Post-war temporary prefab houses were the major part of the delivery plan envisaged by war-time prime minister Winston Churchill in March 1944, and legally outlined in the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act 1944, to address the United Kingdom’s post–World War II housing shortage.
Taking the details of the public housing plan from the output of the Burt Committee formed in 1942, the Conservative Party’s Churchill proposed to address the need for an anticipated 200,000 shortfall in post-war housing stock, by building 500,000 prefabricated houses, with a planned life of up to 10 years within five years of the end of World War II. The eventual bill of state law, agreed under the post-war Labour Party government of Prime Minister Clement Attlee, agreed to deliver 300,000 units within 10 years, within a budget of £150m.
Through use of the wartime production facilities and creation of common standards developed by the Ministry of Works, the programme got off to a good start, but foundered through a combination of commercial rivalry, public concern, and pure cost. More expensive to build than conventional houses, the envisaged excess production capacity of materials was taken up at a quicker rate through Britain’s post-war export drive to reduce her burgeoning war-debts.
In the end, of 1.2 million new houses built from 1945 to 1951 when the programme officially ended, only 156,623 prefab houses were constructed. Today, a number survive, a testament to the durability of a series of housing designs and construction methods only envisaged to last 10 years.
The MoW created research institutes, standards and competition authorities that resulted in core building regulations. Although essential at the time to ensure quality, the way in which they were implemented from a regulatory view point defined and restricted the whole of the British construction industry, until the reforming non-centralist government of Margaret Thatcher some 35 years later. All approved prefab units had to have a minimum floor space size of 635 square feet (59.0 m2), and be a maximum of 7.5 feet (2.3 m) wide to allow for transportation by road.
The most innovative creation of the MoW was what was termed the “service unit,” something which the MoW initially specified all designs had to include. A service unit was a combined back-to-back prefabricated kitchen that backed onto a bathroom, pre-built in a factory to an agreed size. It meant that the unsightly water pipes, waste pipes and electrical distribution were all in the same place, and hence easy to install.
The service unit also contained a number of innovations for occupants. The house retained a coal-fire, but it contained a back boiler to create both central heating as well as a constant supply of hot water. For a country used to the pleasures of the outside lavatory and tin bath, the bathroom included a flushing toilet and man-sized bath with hot running water. In the kitchen were housed such modern luxuries as a built-in oven, refrigerator and baxi water heater: items we now take for granted. All prefabs under the housing act came pre-decorated in magnolia, with gloss-green on all additional wood, including the door trimmings and skirting boards.
Often very American is appearance and style, to speed construction many were developed on the side of municipal parks and green belts, giving their residents who had most often come from cramped shared rooms in inner cities, the feeling of living in the rural countryside