least. A lot of terrible and inadequate homes were built. But it does raise some interesting questions for today. Britain has a housing crisis again at the moment, without the excuse of German bombs this time. The shortfall in supply has again risen to over a million homes. The response so far has been thoroughly inadequate, more committed to propping up house prices than it is to finding people somewhere decent to live.

Could it be time for a major programme of prefab housing again? Better this time of course, with modern off-site construction techniques and the highest levels of insulation and energy efficiency. They’d be all-electric, equipped with solar and heat pumps to be net-zero from the start. We’d use sustainable materials and build them to last longer than a decade. We’d use modular designs that can be adapted to families’ needs rather than a one-size-fits-all box. They’d be quick to install, delivered off the back of a truck and assembled in a matter of days – just as they were in the 1940s. And they’d be affordable, reducing inequality and improving opportunities for younger generations and those from lower income households who can’t rely on the Bank of Mum and Dad.

Can we imagine such a thing? I think we’re going to need to.

3 comments

  1. Planning is the problem. It’s the planning system that has stopped us building the houses for decades. Prefabs would only help if we blow up the current planning system.

    1. Blowing things up isn’t really my style, but planning reform is part of it. On its own though, removing planning regulations would probably lead to a rash of terrible houses in places we don’t want them. We need to be more strategic than that.

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