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Return of Prefabs?

Prefabs may be coming back, as an answer to Britain’s perennial housing shortage, or so I’ve been reading in the newspapers.

What are ‘prefabs’, exactly?

As every citizen over seventy knows, they are modular, prefabricated homes, constructed off-site in a factory, and assembled on-site.  Among the advantages of these government-provided homes, they cut construction time by more than half, take up less space, and are energy efficient, having fewer leaks than conventional brick-built homes.

This writer spent several years of his post-Second World War childhood in a typical prefab.   They had been sponsored in 1944 by a government faced with the challenge of re-housing hundreds of thousands of families displaced by bombing, and were championed, somewhat incongruously, some might think, by Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself – not known for his association with social initiatives – under legislation called the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act.  The plan was to build 300,000 in four years.  I understand that many more were built, but an exact number prove to be elusive.

There were a number of different models, presumably depending on which one was favoured by local councils.  Ours, I seem to remember being told at the time, was of an American design, supposedly superior to a number of competing British designs, some of which had corrugated panels that made them look like military Nissen huts.  Whatever the aesthetics, prefabs proved to be immensely popular, and there was much gnashing of teeth among residents who were evicted, often to be shuttled off to brutalist tower blocks.  

Typically, prefabs were rectangles of no more than 635 square feet, and by law had to be built in sections of not more than 7.5 feet wide to allow for ease of transportation.   

Our two-bedroom (one bathroom) model was made of asbestos panels (yes, that asbestos) with a tarred roof.  My recollection is that it seemed more spacious on the inside than it appeared to be on the outside.  No photographs of it have survived the cull of the family album, if any ever existed.

My father thought it made for the perfect home, spatially adequate, perfectly cosy, and requiring little maintenance.  What my mother thought about those features, I’m not sure, but she was less enthusiastic about living in a prefab than her husband – less for practical reasons than for the perceived social stigma attached to it.  She thought it diminished her status in the community.   Why the wife of a railway guard thought she merited a special station (no pun intended) in life I can’t imagine – but that’s another story.    

Our family moved around quite a bit in my childhood years, but I recall those prefab years more fondly than most of the others, which included living in the (shared) top floor of an Edwardian mansion (requisitioned property), two houses on council estates, a school-keeper’s cottage attached to a Victorian school, and a basement.

So, restoring prefabs sounds perfectly sensible, even in the face of fierce opposition from the construction trades, and perhaps because of that.   

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