A metal framed prefab house in Plymouth

Pre-fabricated houses: How Prefabs solved the post war housing shortage

Do you offer exterior wall solutions for concrete or prefab houses?

This is a question that has been asked of us many times, especially owners of Cornish units and other prefab concrete built homes.

Yes we do!

Between the end of the second world war and the 1970’s, many houses in the UK were built with concrete, often from pre-formed, pre-cast sections made in a  factory.

This was necessary to alleviate a chronic housing shortage after the war.

Let’s learn about prefabs, including the governments actions in building them, and the various types that were available.

Much of these prefab homes were built as a temporary measure, with a limited lifespan but many are still in use today.

Many also suffer from damp and concrete cancer.

We have various exterior wall coating products and solutions which can remedy defects in concrete homes, although today we are going to look at why these homes were built, when, and for whom?

Concrete cancer is the biggest problem facing prefabs

Concrete cancer affects many homes of this period, and is caused by elements within the mixture that is used to make the concrete (eg sand) having elements on them which cause rust on the reinforced metal rods within the concrete to give it strength.

The rods inside the concrete then rust and then expand and become brittle, causing the strength of the concrete to fail and ultimately if this is not checked, the entire structure can collapse.

Whilst our wall coatings do not cure concrete cancer, we can certainly advise if your prefab home is suffering from it.

This is because concrete houses and wall coatings make a happy pair as the coatings protect the concrete from absorbing the water which causes concrete cancer in the first place.

My home city of Plymouth, and the “Cornish units”

If you don’t yet know, the editor comes from the Royal Naval city of Plymouth in Devon. (Francis Drake, Pasties, Plymouth argyle, Dawn French, Tom Daley etc)

The German Luftwaffe, bless ’em, flattened the city during WW2 (and in doing so, arguably sucked the very life out of it), so a quick solution was needed to house the people bombed out of their homes during the war.

Still, we’re all friends now Major, common market and all that….

dont mention the war basil fawlty john cleese


These houses sprung up very quickly, they had to, people after the war needed housing badly, and the lifespan of these homes was only supposed to be temporary, however tens of thousands still exist across the city and provide ample accommodation for families.

The post war building boom and prefab homes

There are still houses like this in the city of Plymouth, in areas such as Efford, north prospect, Ernesettle, Plympton, Plymstock, Southway, Honicknowle, Whitleigh, all meant to be a quick fix for “bombed out” and homeless families, but amazingly tens of thousands of them still in use today, AND structurally sound.

The wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, saw the need for housing whilst the war was still on and in 1944 he brought in the Housing (temporary accommodation) Act which sought to build half a million homes, crucially it was stated at the time, to have a “ten year lifespan”.

As we learned earlier, many surpassed that and are still in use today.

“Portal” prefab houses

They looked to the USA for solutions as they were at the time, a world leader in prefabricated construction and several designs were put forward to the ministry of works, the first being called the Portal, after the then housing minister, Lord Portal.

The houses came pre-built in sections, from the factory, and quickly assembled on site. The up-side was these buildings contained things that were considered luxuries at the time like hot running water, central heating, fitted kitchens, and inside toilets.

“Airey” prefabs

The Airey models of house were British built and consisted of prefabricated concrete columns which then infill panels slotted into place. They became quite a common model and can still be seen today.

Arcon model

The Arcon model were similar to the portal model but crucially were clad in asbestos, meaning that nowadays the existing ones can cause problems with alterations, repairs or demolition.

The AIROH house

The AIROH house (Aircraft Industries Research Organisation on Housing) was an aluminium house, assembled in 4 huge sections and came ready fitted with everything the family could need, right down to the curtains.

The down side of these houses was the fact they were expensive to build, however they could be erected very quickly.

Here is an example of an AIROH house, still in situ, in Plymouth

A metal framed prefab house in Plymouth
This house should only have lasted 10 years!

It is worth noting that the metal framed buildings above were in four parts which were bolted together on site and then all the services like gas and electric were then connected.

These places are not so desirable to live but in their time, for many, they represented a new hope for the bombed out people of many cities across the UK.

Anyone buying one of these homes should have a qualified structural engineer test and check the integrity of the metal frame of the property before making any purchase decision.

Cornish units

A street of post war council houses, Whitleigh, Plymouth

Cornish units were called that as they were designed by Central Cornwall Concrete & Artificial Stone Co and came in different models and variations, meaning that planners could mix and match the different types of buildings needed on the new estates, like bungalows, 3 or 4 bedroom homes and so on.

They can be distinguished easily by their “mansard” style roof taking up the first floor, meaning that concrete or brick was only needed at one level.

Fast forward to nowadays and these buildings are riddled with problems.

A friend of mine years ago, in Taunton Avenue, Whitleigh, Plymouth, has a home like this but with concrete cancer and they had to knock the bottom half of the house down, whilst retaining and suspending the upper floor on struts.

So this meant that my friend’s 2 story house ended up with one floor suspended in mid-air and looked like a council house version of Tracy Island, but with a Ford Mondeo parked outside instead of Thunderbird 2.

They then rebuilt the bottom floor in brick, and if you drive round many estates where people have bought these homes, you can see examples of this work, and it’s not cheap either but much of it is covered by home insurance.

One of the defining elements of these buildings being still standing is the fact they were deigned as temporary so to think they would ever be permanent was a false hope and anyone thinking of buying one of these places would be very wise to think about that fact.

More types of Prefab homes

 Hawksley homes were from Gloucester and were available in a variety of styles, however this particular company were noted for shipping their buildings abroad to the colonies of the empire.

Howard homes were only built on a small scale, their total production run was only about 1,500 but were noted as more visually attractive places to live in.

Laing Easi-Form homes were built by the company Laing and Co. (coincidentally the same company I did my work experience whilst studying for my BTEC construction diplomas!) and were different insofar as they were pre-cast concrete walls on site rather than in a factory.

The houses were built chiefly BEFORE the 2nd world war but of course housing demand after the war saw them being built again across England.

And briefly other males of house included Mowlem, Phoenix, Orlit, Swedish, Reema, Uni Seco, Tarran, Unity, Wimpey, Hamish, Duplex, and the rather poorly titled “Foamed Slag”!

Prefab homes today

In many cases a prefabricated house can be warm and welcoming home, often outstripping it’s modern rivals in terms of natural light and outdoor space, plus room size was larger than any people were used to.

However many have seen better days and councils have, over the past few years, sought to destroy their stock of prefabs although some have actually been listed due to their contribution to the social history of our country.

If you live in a prefab home and would like to arrange to have a quote for house painting please email us or call 0800 970 4928

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