Prefabs are back!

So the UK government has rediscovered prefabs! Well done – better late than never I guess. Anyone who had the privilege of growing up on one of Churchill’s post war prefab estates and has lived long enough to tell the tale could have told our leaders at any time since the sixties that prefabs have the potential to transform our endemic housing problem and even help banish enforced homelessness.

Perhaps the government has been influenced not so much by the  opinions of the diminishing number of people who, like me, experienced prefab life in post-war Britain, but by more recent and newsworthy examples of successful prefabricated housing interventions elsewhere, in response to chronic housing problems and international emergencies such as the 2011 Tsunami. For instance, since the only home to remain standing in one devastated Japanese village was a prefab made in the Philippines, business has apparently been booming:

Churchill’s action on UK post war housing shortages succeeded as a temporary fix for an urgent social problem, but unfortunately it also engendered an abiding social stigma, as prefab dwellers were often perceived as third class citizens. In a comment sent in after I wrote about my own prefab days, an old school friend remembers that a friend’s mother used to say to him, “Whatever you do, don’t play with those Pilgrim Way kids”. (Pilgrims way was the prefab estate where I and my sister were brought up, and in some cases she was not too far off the mark, as some prefab kids were indeed pretty tough cases.)

Although prefabricated, many of these “temporary” homes lasted well into the sixties. The build quality varied between different designs, but even the better prefabs tended to be energy wasting through lack of insulation and inefficient heating, and some made liberal use of asbestos.

However, to those who were lucky enough to be allocated one of these brand new family homes, prefabs were a godsend and a revelation – proper detached houses with hot and cold running water, inside toilets, fridges and a lock on the front door. Many of those who were brought up in a prefab remember them even now with affection, as another blog comment illustrates. The fact that these homes were prefabricated was neither here nor there, and it should not be a problem now, especially as today’s prefabs are built to higher specifications and environmental standards, using innovative design and modern materials.

In addition, one of the most attractive aspects of house prefabrication is the speed and ease of installation, as compared to traditional house building. This was true in the forties, and remains so now. Compare this British Pathé news film, made in 1948, and a typical corporate video, uploaded in 2010:

Arguably the current housing problem is as urgent now as in 1947, when my family moved into No. 36 Pilgrims way, NW9. On the face of it, it seems blindingly obvious that prefabs could help solve a similar problem at any time, so why have successive governments not come up with such a Churchillian scheme until now?

For a start, post-war prefabs were council houses, so it probably has something to to with the legacy of Mrs Thatcher’s bargain basement sale of council housing stock in the name of her home-ownership-for-the-masses ideology in the eighties and subsequent poor housing policy decisions, but I also believe the social stigma attached to the term prefab persists, even after all this time.

I heard only the other day (on Radio 4) a prefab manufacturer objecting to the term on marketing grounds. Sadly I fear he is right, but how absurd to make judgements based on a word, rather than on a concept, especially when the concept is essentially genial. In the same interview it was pointed out that most of us don’t feel bad about other prefabricated things we surround ourselves with, such as cars, or washing machines.

So here we are: “In a major strategy shift, the Government has decided to meet its ambitious housing targets by embracing the first new generation of pre-packed homes since the great reconstruction drive that followed the Second World War.” (The Telegraph, 29 October 2016).

Oh, and that pesky stigma problem? If “prefabs” won’t do these days, how about a sexier buzz phrase: “Many of the modern prefabs, now known as “modular homes”, will be aimed at younger Britons to help them on to the housing ladder.” Classic.

Seriously, I really do hope this initiative does come to pass, even though I am not too convinced about the proposed means of achieving the aspiration nor the ability of any government to pull it off: “It is understood that a Government white paper expected to be published next month will include measures to encourage banks to lend to small firms that build houses off-site, which are then delivered to a final destination.” What kind of encouragement, I wonder?

And while we are at it, let’s not forget the rental option for those who may not be in a position to own their own prefab (sorry, modular home,) or maybe just prefer not to spend decades climbing Mrs Thatcher’s famous housing ladder.

Telegraph article
Previous post: Prefab days
8 Resourceful low-cost housing solutions from around the globe


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