One of the row of Phoenix prefabs, 394-427 Wake Green Road, Mosely, Birmingham, still going strong 60 years after their construction. Not bad for buildings with an intended life span of 10-15 years. There is an interview with former tenants of one of these prefabs on page 15 of this linked newsletter.
The Phoenix is slightly less attractive than the iconic Aluminium Bungalow, known as AIROH after their designer, the Aircraft Industries Research Organisation on Housing. Sadly there are probably only one or two AIROHs left.
Exterior of the Arcon V prefab at Avonbury Museum of Building. The external panels have not weathered well, although its appearance and location do emphasise the cottagey aspect of these near perfect little homes.
One of the information panels from Avonbury. Some of the text is general, but the section on building is fairly specific to the method used for the Arcons. Since the text may be hard to read, some transcripts are provided. Click on the text above for a transcript. All transcripts ©Avonbury Museum of Building
Firstly a concrete foundation was laid and then a steel frame was attached to it. Asbestos cement exterior cladding was applied to form the walls. Internally the walls and ceiling were lined with panels of plaster board to which thin timbers were glued, creating a framework which was then filled with glass fibre quilt. Cupboards and wardrobe spaces were added and all were painted in British Standard Magnolia paint with green trim, the colours recreated here. To avoid the use of heavy standard steel sections, the roof structure was made of tubular steel covered with a single sheet of corrugated asbestos.
This prefab has 2 bedrooms, a living room or family room, kitchen, bathroom, separate toilet and a small garden. The most revolutionary part of the prefab was the service unit. Invented by the Ministry of Works, this space saving device formed the central feature of the prefab. In it the kitchen and bathroom fittings fitted back to back, so as to hide the unsightly pipes, and it housed such modern luxuries as a built-in oven, refrigerator, water heater and fitted bathroom, items we now take for granted.
Many people remember the years immediately after the was as being even harder than the war itself! Fuel was in short supply, and there were several very cold winters. The country was poor after the incredible cost of the war, and the transport, agriculture and manufacturing sectors needed repair and investment. Food, clothes and even furniture were still rationed, and people had to be very careful not to waste anything. Life was quite hard. However, as you can see around you, homes were neatly furnished with Utility furniture and lovingly cared for. Also as many luxuries like toys were not sold in shops, people tended to make them from everyday objects.
People living in prefabs took great pride in them, calling them 'little palaces'. Before the bombings, many had lived in overcrowded inner city dwellings without hot water, electricity, inside toilets or bathrooms. They were delighted to be given a new, detached home with all modern features, and garden space. For many people it was their first experience of having a fridge! People were also amazed at how quickly they could be built.
However, there had been a few problems and complaints of cold, damp and shoddy building soon hit the headlines. However, if you ask many people who lived in prefabs, most of them would not have lived anywhere else and in fact, some did live in them 50 years later. Not bad for a building with a 10 year life expectancy!
- "Wives are thrilled by Arcon prefabs"; Daily Sketch, Mar 1946
- "Luxury flats on the ground"; Ideal Home Exhibition
- "Built a house every 10 minutes and housed 100,000 people" Evening News, London, Jan 1947
- "Six foot icicle found inside a prefab"; Yorkshire Evening Post, Mar 1947 The Post fails to mention that this was the coldest winter on record, and icicles were common in many homes
- "It was not right that returning soldiers should be given petrol cans to live in"; Observer, May 1993
- "Ceilings were nothing more than glorified cardboard (they) could rise a couple of inches in a strong gust"; Best of British, 1996
- "Housewives love their prefabs"; Glasgow Daily Record, 1946
- "I could have cried when I saw the outside — it looked just like a hen-house. But when I saw the inside I was delighted" Edinburgh Courier 1946
- Light, bright and weathertight"; Daily Herald, Jan 1946
- "There is every facility for the health and well being of a small family within the asbestos walls of prefabs"; Yorkshire Weekly Herald, Aug 1947 The reference to asbestos is a little worrying; the health dangers were not appreciated at the time
- "Rabbit hutches"; Anon
- "All the taps frozen and condensation in every room"; Telegraph and Argus, Mar 1947
Some estates have survived, though rather ironically they appear to threatened by the government's 'Decent Homes' programme. See this report.
This link provides a sort of overview of current efforts to retain the few remaining prefabs. The BL8 prefab referred to in the report was actually intended as a 'permanent' home and was built in the factories which had built the AIROH. They came in detached and semi-detached versions.