Prejudices and housing: Prefabs | Brussels Blog

Prejudices and housing: Prefabs

posted by on 25th Jan 2016
25th,Jan

Prefab3” by Deb – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

This was originally part of “Prejudices and Housing” from July 2012.
Now renamed Prejudices and housing: Terraced streets and slums

Don’t play with the children from the prefabs

My earliest memories of prefabs, were of those on a beautiful site on Broom Hill, Strood, Kent, overlooking both the Medway and the Thames rivers. I remember my parents warning me not to play with the children from the prefabs. Later I remember that my father got to know some of the men, who worked at the same factory. When the prefabs were removed to make way for a park, he told me that the residents loved their life there and did not want to move. They were a community. A familiar story for prefab estates.

York demolished prefabs and rejected Walter Segal houses

In 1971, I was on a study group for York Labour Party, which was to look at the housing crisis. I brought to the attention of the General Committee the cheap and simple housing of Walter Segal as a solution to the housing crisis. I remember the council leader of the time, Alderman Burke, saying these are prefabs and York was the first councils in the region to get rid of the prefabs. Wikipedia on Walter Segal says:

In the 1960s [Walter Segal] and his new partner Moran Scott decided to demolish and rebuild their home at Highgate. They built a temporary structure in the garden using standard cladding materials and with no foundations other than paving slabs. It took two weeks to build and cost £800 [about £11,000 in present values – a third of the average family income]. This house roused considerable interest and led to a number of commissions using a similar style around the country. As the system developed the clients were able to do more and more of the building themselves.

The cost did not include labour and since the “temporary structure” was in Segal’s garden there was little external works such as roads and main sewers to add to the cost. But it is worth noting that the median hose price now five or six times the average family income. Currently there is a 3 bedroom detached ‘Segal Method’ house for sale in South East London, asking price £320,000. Findaproperty says:

This three-bedroom detached property can be found on a peaceful cul-de-sac in Honor Oak. It is an architect-designed, timber-framed house that was built in the early 1980s, using the ‘Segal Method’, a system of design and construction pioneered by the celebrated Swiss architect Walter Segal.

The sales pitch makes it sound a desirable property. Although larger and not a prefab, it is reminiscent of the best of the design styles of the post war prefabs. It isn’t a prefab but it looks a bit like one. £320,000 says there’s not much prefab prejudice here. I can’t imagine parents forbidding their children from playing with any children that lived there.

Planners didn’t like prefabs, people did

The prejudice against prefabs may have blinded planners and academics to their success. As PrefabsAreForPeople put it more crudely:

  • People liked prefabs
  • Multistorey mass housing failed
  • The planners didn’t notice
  • They will get it wrong again

Searching Google Scholar for work on the UK post-war prefab programme, it’s relatively easy to find papers which criticise the programme for failings in its organisation and its cost overruns but almost impossible to find any investigation of what the residents thought about living in them, anecdotal press reports seems to be all we have. Absolutely prefabulous: Residents of Britain’s last prefab estate battle to save homes that were built to last only ten years.

There is however, the excellent “Social Pressures in Informal Groups: A Study of Human Factors in Housing (1950)” by Festinger et al. It’s not a study of prefabs per se but the site he studied was similar to the prefabs in the UK. I have yet to meet a planner or architect that has read it.

Why stop people living cheaply?

Short answer: prejudice.

Longer answer: Watch this space.

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